Maybe it’s the time of year, and we can that feel spring is in the air and we’re ready for some dramatic change… Have you noticed how many television programmes are about transformation of some sort? Just a quick look at BBC iPlayer reveals these:
- Homes under the Hammer – a long-running property renovation show
- The Great Interior Design Challenge – a competitionabout updating boring rooms
- DIY SOS – renovations to the rescue of people in a health pickle
- Big Dreams, Small Spaces – garden redesign on a budget
- The 100K House – architects helping people recreate their problematic home
OK, maybe this list reveals more about my interests than the state of humankind. It’s still remarkable that the BBC alone has five programmes about transforming our living space right now! In fact, the BBC has no fewer than 570 programmes (radio and television) about homes and gardens, which tells me I’m not the only one with an interest in looking after my living environment.
The hard graft involved
Programmes like the above are are very satisfactory to watch, assuming you are interested in the subject of course. The triumphant reveal at the end is accompanied by a ‘ta-dah!’ soundtrack and a cheerful voice-over listing all the improvements. The ‘before’ flashes across the screen in monochrome before the camera shows us the finished product in Technicolor. As we admire the benefits of the project we all achieve closure-by-proxy.
But for me the end result is only part of the joy. I derive a lot of pleasure from following the DIY-ers’ progress and creative problem-solving prowess. I especially like the ballsy ones that throw caution to the wind and really unleash some inner fury to tackle the task while shouting
Obstacles? Hah! My crowbar and I laugh in thy face!
They’re the ones that appear to undergo their own transformations as well as their house or garden. The bloke who only liked magnolia who paints his kitchen units purple. The mum who turns into a fully fledged bricklayer.
Such programmes are about visible transformations and they are very satisfactory to watch. When I’ve completed a coaching assignment with a client, be it a team or an individual, I’ll tell them that it has been a priviledge to work with them. That’s not an empty phrase to me, because it is humbling to be with someone who is going through such profound change that they come out transformed.
It is humbling because to change you have to be vulnerable, and to be able to be vulnerable with someone else, you have to put your trust in them. Witnessing a client transform through their persistence and effort reminds me what it takes to develop as a person. It isn’t easy. It’s painful because you lose things and sometimes people along the way. And at the end there is no spectacular reveal in Technicolor either…
My job as a coach is to take the client back to the early beginning of the journey and show the distance travelled, because it is easy to forget where you came from if the world looks different now. It never fails to take the client by surprise either when they look back. It’s not the same as popping a bottle of champagne in your fashionably purple new kitchen but I’ll tell you now that such a personal transformation will outlast any such kitchen by decades.
Back in the 1990s I learned to drive in Amsterdam. You won’t see L-plates in traffic there because it is illegal to drive a car without a licence and therefore the only way to learn is to take lessons at a driving school.
Amsterdam is an utterly excellent place to pass your driving test. Everyone knows about the cycling anarchists lurking in every street (I was a fully fledged one myself) and the hordes of tourists who mistake its quaint little streets for pedestrianised areas. It gets even hairier the moment trams become involved: these have their own rules and they are not what you’d expect. Argue with a tram at your own peril.
My instructor Sandra was a very chatty type. Right at the start of my very first lesson, told me what the pedals were for, how to adjust the mirrors properly, and that we were going to turn left into the Van Hall Straat. Then she asked me what I did for a living.
Sandra’s philosphy was that behind the wheel there is a lot to manage: kids fighting in the back seat in the middle of road works when you’re nearly out of petrol and running late. Her aim was to deliver kevlar drivers: responsible and considerate people who know how to drive and hold down a conversation at the same time, no sweat.
The no sweat did come after plenty of hairy experiences. I passed my test the first time around despite making quite a serious error after just a few minutes: after being told we’d be taking a left turn ahead I drove in the left lane for a bit until the examiner asked me whether my fellow Amsterdam drivers would appreciate my initiative.
I mirrored, signaled and manoeuvred back into my own lane and assumed I’d failed already. The raging nerves subsided and I spent the rest of the test in a pretty relaxed frame of mind because there was nothing to worry about anymore. Afterwards the examiner told me that I passed because he had seen my instincts kick in: no sudden swerving back and calm and confident driving the rest of the way. I was almost sad to pass my test because Sandra and I had had a great deal of fun.
Emotions and recall
Emotions occur when an individual experiences something important. Strong emotions influence our recall of events and can even lead us to construct a different version of events. Some researchers suggest that the more we want to suppress a memory of a highly emotive event – say an intensely stupid error during a driving test – the higher the cognitive load, which in turn reduces the reliability of how we recall the details of the event.
In other words, we reconstruct the event because our emotions more or less tell us to. When I think about my driving test in Amsterdam in the 1990s, I know for a fact that I was driving with my examiner sitting in the passenger seat on my right and that I was driving (mostly!) in the right-hand lane. However, my very vivid recollection is that he is in the passenger seat on my left, and during my error I drove the car in the right-hand lane.
Why emotions matter in coaching
According to my fellow coach Peter Duffell, who is fast becoming the UK’s leading reearcher into coaching and emotions
people may bring fragments of memory together and construct rather than re-construct memory
Duffell and Lawton-Smith, The Coaching Psychologist, Vol 11, No 1, June 2015
This is why it matters to coaches to attend to the emotive domain in sessions. Quite a few coaches feel (see what I did there?) that emotions are out of scope in organisational coaching. I can give you several reasons why this is limiting to the degree of being harmful to the client, but I’ll stick to one: without exploring the emotions involved, we cannot rely on a client’s recollection of an event if it is clear that strong emotions have played part in it. We need to be equipped to bring the emotions into the session safely and most importantly, recognise when it is appropriate to do so.
Clients who arrive for coaching or mentoring sessions may not realise it, but what they will be getting is disruption. For those clients who have opted to find a coach or mentor themselves, this is almost always a welcome discovery: they were ready to have their usual way of going about things disrupted.
It takes some guts to work with a coach. Engaging wholly and honestly with the one thing that holds you back – once that ‘thing’ has been identified – is brave, because this thing may not be what you expected at all.
Stages of disruption
Identifying what is putting the brakes on the client achieving what they want is absolutely essential. Clients usually arrive with some idea about this, but more often than not they are describing symptoms rather than the cause at the root of them. The first disruptive moment arrives when we realise that what the client brought to the initial coaching agenda perhaps isn’t the real issue.
Although very common, this almost always takes the client by surprise. It is also very often the point when the client starts to experience the bigger impact of their sessions: they’ll return for the next session and describe having had very different interactions with people, or a significant conversation with an important person in their (working) life.
Having encountered the disruption of a shifting coaching agenda, typically two scenarios apply next. Some clients are too shocked to find they didn’t know what the real issue was and find it hard to engage with it. This can be because they are not ready to tackle it, and it is too soon, too much, too fast. Sadly it can also be that they were ‘invited’ to work with a coach, and felt unable to tell me. It fortunately doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, we have a conversation about the support the client needs and will accept and how to ensure they get it.
In the second and more frequent scenario the client responds with initial shock followed by interest, or with glee, or with cautious questions about whether they are ‘allowed’ to change the coaching agenda, seeing as we started somewhere else. These are resilient clients who decide to wrestle their issue to the ground once and for all even when its true nature isn’t revealed immediately.
The discovery that there is more to their question and that they can go and explore it, work with it, and throw themselves into tackling it often raises clients’ expectations of the coaching. It is a pivotal point in the coaching relationship where I find out the extent of my client’s engagement with their question and with the coaching process. It is also where I discover how I need to up my game to match my client’s pace!
A recent coaching client wanted to achieve a better work-life balance. About three or four sessions into our work together she made a very disruptive discovery: she admitted to herself that she was a control freak. Nobody was telling her this; her large team was stable and productive and would confide in her when they wanted to. Her line manager was positive about her performance and largely left her to it. The client had some challenging relationships in the organisation, but there were no signs of deep discord. She routinely worked 14 hours a day, and spent her weekends ‘catching up’. This pattern had become unsustainable.
It took this client some weeks to make peace with her discovery that being a control freak was the cause of her problem. Soon she was paining herself with questions like “Have I been smothering my team?” and “What if they think that I don’t trust them?”.
Even while she was grappling with this disruption in her world view, she was able to step back and let her team take over many of the tasks she had been dealing with herself for so long. Her team relished in the new responsibilities and opportunities. Their stunned manager discovered things were being done just as well or in clever new ways. She delighted in it all and focused on strategic tasks and felt on top of things. She was also able to cut her hours down dramatically.
When we came to the end of our sessions the client marvelled at where her journey had originated: a poor work-life balance. Where she previously assumed being on top of things meant personally controlling everything, she now accepted that although it got her to where she was in her career, it was time to move away from this to further her career. Soon after she landed a promotion to a high profile role which she felt excited rather than daunted by. Calling out the control freak had been the most welcome disruption at a crucial time in her career.
Asking questions is an art form. As a coach it’s one you cannot afford not to master to an above average degree: a successful coaching process depends on it.
If you have ever picked up a how-to book about coaching, you will undoubtedly have been presented with at least a chapter on types of questions, questioning techniques and perhaps even lists of coaching questions to ask. With that, the question (if you pardon the pun) of what makes a good question hasn’t really been addressed.
You see, the quality and usefulness of a question depends on timing and context, the intentions of the asker and the openness of the recipient.
Asking good questions – well-timed, appropriate, relevant, and posed in an understandable way – can really make a coach look smart. Noticing that I have just asked my client The Big One That Changes Everything is wonderful: this is what makes coaching great. It does come with a side effect that makes me uncomfortable, which is that it can change the dynamics between me and my client. Good questions can make me look smart in their eyes, and I have a problem with that.
Don’t get me wrong, of course I hope I am not stupid in the eyes of my clientèle! But as coaching is based on principles of partnership, equality between coach and client, and what we term unconditional positive regard for the client, being perceived as smart or smarter than the client themselves can create distance where there shouldn’t be any.
The purpose of coaching is not for your coach to outwit you, but to be with you as your comrade while you’re travelling somewhere new, uncovering new angles and perspectives as you go along. Although that can look very clever, the real expert in all this is you, and your coach knows this.
So next time your coach asks you a very good question and you feel admiration for their ability, remind yourself of this: asking stonkingly good questions is what we do for a living. Were you not expecting to be asked some?
Being someone’s coach is a humbling experience. As flattered as we may feel at times by our clients’ appreciation, truly smart coaches know that they know nothing at all.
As a coach I get asked all kinds of questions about what I do (not so much what I don’t do, which is in fact a really good question to ask a coach) and how I do it.
Here are some of them:
How did you become a coach?
Well, I guess you could say I grew into it. I’ve always worked in people-oriented roles – sales, business development, marketing, communication – and almost uniquely in the service industry. I specialised in change communications and learnt a lot about the psychological processes involved in individual and organisational change. I used my people skills to support people in organisations to make sense of change more and more.
Then I was lucky enough to have a coach of my own, and that was that. Next stop: Oxford Brookes University’s Business School!
So you tell people how to be better at doing things?
This is the question which I like least. No. I don’t tell people how to be better at things, that is a trainer’s job. Nor am I a consultant or a replacement for line management! When I coach I avoid giving advice, even though I will sometimes brainstorm scenarios with a client or recommend a good read.
Usually this is where I am met with confused looks. If I don’t advise people, then what is the point of what I do?
An executive coach understands the processes involved in self-development. Typically people who choose a coach have already discovered that they do not need someone who can tell them how to do things, because they already have such people around them. Instead they want to widen their perspective and way of approaching things, so they can get rid of unhelpful habits and try new things. They need their coach to point out blind spots – things they are overlooking in themselves or situations – which are limiting them. They know their coach has no interest in skating around the issue, and supports them safely and loyally to address it.
How many sessions do your clients have?
This is a piece of string question. It really depends on the individual, the questions they are bringing, how the relationship develops, time scales, whether the coaching is part of a development programme and the number of sessions is predetermined, and of course budget.
The minimum seems to be four sessions, more than 10 is less common. Clients also return for a top-up or new series of sessions.
How long are sessions, and how frequent?
This too depends on the individual’s needs and on the reason for coming to coaching. Most of my coaching clients have a session per month, sometimes more frequently if there are pressing matters to discuss or an important event is approaching. Sessions typically last between 60 and 90 minutes.
Do you have a model or approach?
Sadly, I do not often hear this question, and it’s a hugely important one to ask before choosing a coach.
I do not apply a specific model to my coaching, such as the famous GROW model, or base my work on a particular approach like Co-Active Coaching or NLP. Although these and other models and approaches can be excellent, I find it limiting to rely on a single one of them.
One reason is that a coaching intervention (a complete series of sessions) will have distinct phases, each of which needs coach and client to draw on different resources. I prefer to have more than one option available in the different phases.
A second reason is that each client has a unique set of qualities and characteristics, and brings their equally unique set of questions to coaching. To use the same approach with every client would be taking the ‘one size fits all’ view on coaching.
A third reason is that unlike many coaches, I find the idea of a model limiting in itself, and do not believe that having a snazzy acronym is necessary to have a solid, safe and professional methodology underpinning my practice. I’ll explain more about mine in a future post.
What is the question you want to ask about coaching?
Let me know in the box below…