Coaches actively listen, but they also interrupt—strategically. They seek to understand—for their own sake—following their curiosity about decisions, behaviors, assumptions we are making. These decisions, behaviors, assumptions may or may not be informed by our past, but our reactivity about them most certainly is.
We come to coaching with certain goals. We are seeking answers. There is a presenting problem that hints at, but does not fully capture, the full picture. Why, for instance, do we repeatedly hire people who do not perform? Why do we seek out bosses that do not support us? Why is it so hard for us to work through others? How can we be both so convinced we need to leave a role and yet have remained completely unable to find something more fulfilling? Why do we sabotage our potential?
By their questions and their attention, the coach tries—harder than anyone we’ve spoken to yet—to discover how our presenting problem connects to something larger. In particular, they help us navigate “the web”: ourselves and our team(s); our wider ecosystem of departments, vendors, customers, and strategic stakeholders or partners; and, how we interpret “the outside” market, the economy, the natural environment, and political shifts (as appropriate). Remember, the coach’s goal is to help us increase effectiveness by interweaving relationships with results, pinpointing key areas of growth.
Starting in the first session, we gather a succession of small discoveries with the coach to contribute to an emerging picture of the sources of our presenting problem, not just the symptoms.
When we view ourselves at the center of our web, we gain insights in the way in which our character has slowly evolved in response to early wounds. We learn how those wounds form into triggers, and how our reactivity to those triggers hampers our possibilities today.
When we view ourselves at the center of our web, we gain insights in the way in which our character has slowly evolved in response to early wounds.
Reactivity narrows our focus. Responsiveness broadens our view. In the space between reactivity and response is where we find the seeds of our creativity.
When we view ourselves interacting with our teams and wider ecosystems, these triggers amplify. Do we trust others enough to delegate? Can we get past our initial judgments of peers enough to collaborate effectively rather than work around them? Can we learn to engage rather than avoid difficult personalities we encounter as managers, partners or stakeholders?
When we take in the even broader environments (social systems, market competition, etc.) we notice additional pressures in the system.
We may, for example, start to sense how a feeling of rivalry with another manager led us to take on more challenges to compete for a boss’s approval, as well as seeing, perhaps for the first time, that the logic of our self-sabotage no longer holds. Or we might perceive the way an attitude of negativity and pessimism, which restricts our personalities and our friendships, might have had its origins in a someone who let us down at a time when we could not contain our vulnerability, and thereby turned us into people who try at every juncture to disappoint themselves early and definitively rather than allowing the world to mock our emerging hopes at a time of its own choosing.
It is unhelpful to state any of this too frankly, to any client, as they are likely to resist. There is a dance to active listening—and not everyone is dancing to the same music. There are useful or counterproductive behaviors that we can have with our coach. Here are some examples (the first two are constructive, the second two are less effective):
we want advice, the coach fosters independent thinking.
we seek feedback, the coach gives it.
we vent about a colleague, coach soothes.
we are late for appointments or forget to reserve a room, the coach tolerates it.
Often, the dance pattern developing between you and your coach is an example of the system the client is in with their own team or organization. Systems have a way of extending themselves out to their furthest boundaries. In that way, they have a strong gravitational pull.
The coach resists this by reflecting to us the decisions we are making, or how we are reacting and behaving. Together, we replay those scenarios and discuss alternatives. For the process to work, the coach reflects of the structure of our troubles in a way we can best interpret it as our own observation and insight.
This blog post is part of a series related to The Little Book of Coaching pending publication.