Coaching helps our clients understand their work and lives, and the many roles they will play. Just make sure they focus on the bigger picture, not just their lines

By Neil Scotton and Alister Scott

In his book, Myself and Other More Important Matters, Charles Handy recounts being approached by a man. “I hear that Charles Handy is here,” he said. “Indeed he is”, replied Charles, “and I am he.” The man looked at him dubiously and asked, “Are you sure?”

It was, says Charles, a good question, “because over time there had been many versions of Charles Handy, not all of which I was particularly proud”.

It’s an experience I’m sure all of us can relate to. As we go through life we change, evolve and take on different roles. Some we may judge we do well and some not, some may be temporary and some stay with us for a long time. As Shakespeare put it:

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts


As coaches we help people and teams become aware of the different aspects of their work and life and indeed themselves. After all, transactional coaching is about the tasks, transformational coaching is about the person/people.

And with that awakening of awareness of our roles and different parts of selves and our senses of identity, comes the ability to knowingly shape those parts and create better acceptance, balance, harmony between them as they complement and compete in their unique ways.

But looking deeper into Shakespeare’s metaphor gives a new, and we believe timely, insight. What is most important: the stage? The players? Their parts? No. It’s the play. What the players on the stage co-create in the moment. And the impact and lasting effect that has on the audience.

For anyone who’s been involved in a performance will know, it’s easy to become self-obsessed about our role; how well we are acting it out, what people think about our performance. We quite rightly spend much time and effort learning our lines, movements and stage directions. We want to get our bit right. And you’ve no doubt seen a performance where people are working really hard to get their parts right. It can be very stilted, and maybe unengaging. Why?

There’s a secret to acting. It’s not about acting, it’s about reacting. What you do, say and express through every part of your being should be in direct response to what has just been said or done by another player. In a gripping play every line and moment is a direct consequence of what happened before it.

We have the same learning in coaching. There is a big difference between learning ‘great questions’ and excitedly waiting to throw them into the conversation, picking up a question while the client is speaking and waiting for them to stop talking so you can ask it, and waiting until the client has finished and then and only then, responding with what is live, in the moment and, in its way, inevitable.

So what happens when we step back from our own performance as coaches and start looking at the play we’re in – the life that is unfolding around us, the shifts that are happening in the lives and organisations of our clients, and the world we share in increasingly interconnected ways? Are we focusing on our own performance, learning our lines and delivering them regardless of what has just been said or done?

Or are we reacting, responding, with feeling, to what is happening on the stage around us?

How will our performance ultimately be judged?


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