A Coach’s Learning

As I work on this in my study, I can see three men taking down some 60 foot Leylandii in a neighbour’s garden. They are working with great skill, organisation and care. A good thing really: one is operating a chain-saw while hanging by a rope and the others are making sure they are in the right place when sections of tree come crashing down. They know what they are doing.

As coaches, we seem diffident about our wisdom. We brandish the credentials, training and experience with which we hope our future clients will identify. We talk about how we work but rarely what we know.

Now that is understandable, it’s a core tenet of coaching that we need to be curious and non-judgemental. I hold firmly to that.  It means staying value – neutral, seeking to understand the client’s world view, leaving ours at the door.

But as we coach we learn. We learn technique and powerful questions. And we spot the beliefs, attitudes and assumptions that frequently limit our clients, and the patterns of behaviour that defeat their intentions.

This is hard – won wisdom that informs our insight and our intuition. How do we use it and still hold to our non-judgemental, non-directive credo? We can try to deny or repress it. But I believe that our learning, our intuition, our wisdom will turn up anyway – implicit and unchecked if denied, rather than open and scrutinised if accepted. So we need to know what we know, and hold our wisdom with lightness and clarity. What do I think I know?

First: the last thing anyone knows about themselves is their effect. What you intend or feel is not necessarily what people see or experience of you. This means I often reflect back what I see, what I notice about the client, or as my coach Aboodi puts it “how the client happens to me.”

A second pattern I have noticed is that we all tend to operate from our strengths: we often take them for granted, and don’t see their limitations. It is big learning when we embrace and really enjoy our strengths, and equally significant when we become more aware of their downside. I stepped up as a presenter when a colleague told me how they (positively) experienced my presence and impact. And learning about the limitations of my analytical ability was a pivotal moment in my life:  I realised that being right (if indeed I was ) was often not enough to persuade another to my view. So I look to shine the light on my client’s strengths.

Another rich seam of learning was the realisation that others could operate or see the world differently to me without being mad, bad or stupid. Just different. Powerful collaboration becomes possible when you embrace difference and start to work with it. And that’s why two – chair work is often so powerful in coaching.

A fourth contention is at the heart of my coaching: every person’s behaviour makes perfect sense to them. They are meeting their needs and fulfilling their goals perfectly. So when a client says that they want to change some aspect of their behaviour I am curious. I explore how the behaviour a client wishes to change serves them and what the cost might be to them of letting it go.

Finally, I am struck by how few of us draw on our full range: the ability to be creative and cautious, slow and fast, intuitive and evidence-based, planned and emergent, exuberant and subdued, big and small. Indeed we often don’t know what our range is. The world of work tends to draw on and re-inforce limited ways of being and doing. So we may not realise what our full potential could be. But it will be evident somewhere. So I want to know what my clients choose to do when they are not working because there is often gold dust there.

All of these ‘truths ‘ reflect my learning from my life experience and my experience as a coach. They guide my intuition (and they may well affect who I attract to work with me.) Not providing answers but certainly provoking questions. They are useful short – cuts that need to be used with care: if I treat them as universally important or give them preference, then I prioritise my take on what matters over that of my client. But if I ignore them I close off my experience and could miss an opportunity to serve my clients well.

Knowing what I believe I know means that sometimes I explain the source of a question or a hunch to my clients. They are then able to judge what my question or hunch holds for them. It might provoke insights or awareness that enhances their ability to impact the world. How could I serve them better?

Do you agree with these ‘truths’? What are yours? Or should coaches be ‘wisdom-free’? Let me know: stephen@gibsonstarr.com

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