Coaching with a difference

Once a month I relax completely as Sue pounds my back to draw out some of the tensions and contortions put there by tennis and life in general. As I relax, despite the pain, we talk freely about what we’re doing and what’s going on in the world. At a recent session, I commented that a lot of what I do involves helping people deal with the impact of difference. “’The impact of difference’ – that’s a powerful idea” she said.

We all know that people are different. We don’t all think, feel or behave the same. But so much of the time, as we try to make sense of what others do, we assume that they are the same as us. So if we don’t understand their behaviour, we dismiss them as bad or mad, as malevolent or stupid.

One of the most shocking and profound things I read when I first started coaching was Myles Downey’s contention that people have a unique map of reality, they have good intentions and “are achieving their own objectives – perfectly – at all times”. In other words, in their world, what they do – no matter how bizarre it might appear to us – makes perfect sense to them. And so much of what I do, whether coaching, facilitating or speaking involves working with the implications of that for how clients might deal with the challenges they meet at work.

The top two implications are: I am not the same as them (so my job is to help them find their own way forward); and they are not the same as the others in their life (so their challenge is to understand in what ways those others are different).

In a previous blog I argued that there is only one coaching question: who are you? As a coach, I explore each client’s needs, drivers, frailties, triggers, preferences and beliefs about the world in order to raise their self-awareness and discover how to work with them. As I do this, I show empathy and understanding but I must remember that I am framing a hypothesis, a best approximation, a guess borne of experience and shared humanity.

As a facilitator working with groups on leadership skills, I combine outside-in and inside-out techniques. I help others to learn from best practice, showing them models, skills and techniques that help them raise their game. But I know that they will hit their top game when they express who they are, using the best practice that ‘fits’ them.

At the core of the leadership programmes that I deliver is the belief that to lead others you need to understand yourself and have a grasp of the ways in which others might be different. That’s why I use psychometrics like MBTI, various models of leadership style and preference, and research on drivers and needs at work. It’s all to enable leaders to manage themselves well and lead diverse others.

And within many of the most powerful models, is the belief that others’ behaviour makes sense to them. The challenge is to find that sense. So in workshops on managing conflict, we look beneath the opposing, irreconcilable positions that people take up. We look for the underlying interests and needs that those positions express. And once we understand what leads someone else to take an opposing position, the possibility of a win-win emerges.

All this is within the enclave of leadership and effectiveness at work. But it is too important to hide there. “The impact of difference” is not just a powerful idea. Understanding it is an integral part of operating in the world as it is rather than as we assume or wish it to be. Without it, collaboration and constructive conflict are not possible. We’re sentenced to blame, to stay separate and defend.

So as you instinctively come to judge others, get curious instead. Who are they and what leads them to do what they do?

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