The Importance of Relationship in Digital Coaching

Many years ago, when I was fresh out of varsity, I volunteered as a crisis counsellor for an NPO. Periodically, I would have to meet with the counselling manager to catch up and debrief, and over time we established a meaningful and trusting relationship.

I remember vividly how one day, after a particularly frustrating session with a client, I went to speak to the counselling manager. I explained that despite my best efforts, the client avoided speaking about an issue that I considered important.

She simply asked, without a trace of judgement, “Whose need was it to talk about that issue? Yours or the client’s?”

Her question affected me. I felt uncomfortable and embarrassed. Nonetheless, I reflected on her question honestly and deeply, and from that point on, I made an extra effort to distinguish my needs from those of the client and to focus firmly on the latter.

It was a profound insight that changed my thinking and behavior significantly.

It’s true that she asked me a good question, but why, despite feeling uncomfortable, did I reflect on it? Why didn’t I ignore or dismiss it? Why didn’t I lie or get angry? If anyone else had asked me that question, I probably would have.

What truly gave her question the power to change my behavior was the way she treated me in the context of our relationship. She:

• treated me with warmth and respect
• always gave me her full attention
• was open and honest with me
• gave me the space to express what was meaningful to me
• showed genuine interest in my ideas and experiences
• responded as though everything I shared was important and valuable
• kept our conversations confidential
• never made me feel judged
• never made me feel threatened

The lesson for digital coaching

We design digital coaching experiences so that we can pose powerful ideas and questions, often to thousands of users. Even at this scale and distance, to inspire deep reflection and genuine behavior change, we must not underestimate the importance of a good relationship.

That’s why, at every stage of the learning design process, we need to ask ourselves if we’re creating the conditions for a good relationship between our content and our users.

• When we curate and organize content, we can ask, “Is this sensitive and respectful to our users’ context?”

• When we select media or write narratives, we can ask, “Will this be perceived as open and honest?”

• When we share an idea or pose a question, we can ask, “Does this imply any judgement?”

• When we invite our users to share their responses, we can ask, “Are we giving the learner a safe, confidential space to express what is meaningful to them?”

The point is this: We can build elements necessary for a good relationship into every aspect of our digital coaching programs.

After all, a good relationship gives a profound idea more power to change behavior.

What can you do to create honest, respectful and safe relationships with users in your digital coaching programs?