Coaching the Inner Self

When Sam Waterston was preparing to play the role of Abraham Lincoln—one he has played several times—he decided to visit the Library of Congress while he was in Washington, D.C. While there, he had the opportunity to see and physically hold some of Lincoln’s letters. He even held in his hands the contents of what was found in Lincoln’s pockets on the night of his assassination. It was an experience, as Waterston explained to Dave Davies on NPR’s Fresh Air, that helped him ground his performance and ultimately connected him to his character.

Connection is essential in acting. Actors have many techniques for finding a link to their character. Often directors help them discover. In his bookA Sense of Direction, Willliam Ball, a noted stage director, talks about the objective. One could call it motivation, but labeling it an objective makes it more tangible. Ball argues that the operative word for actors in finding their objective is “want.” 

What does the character want in life – wealth, a family, peace in the world? Knowing that objective grounds the actor in the reality of his character. Knowing what the character wants enables her to learn to act the role and play specific lines or do a bit of stage business.  Directors, as Ball argues, should not give actors their objectives. Actors need to come to their own conclusions in their reading of the script.

Connection + objective

The link between connection and objective is essential in executive coaching. As with stage directors, their role is to facilitate self-understanding so that individuals come to their moments and levels of self-awareness. 

Some actors create their backstories, either doing it by themselves or, in certain instances, with two lead characters developing it collaboratively. Thoroughly knowing their characters prepares them to play the role with a degree of authenticity, something that resonates with audiences.

Similarly, coaches prepare individuals with tools such as assessments and feedback. Assessments enable the individual to uncover his tendencies and biases that result in behavior. Feedback is a kind of backstory; it observes what you have done and how you connect with others. 

There also is the technique developed by Marshall Goldsmith calls “feed-forward,” which is the process of the coach, together with trusted stakeholders, giving an individual “notes” (an acting term) about his progress through the coaching process. These notes enable the individual to determine his progress in real-time.

Cautionary note

There is a significant difference, of course, between acting and coaching. One is for pretend; the other is for real. And when the two become confused, that is, the actor believes he is his character, or the coachee “acts” his role, the outcome is inauthenticity, the opposite of what’s desired.

Discovering your character

A comparison between the two disciplines is helpful, however. They want an actor strives for is the same as the behavior change a coachee aspires to. Both require work, and here are some questions borrowed from the acting world that can help an individual discover herself more genuinely.

  • What gets you up in the morning?
  • What is holding you back from what you want to achieve?
  • What do you need to STOP doing to achieve your goals?
  • How can you enlist others to support you in your change efforts?
  • How will you measure the success of this coaching process?


These questions are only a starting point. Together with the coach, the individual can come up with other questions that will enable more significant degrees of self-awareness.

“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart,” wrote a father of psychiatry and psychoanalysis, Karl Jung. “Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” Know yourself, and you know the world—and what you can accomplish in it—better.

First posted on 00.00.2022