I recently went to the Gielgud Theatre in London to see The Mirror and the Light. It’s a play based on the third book of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, the 16th century English statesman who served under King Henry VIII. It depicts a complex tale of power-plays and competing ambition. Cromwell is undone by others’ resentment of his power, their contempt for his lowly beginnings and by his Machiavellian reputation. His pragmatism – looking to bolster England’s influence in 16th Century Europe via a strategic royal marriage – comes up hard against his monarch’s ego, capriciousness, and sentimental desire for love. It feels like a very modern tale.
At one point, Cromwell says to Henry: “Your Majesty is the only prince. The mirror and the light of other kings.”
This reminded me of a common description of what coaches do: we hold up a mirror so our clients can see themselves more clearly. Hopefully we don’t indulge in that description in the way that Henry responds to Cromwell’s flattery. But it is an interesting evocation of our role that has greater depth than might initially be apparent.
The idea is that coaches hold up a plain mirror and reflect back what they see in their client. Ideally, they do so without interpretation. This can be highly valuable to the client. It raises their awareness of their behaviour, beliefs or mindset and how it impacts them and their lives. But there are other types of mirrors that coaches can use.
Concave and convex mirrors - a matter of perspective
Sometimes it is the detail in a client’s story that matters. A concave mirror really focuses attention. Often clients describe a challenge in broad terms. They generalise, talk about their own tendencies, traits or preferences rather than specific instances. In doing so, they may misrepresent or selectively describe what they are experiencing. However, their coach can help deepen and sharpen their client’s awareness by inviting precision, by checking whether the evidence supports a generalisation, and exploring the nuances in concrete examples.
On the other hand, the big picture often shows the significance of the client’s issue or story. It illustrates how it is representative of them, rather than just an isolated event. A convex mirror opens things out, widens perspective, and shows the broader pattern of which the specific is an instance or example. It therefore helps the client to understand themselves. Perhaps it reveals their triggers, defaults, and habitual behaviour. This wider awareness can help the client build resilience, repertoire, and the ability to self-correct, rather than simply solving a specific problem.
Reflecting back without directing
However, a challenge all coaches face is to reflect back what they hear without adding their own interpretation. If they interpret what they hear, they are using a distorting mirror. This means that the client’s issue is filtered through the coach’s experience. The coach makes their own sense of what their client presents rather than attempting to see it through their client’s eyes. What they reflect back can be biased, unconsciously refracting the client’s experience rather than simply showing it. It can mislead or disempower the client, or simply be rejected or resisted by them.
That warning might suggest that all coaches should strive to work simply with what the client offers, reflecting back without direction. Indeed, one thing coaches learn early in their training is to be non-directive, to follow the client’s interest, and keep out of the way. But as coaches become more experienced, they develop their intuition. They start to notice patterns of behaviour that evoke a familiar range of limiting or distorting stories that clients can tell themselves. Many coaches will study, become more psychologically minded, think more systemically, and learn to listen more deeply.
Being a mirror and a light as a coach
All these things, if held lightly, mindfully without pre-judgement or distortion, can help the coach ask more incisive questions. It helps them choose what they reflect back with greater perceptiveness, and trust their gut feel for what might be going on beneath the surface.
This means that an experienced coach will not just reflect back, they will illuminate. By doing so they enable their clients to find more significant, deeper awareness. Coaches can be more than a mirror; they serve their clients best when they are a mirror and a light.
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