This series from Clare Norman uncovers the mindsets preventing us from being the best coach we can be and presents more useful mindsets to move thinkers beyond known thinking to discover new thinking that energises them to change.
Part 3: Things we learned from school that we need to discard to be a more masterful coach
School was obviously a place of learning. As you think about the messages your teachers imparted, both spoken and unspoken, what did they teach you that you’ve needed to discard to be a more masterful coach?
Through my field research, I’ve discovered 14 mindsets that we learned at school that we need to discard as we step into coaching. I’ll cover three of them here.
- Old mindset: Finish what you start
- New mindset: Simply break the stalemate
Our teachers encouraged us to see things through to the end. Society backs this up with introjections such as ‘stick at it’, ‘don’t be a quitter’, ‘don’t give up’, ‘see it through’.
As a result, we coaches tend to want to finish everything off in a coaching session. Completeness is a draw. Getting to a conclusion is seductive. Finding solutions is irresistible. A belief that we ‘only’ have so much time together and must finish everything in that time slot lures us to quicken the pace and get to the end.
As a coach you may fall into the trap of driving to the finish line, feeling as though it’s your responsibility to cover everything the thinker said they wanted at the start – so you inadvertently push, lead and direct towards an outcome that meets their original session contract. That means you can miss or skip over exploration that could be useful to the thinker – and be more transformational
You also might be assuming that you need to get as far as you can when you’re together in coaching – that this thinker can’t make any further progress on their own in-between coaching sessions.
The thing is, once you’ve helped them make some progress, that progress begets progress. Amabile and Kramer (2011) found that any progress is good progress. People feel motivated to continue when they recognise they’ve made progress, even modestly. You’re enabling them to break the stalemate in which they find themselves: that’s your aim as a coach.
Imagine a beaver dam. Metaphorically speaking, if we pull out one stick from that beaver dam, we allow a trickle of water through it. That trickle will start to push out more sticks, and as each stick floats away downstream, there’s another gap for a little more water, then a little more until the water has washed away a whole section of the dam.
That’s how we should approach coaching: as though our job in the session is to help the thinker to remove just one stick from the dam. If they can remove that one stick, they’ll continue to remove obstacles after the coaching is over, because progress begets progress.
Trust that once they’ve made any progress in the session, they’ll continue outside of it without you. They may need you for the first stick, but they don’t need you for the whole dam. You don’t need to enable them to remove it all, or even half of it, for them to get huge value from the session.
- Old mindset: More is more
- New mindset: Less is more
Many moons ago, when I went to Sunday School, we were tasked with telling a story from the Bible in our own words. I used to love putting my all into these projects, adding two-dimensional depictions like lambs made of cotton wool, which got me extra marks for my project.
More was always more, and I was encouraged to go bigger and better each year by those extra marks. The problem was that this got me into a pattern of more is more.
In coaching, less is more. But we seem to get drawn into this idea that to add value, we need to do more, say more, improve on what they’ve said. We end up getting in the way of the thinker’s thinking by taking too much airspace.
For example, I notice how much airspace some coaches take with summarising. It’s not summarising at all; it’s parroting back everything that the thinker has said. As one of the people I mentor-coach realised, she was doing this to buy herself time to formulate her next question – so it was for her benefit, not the thinker’s. This isn’t useful to the thinker, because it stops them from thinking: they end up having to pay attention to us, to tell us whether we’ve captured it all correctly or not. This is wasted time that could be spent on them moving further forwards in their thinking.
We need to refine our skills so that we can play back the golden nugget in what they just said, rather than relaying all the sand and shingle.
Many coaches I observe also ask stacked questions, one after another, taking up more airspace. The first question was perfectly good; if it wasn’t, we can always ask the second one later.
Some coaches feel the need to explain their question or preface it. Again, too much airspace.
There’s no need to say:
‘The question that is coming up for me is…’
Just ask the question.
Or: ‘I ask that because…’
Just ask the question.
One question at a time
Sometimes one-word questions are enough:
‘[Insert word that they just used]?’
In fact, silence is often the best question, as they keep thinking.
Less is more
- Old mindset: There’s a right answer for everything
- New mindset: Whatever emerges, emerges
At school, we learn the right answers. In maths, geography, law, for example. Granted, there’s not always one right answer. In the English language, for example, we can develop our own writing style. But mostly, our memories of school are about getting things right.
And because it’s been instilled in us, it’s hard to let go of that. I see many coaches leading thinkers towards an answer that the coach sees as the (or maybe a) ‘right’ answer. The problem with this is that in coaching there’s rarely one right answer.
If it were that obvious, the thinker would have discovered it by now. They wouldn’t need coaching – they could look it up on the Internet!
The answer that’s most useful to each thinker will be the one that suits their personality, context, stakeholders, situation and life-stage. The answer that worked for us or for an earlier thinker isn’t going to be a perfect match for this current person. They’re unique. That means the answer will be unique to them.
Let go of there being one (right) answer. I put ‘right’ in parentheses here, because even when a thinker comes to some conclusion for themselves, they may still need to experiment and tinker with it until it becomes the best-fit answer for them; or even throw it out completely and start afresh. There may be some trial and error involved, as the best-fit answer may be elusive.
Believing in our core that there’s a best-fit answer for this person, that’s different from the best-fit answer for the next person, is quite a shift. I hear coaches talking about this as though they believe it, yet their coaching contradicts this belief: they ask leading questions, or give advice disguised as a question.
Listen to recordings of your coaching, alone or with a mentor-coach, to establish which belief you’re living:
- Are you asking questions from a place of not knowing?
- Is your mind clear of suggestions?Or are you leading the thinker to solutions that have worked for you or others in the past?
That’ll give you a hint about your true belief here. Embrace the belief that whatever emerges, emerges.
This is coaching the person not the problem, as Franklin (2019) and Reynolds (2020) call it.
- Next issue: Working with peers
- This article is based on an extract from The Transformational Coach: Free Your Thinking and Break Through to Coaching Mastery, published by Right Book Press. You can order your copy here: https://amzn.to/3zulBch
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
- T Amabile and S Kramer, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, Harvard Business Review Press, 2011
- M Franklin, The Heart of Laser-Focused Coaching: A Revolutionary Approach to Masterful Coaching, Thomas Noble Books, 2019
- M Reynolds, Coach the Person, Not the Problem: A Guide to Using Reflective Inquiry, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2020