There are few things more rewarding in my work than witnessing a “critical moment” when I’m working with a coaching client. These are often – in my experience – accompanied by an a-ha moment followed by a silence where we probably just look at each other. This comes about when the client has put something into words or a mental image (metaphor often comes into it) that they may have been struggling to articulate and that fits in that moment. It’s like finding the right piece of a jigsaw, to build the bigger picture. 

My job then is to help them recognise it and capture it for future reference. Often something about those moments becomes a short hand for future planning or actions which we can both refer to. The most recent one was summarised by a very apt quote that my client had remembered from an eminent practitioner in the same professional field as himself. It was introduced almost as a throwaway comment, but when he said it we both recognised it for what it was – a critical moment. 

It’s likely, of course, that sometimes something seems like a critical moment to me, and sometimes to the client, but we don’t both see the moment in the same way. This is an emerging area of research which I find very interesting – Erik de Haan’s work has focused on this area and you can read more here

I think there are three key ingredients:

1. They can’t be rushed or forced – they will arise when they arise. They won’t necessarily occur in every coaching session. In fact, they probably won’t. When I started out, I was sometimes anxious to find them. Now, I have learned to relax and be more patient. The more I can get out of the client’s way and also be present in the moment, the more likely they are to happen. My own mindfulness practice is a key part of my readiness to coach.

2. They are an emotional experience – more often than not, in my experience, a very positive one, if sometimes tinged with other emotions such as shock or regret. They usually represent some kind of shift of perspective or insight into past experience or patterns of behaviour. I recognise them by the feelings that they produce in me, which are a bit like a small electric shock. I feel very happy for the client in these moments – it feels as if something profound may have happened which could form the basis for significant change of the sort the client wants. It doesn’t always lead to that of course. There are no guarantees. But very often they do.

3. They are vivid – I can think of various ways that clients have articulated they’re moments of insight and many of them stay with me for a long time. Images of torches in tents, of scythes and undergrowth, of rooms and doors opening up, of big skies and landscapes are all in my memory from the way clients have described these critical moments. I have several of my own that have occurred in coaching supervision and co-coaching sessions that I regularly undertake. There’s something about being able to see with more clarity than we usually can, even if only for a brief moment. It can feel like the sun coming out.