This series from Clare Norman will uncover the mindsets preventing us from being the best coach we can be and present more useful mindsets to move thinkers beyond known thinking to discover new thinking that energises them to change.
Part 1: Unlearn what you have learned
In the film, The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda, one of the greatest Jedi Masters from a galaxy far, far away, is Luke Skywalker’s teacher. He has many words of wisdom for the young Skywalker as he learns the ways of the Force.
The pair are in a swamp, with Skywalker learning to use the Force that is all around him to make stones levitate. But then the robot R2-D2 alerts Skywalker that his spacecraft is sinking into the mud. Skywalker thinks it’s impossible to retrieve his ship, but Yoda suggests that he’s too certain of this, and it’s this mindset that will get in his way. Luke must unlearn what he’s learned. Yoda wants Luke to question what he’s been taught, to untangle himself from societal programming.
In coaching too, we need to unlearn ingrained mindsets and beliefs that get in the way of us being the best we could be. For example, we’ve learned over years of programming from work and life that finding solutions to intractable problems is valued and appreciated. But in coaching, this isn’t our role. As we know, instead it’s to enable the person we’re working with to find and own their own solutions, which work in their context, given their personality, their stakeholders, their desires. For some coaches, this mindset shift can be just as difficult as believing that you can levitate a spacecraft out of a swamp!
I’m often asked by coaches whether this letting go of finding solutions is possible when the person with whom we’re working ‘doesn’t have the life experience to find their own solutions’ as one coach put it. But we need to follow through on the notion that they are what Whitworth et al described as “creative, resourceful and whole” (1998). If we believe in their capacity to think, then they’ll think for themselves. If we believe they don’t have the capacity, then they won’t. You may understand the paradigm that people are creative, resourceful and whole at a rational level, but if deep down you’re still stuck with the old mindset, you’ll likely fall back into the habits that go with it.
As Covey says, “If you want small changes, work on your behaviour; if you want quantum-leap changes, work on your paradigms.” He goes on to say that when you change the way you See things (your paradigms, mindsets, beliefs, scripts), it influences what you Do (your habits, your behaviours, your coaching) and the results you Get (1999).
Back to Yoda: “You must unlearn [the paradigms, mindsets, beliefs and scripts that] … you have learned.” I use the terms ‘paradigms’, ‘mindsets’, ‘beliefs’ and ‘scripts’, interchangeably. They’re the way we See the world.
Such mindsets served us in the past and they may continue to serve us in other roles outside of our coaching. We were taught them for good reason.
Yet we need to unlearn some of the scripts we’ve formed, the paradigms we hold on to, the mindsets, the beliefs, in order to be better coaches. It’s time to rewire the things we’ve learned through life and work, removing those old scripts, so that we can be extraordinary coaches. We need to unencumber ourselves of our old scripts, discarding them and replacing them with fresh ones. These include mindsets taught to us by our:
- schools and teachers
- work and managers
- coach training
- coaching experience.
My approach to coaching as the backdrop
Like most of us, I practise non-directive coaching, meaning I don’t provide answers, don’t lead people to answers that I think are ‘good for them’, don’t disguise advice as a question and don’t mentor or teach. It revolves around the premise that the person you’re coaching has the answers within them.
I refer to the people I work with in coaching as ‘thinkers’, a term coined by Nancy Kline more than 20 years ago when she wrote about the Thinking Environment that gives people time to think (2002). In coaching, we want to encourage the thinker to think – to be independent, critical decision-makers when we’re not there with them, just as much as when we are.
Thus my definition of coaching, devised in collaboration with a group of coaches on my mentor coaching programme, is: “A joint endeavour to move beyond known thinking to discover new thinking that energises the thinker to change.”
The principal elements of this definition are that coaching:
- is a joint endeavour, a partnership, an adult-to-adult relationship (vs parent-to-child or master-to-apprentice)
- moves beyond known thinking because that known thinking has kept the person where they are and will continue to do so, if we stay in that space of known thinking with them
- discovers new thinking, because it’s this new thinking that will lead to new ways of being and doing
- energises change – the very point of coaching – which makes it different from any other conversations we might have in life.
Back in 2019 (Norman, 2019), I wrote that mentor coaching is for life, not just credentialling. So, I’m planting the seed about investing in mentor coaching – being observed as you coach and discussing how usefully (or not) you show up for the thinker. This allows you to become conscious about the scripts that inform your habits, to shine a light on your blind-, deaf- and dumb-spots (Eckstein, 1969) and make some small tweaks in your coaching that will make a big difference to the thinker you are partnering; breaking away from the old scripts that may (or may not) be useful in life but are not so useful in coaching.
I’m fascinated by the idea of marginal gains. Taking a leaf out of Formula One racing, where every second counts, I’m constantly on the lookout for marginal gains in coaching. Not to shave off time (though in some instances, it could be to give maximum time to the thinker to think), but instead to create the best thinking environment for clients, so they can do their best thinking.
Everything that we do or say as coaches has an impact on that thinking environment. But it all starts with mindset. Our mindset needs to shift before our skillset will follow.
- This article is based on an extract from the upcoming publication, The Transformational Coach: Free Your Thinking and Break Through to Coaching Mastery. Register your interest here: www.clarenormancoachingassociates.com/library/upcoming-book-release/
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
- Sought out as a Master Mentor Coach by expert coaches and successful coach training companies, Clare Norman looks to continually sharpen individuals’ coaching edge and upskill mentor coaches so they deliver high quality feedback to their coaches-in-training: www.clarenormancoachingassociates.com
- S R Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon & Schuster, 1999
- R Eckstein, ‘Concerning the teaching and learning of psychoanalysis’, in Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 17 (2), 312-332, 1969
- N Kline, Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind, Cassell, 2002
- C E Norman, Mentor Coaching: A Practical Guide, Open University Press, 2020
- C E Norman, ‘Locked-in learning’, in Coaching at Work, 13(6), 42-45, 2018
- L Whitworth, H Kimsey-House, and P Sandahl, Co-Active Coaching: New Skills for Coaching People Toward Success in Work and Life, Davies Black Publishing, 1998