At the coalface
In the latest in this column for leaders who coach, Lynn Scott explores moving beyond tools and techniques to focus on the client in front of you – and saying what needs to be said
In the ‘leader-as-coach’ role, there’ll be lots of coaching skills you use with confidence in that ‘unconsciously competent’ way that seemed so hard when you first started out.
Remember trying to listen well without taking loads of notes or getting stuck on the GROW model or falling into advice giving or worrying about your next question.
You’ve been at it for a while so you’re pretty good at listening, asking open questions, agreeing goals and outcomes and you’re hugely supportive. You’re rightly proud that these skills are helping your clients or team members make progress in whatever it is they’re working towards.
And after a certain number of coaching hours you think ‘I’m ready to learn some new skills or models now. I’d love to have some more tools or techniques under my belt.’
Like you, I’m a big fan of improving, learning, developing my skills and keeping up to date with research that might inform how I can become an even better coach.
But I also know that having more tools in our toolbox doesn’t necessarily add the extra value or make the difference we’re looking for.
Tools and techniques can be very helpful – they give us structures, a framework and can have validity and rigour. But the truth is, they’re only as good as the coach who uses them.
The downside of being overly reliant on tools is that the focus is on the tool or model rather than the person in front of us and getting to what’s really going on in their world.
Of course a tool in the hands of a great craftsperson is a wonderful thing!
And maybe you think a new tool or model might help you overcome some coaching blind spots you’re facing. Maybe you’re getting stuck or you don’t quite know how to work in a different way to get to a different outcome. (This of course is where supervision will help you see the things you’re not seeing – hugely helpful when you’re stuck in those weeds.)
Years ago I supervised a coach who loved her different tools and techniques. When she got ‘stuck’ she pulled another ‘tool’ out of her toolbox. But she was hugely frustrated that none of the tools were ‘working’ with a couple of her clients. She needed to close that toolbox and do something else completely – which was to focus on the human being in front of her and be more present.
In my work with leader coaches over the past 15 or so years, be it training them, supervising them or ‘coach mentoring’ them I would say that if you’re at a crossroads and wondering what’ll help you raise your game enormously there’s one thing that might help you make a start. (Of course this applies to you if you’re an independent or executive coach too.)
And it’s this:
Sharing what you’re seeing/hearing/ feeling without judgement
- Doing this might mean challenging more (and be sure that if those you coach ask for ‘challenge’ you both need to be clear what that means in your context)
- It might mean ‘using yourself as an instrument of change’
- It might mean ‘giving feedback in the here and now’.
If you’re not sure what all this means, let me illustrate it with a couple of examples.
It’s important to say that in order to do this you need to have developed a trusting, open and honest relationship with the person you are coaching.
Years ago one of the trainee coaches I was working with was coaching a young woman who kept getting turned down at interview. When I asked him what he made of this he said:
“Well she’s so dull! Her voice is monotone, she doesn’t look confident, she makes herself small and she doesn’t answer the practice questions I’ve given her very well. I actually dread working with her.”
The way he experienced her was likely to be the way the interviewers were experiencing her.
“Have you told her this?” I asked him.
“No! That wouldn’t be supportive or nice,” he replied with indignation.
Well, if I was that young woman I would rather know what I could improve rather than remain in frustrated ignorance.
Of course, we talked through how he could share this feedback with her in a compassionate, empowering and helpful way – and off he went.
There are so many situations like this where our ‘must be polite’ or ‘that’s not supportive’ voice kicks in and yet it’s not serving people we coach or team members well at all.
I have countless conversations with coaches and supervisees who are metaphorically sitting on their hands rather than saying what needs to be said.
Remember – if you truly want those you coach to achieve their goals you sometimes need to be the only person who will ‘say it as you see, hear or feel it’ with fearless compassion.
In the following, I share some recent coaching conversations I’ve had to illustrate how this works.
Example 1: The client who is long-winded and goes off at a tangent
Coaching goal: to have more executive presence
My response: “I notice when I ask you a question, I get quite a long answer and I find it a little hard to follow. We could really skyrocket that executive presence with some shorter, snappier answers – what do you think?”
Example 2: The client whose language (written and spoken) is critical and judgemental in meetings with her peers
Coaching objective: To get more buy-in and influence for a significant project
My response: “If I were one of your peers right now I would find that language really hard to hear and I find myself feeling quite anxious as you say those things. If I were one of your peers I would probably respond defensively or aggressively. How about we look at another way of sharing ‘your truth’ that also gives you a way to get buy in?”
Are my responses ‘perfect?’ Who knows. I could probably have wordsmithed something more elegant in both cases but that’s not the point. The point is to help the other person see the blind spots getting in the way of their success.
Of course, we also need to be sharing the ‘gold’ that we see in those we coach that they often don’t see for themselves – helping them celebrate their strengths and successes – but in all honesty most of us find that much easier to do.
I’m going to share a short exercise with you to help you reflect on this by looking back over a previous session – when you reflect, you often get greater awareness and insight and you can carry these into your future sessions.
You can do this on your own or with a colleague as a peer coach with you:
Picture the person you were coaching
- How did they show up? How did you show up?
- How do you feel when you remember that session (notice your bodily reactions, not just your thoughts)
- What impact do they have on you and why?
- What did you intuitively ‘know’ but decide not to say?
- What’s the bravest, wildest, most honest thing you could have said? (Choose your adjectives here – it will bring you loads of new insights!)
- And finally – what will you pay attention to in your next session with that person?
- Lynn Scott is an ICF Master Certified Coach (MCC), director of Lynn Scott Coaching and founder of The Effortless Leader Revolution. She’s a leadership and team coach, coach supervisor and ICF Coach Mentor.
- You can join her free Facebook group for leaders and managers, The Effortless Leader Revolution, for more leadership tips and resources that work in the real world.