From Deference to Dignity – Ditching Deep seated Beliefs

My client is head of finance for a major international company based in the city of London. Her style is quietly confident but she has some issues with her peers in a male dominated environment. It is fascinating to explore deep seated beliefs and behaviours with individual clients. As a coach it is my role to support them to discover how these beliefs might be beneficial or conversely, holding them back.
My client is very professional, competent and valued for the work she does. Her team all recognise her strengths and are able to take ownership of tasks as she is excellent at delegation. We have worked together using clean language methods so that delegation is clear and the clean questions remove any assumptions. Working in this way avoids misunderstandings and is highly respectful of others views and ways of delivery. With her peers it was proving to be more challenging as the language she was using around them was unconsciously deferential. Her underlying belief was that they were in some way superior to her or had more expertise than she had. Of course the evidence for these beliefs lay in past experiences and was affecting her behaviour in her current role.
I challenged this and supported her to find evidence that her expertise was actually equal to, and in some cases greater than, her peers. She was able to notice the language she was using to engage them in vital conversations such as “Would you mind if we had a discussion around this” or “I’d appreciate a minute of your time this afternoon, if that’s ok with you?” Generally her male counterparts would not ask for permission instead just beginning with “We really need to speak about this today, is 2pm convenient for you?” or “I’d like to get you opinion on this, have you got 10mins?” perfectly polite but using slightly more assertive and less deferential/apologetic language and voice tone. The latter was also interesting in that when speaking to her direct reports she used a different more confident voice tone. When bringing this to her attention she realised that not only were her words affecting the outcome of engaging with peers, but also her body language and voice tone.
When loo


king at her inner voice and past experiences my client was able to identify times when she had been criticised and made to feel less confident in certain situations. We then looked at how, more recently, she had progressed successfully through the organisation and the considerable trust her current Boss had in her ability. She looked closely at her strengths and considerable experience and devised strategies to focus and build on those areas. She was gradually able to put the past experiences and beliefs to one side and to focus on her considerable experience, knowledge and skills. She devised a strong metaphor for when she was working at her best and this really helped her to (in her words) “See things through a different pair of eyes” and to “Focus on her considerable leadership skills when guiding her team along the mountain path” and when “Building the camp fire with peers where everyone had an equal role in getting the fire built and started”
Generally if clients consistently put their attention on the areas of work that are not going well, or where they are struggling, then confidence and self-belief can drop dramatically. Often there is considerable evidence for these beliefs and lingering doubts. Supporting them to understand that changing a negative belief to a more positive one can radically change their behaviour is a key coaching role and one that worked well in this particular case.


Clean language and symbolic modelling are techniques I often use very successfully when coaching executive clients. They respond well to this way of looking at clarity in communication and are highly receptive to working with metaphor, provided it is introduced sensitively. It is a methodology that suits most people, however, for some learning styles it may not always be the correct approach. As a coach I offer it as one of the ways of working, but do not use this methodology in every situation as it may not always be in the service of the client.
For further information on clean coaching and leadership approaches in business please visit: