The Masterful Dance

by Karen Van Cleve, IAC-CC

One of the first metaphors of coaching that I learned when becoming a coach was that of a dance. That metaphor speaks of the interplay of energy and communication between the partners, more than the mechanics of the steps of the dance. As we’re first learning to dance, we have to learn those mechanics, and we try to do it “right.” As we achieve more mastery, we feel that dance with our clients more and more, and focus less on the right steps.

Similarly, one of the challenges the certification team sees with submissions is the coach’s focus on the steps (e.g., getting to an outcome or identifying action steps) more than connecting deeply with their partner (i.e., their client) in the dance. For example, a client comes to coaching because they’re overwhelmed with too much to do. The client says they want to be more effective, or to be better at prioritizing. The less experienced coach will begin identifying what the client needs to be successful and what action steps the client can take to handle their workload better. That’s something like the dance student chanting to themselves as they step to the music, “1—2—3, 1—2—3." They’re taking the steps, but they haven’t really connected with their partner.

The masterful coach will recognize that it probably isn’t about the actions, even though that’s the stated intention. The masterful coach will begin to understand their partner, maybe asking what it feels like to be overwhelmed, or seeking to understand the client’s life and patterns better, or exploring the client’s beliefs and identity around getting things done or setting priorities. This willingness to go with the flow of the dance often shows up in Mastery #4, Processing in the Present, Mastery #3, Engaged Listening and Mastery #6, Clarifying. It’s exploring with curiosity and compassion what the client is bringing to the dance. It’s being fully present with the client, not simply the situation. It’s trusting the dance (the coaching) and the partner.

As an example, I recently had my second coaching session with a new client. She said she was challenged with clutter and not being able to get everything done. She thought that what was missing was structure, that she was just trying to put too many things into her schedule. It would have been very easy to start talking about structure, what being organized would be like, etc. However, even though we had just had one previous call focusing on career, I sensed that there was something deeper going on. I wanted to go beyond the steps of the dance, and connect with my partner.

As we explored what was creating the symptoms of clutter and not getting everything done, we uncovered fear. As we explored the fear further, she noticed a feeling in her throat (see how easily Processing in the Present can show up?). The fear involved disrupting the status of the household, which led to the ultimate realization that her relationship was draining her dry, and that she had been avoiding dealing with it. Now the coaching could address what was really important – empowering her to create a plan and see herself taking action– rather than dealing with the symptom of clutter. We future-paced her, allowing her to see herself and her life beyond this current challenge, which allowed her to connect with her potential and possibilities. We only addressed a few action steps, but we identified the beliefs and patterns that had created the situation, and who she needed to be to take action. That created a structure of beliefs, identity and vision that will move her through the many obstacles that are sure to arise.

At the end of the coaching session, I returned to the clutter issue to check in. She acknowledged that as she dealt with the real issue, the clutter would take care of itself. So although we didn’t address the intentions stated at the start of the call, we ultimately addressed the intentions that mattered most to the client. As we wrapped up the session, the client observed that this was something that had been bothering her for a while, and that the coaching had created a space to face what she couldn’t face alone. That’s the dance that we coaches love: the dance that nobody else can have with the client. As you continue your never-ending evolution as a coach, I wish you many deep and fulfilling dances!


Karen Van Cleve, IAC-CC, has been an IAC Certifier since 2005. She is also a Results Coach for the Robbins Research International coaching organization. She speaks on a variety of coaching topics and provides personal coaching for a wide range of clients. Her website is

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