There’s only one coaching question

When I heard Sir John Whitmore  make this assertion a few years ago I was taken aback. It’s a nice, pithy line but surely coaching is more complex, more subtle than that. And I have so many great questions – what am I supposed to do with them? Understandable reactions but recent experience suggests that Sir John has a point.

A few months ago I worked with colleagues from iOpener at London Business School. Our brief was to help 400 MBAers improve their business writing. Session 1 was the technical stuff. Imporant but not exactly existential. Session 2 was applying the learning to a cover letter for a work placement. Here it got interesting. The drafts were mostly technically ok; and some were good. All were worthy. But very few excited me or gave me a feel for the writer. What was their USP? What did they bring that was exciting or different, beyond their undisputed competence.

As we talked, I probed and dug, listened for the peaks of energy and interest, shared my reactions to the anodyne – and what hidden gems we found! Not all the gems were unique but plenty were rare. And if some had no precious stones, their combinations of baser metals still glistened when we shone the light on them.

It seems that the foremost issue was not ‘writing well’ but for each person to become aware of what they had to say about themselves – to find their best story; to have the courage to tell that story; and then to express it in a way that was clear, energetic, compelling and fresh.

This experience echoed last week when I coached some senior Whitehall civil servants through their 360 degree feedback reports. Most reports were 40 pages long. We’d not met before and we had 1 hour to reach some conclusions and capture them in a development plan. A challenge. Where do you start?

Sir John came to the rescue. I needed to get my coachees to show themselves to me so that together we could find their learning edge – that heady mix of self-awareness, operational need and appetite that fuels personal change at work. And mostly we succeeded as I gave my full attention to the person opposite, using the report as fuel for our conversation.

So maybe Sir John was right, there is only one coaching question:  who are you?

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