A coaching conversation can bring to mind the image of a 1-hour, serious conversation. Two people sitting in chairs, facing each other at 135-degrees, one talking, the other leaning forward, listening. The client speaks slowly, thoughtfully. The coach holds eye contact, empathetic expression, nods occasionally. The atmosphere is, well...reflective. Now imagine the same scenario in bright daylight, vivid colour, creative energy, physical movement.
Example: Sarah stood there, told me she was stressed about a forthcoming meeting. She looked tense, slumped shoulders. I said, ‘Stressed’ back and mirrored her posture. I asked, ‘How would you want to be at the meeting?’ Sarah responded, ‘More confident, full of life.’ I replied, ‘Show me – full of life’. She jumped up and down on the spot, grinning and arms waving. I did too. I asked, ‘Do you know what you need to do now?’ She said, ‘Yes.’
Dave was worried about conflict with a colleague. As he spoke about it, I noticed his arm moving as if writing something in thin air. I mirrored the movement, in silence. He looked surprised. ‘What does that mean?’, I asked. Dave looked thoughtful. ‘I take notes when we meet to avoid looking at him.’ ‘What would you be doing if you had a great relationship?’ Dave looked brighter so I asked, ‘Do you know what you need to do?’ He replied, ‘Yes.’
Don’t get me wrong. There is a time and a place for deep, thoughtful conversation. We can’t solve every situation with a simple, quick solution. Yet how far do we fall unquestioningly into patterns of behaviour and practice simply because they feel comfortable, normal and predictable for us? How far do we always insist on a full-course meal when something light, crispy and spicy could be, for the client, refreshing, satisfying, life-giving – and enough?
‘Sawubona.’ I was at a change leadership event in Canada with colleagues from around the world. It was the first time I had heard this Zulu greeting. ‘Sawubona’. I was curious so asked my South African colleague to explain it. ‘It means: I see you.’ I was immediately struck by his emphasis on see. He explained it further. ‘It means I honour your presence. It’s as if I am calling you into my focus, into existence, against the background of everything else that lays around you. I really see you.’ He said this simple word with such warmth and sincerity that I felt genuinely moved by it.
There are resonances for me in the dynamic of this greeting with Gestalt psychology. Gestalt uses its own language of ‘figure’ and ‘ground’, where figure is that which holds our attention at any given moment in time and ground is the background which, in that same moment, lays largely out of awareness. In other words, figure is what we are noticing and ground is what we are not-noticing. How often when we meet and work with people, our attention is drawn away from the person so that what we notice instead is the issue, the story, the task, whatever it is we are there to do.
In my experience, most transformational work in leadership, coaching, group work etc. occurs when we learn to shift our focus, our attention, to the person, the relationship, to what is happening here-and-now. In this context, Gestalt poses a great question: ‘What is the quality of contact between us?’ where contact signifies presence and attention, as if almost literally touching one-another. Picture a meeting where the leader or coach enables team members to learn do this well. ‘What is holding our attention?’, ‘What are we not noticing?’, ‘What is the quality of contact between us?’
Sawubona, my friend. Notice what you are noticing - and not noticing. Never lose sight of the person.
Look before you leap!
Conventional wisdom advises caution over spontaneous action. Think then do. It enables us to make considered decisions. It minimises risks. To do otherwise sounds foolish, reckless. And there are, of course, many situations in which this advice, this approach, rings true. Who, for instance, would embark on a radical venture without first preparing, looking at the pros and cons, counting the cost? Thinking before acting helps us to feel safer, more responsible. It’s about learning-before, weighing up options and implications then deciding a way forward.
Just do it!
Woah - by contrast, this sounds jarring, jolting. Act then reflect. Hold your breath and take a leap of faith. Do it and see what happens. Scary - but look…eyes blinking in bright light…this is where transformational power can really exert itself in coaching. Instead of, ‘How might it be if…?’, do it. Instead of, ‘I’m stuck in my thinking about this…’, stand up and show what ‘being stuck’ or ‘unstuck’ looks and feels like physically. Play, experiment. Notice what happens: insights and ideas for the next step forward, here and now. One step at a time. Trust the process.
I once trained with Mark Sutherland, a supervisor and psychotherapist, who shared the image of a client as someone floating out at sea on a raft. Whereas some coaches may swim out to rescue the client, to pull the raft back to safer shores so to speak, Mark saw his role by contrast as simply joining the person on the raft: ‘Two people…wondering together.’ For many years now, I’ve found that image incredibly attractive and releasing.
A good friend and colleague, Ian Henderson (Eagle Training), uses a similar principle when drawing on NLP to evoke curiosity in a training group. He may open an event by telling an evocative story at the outset, without introduction or explanation, then stop the story at a critical juncture and shift focus to the formal agenda. It leaves the group surprised, confused and curious…and it’s that state of curiosity that draws the group into deep learning.
A very similar principle attracts me to Gestalt, a coaching approach that involves active, physical experimentation with a client or group. The key to the experiment is to follow your intuition, support the client’s intuition, go with the flow, be playful and creative, let go of control. It means trusting the moment, the dynamic between you, and seeing what happens. I’m continually amazed by what surfaces into awareness and what changes take place.
So picture the coach, the leader, the facilitator or trainer as someone whose role is to evoke curiosity, to enable the client, the team colleague, the group, to wonder. It is a child-like quality that can lead to all kinds of exciting adventures and discoveries. It entails suspending what we know, the pressure to know, and surfacing the power, the gift of not-knowing, allowing the unexpected to emerge – and noticing the newness that is revealed.
Do your conversations ever feel dull, pedestrian? Do you find yourselves reaching agreement quickly but sense there’s a lack of inspiration, depth or stretch to what you’ve decided? There’s an idea in Gestalt coaching that involves experimenting with polarities. When exploring an issue or when people can’t think of useful options, try introducing opposite extremes.
I met with a leadership team this morning to look at talent management. Rather than opening with a proposal, a colleague and I sat at opposite ends of the table and role played a conversation in which each of us argued passionately for radically contrasting approaches. We invited the team to listen, to feel, to see what it evoked for as we played out the different scenarios.
Claire Pedrick uses a technique that involves opening the arms out wide to signify a polarity. ‘Let’s imagine this extreme (looking to one hand) involves doing nothing. Let’s imagine this extreme (looking at the other hand) is the ‘nuclear option’. What would the nuclear option involve doing in practice? Now let’s explore other options that lie in the space between.’
I sometimes use a polarities technique in leadership workshops. For example, if exploring directive vs non-directive approaches, I may walk an imaginary line across the room and explain at each end what that extreme represents. I then invite the group to stand along the line. ‘Where do you find yourself most of the time?’, ‘Where you would like to be?’
When using physicality like this, it can be very powerful to ‘do it’ rather than ‘imagine it’. So, if the group is standing along a line as above, I will invite them to move physically to where they want to be, rather than just talk about it. Then, ‘How are you feeling as you stand there?’, ‘What do you notice about where others are standing?’, ‘Have a conversation – where you are now.’
Another polarity technique is great for exploring the merits and risks of a proposal. Using a flipchart, I will start by inviting the group to brainstorm all the positive benefits. I will then use another flipchart and invite the group to brainstorm all the reasons why it won’t work. I use a final chart to brainstorm, ‘So, in light of that…what would it take to make it work?’
The benefits of polarising in ways such as these can include: stretching the imagination, discovering new/radical ideas, surfacing diverse views and feelings, experimenting with courage, testing different experiences and approaches, releasing fresh insight and energy. If you have worked with polarities, I’d love to hear from you. What did you do? What happened?
I’m in this room, it’s the first time we’ve met and this man is explaining to me how he’s struggling in a key relationship. It’s a relationship between two organisations and this man, Simon, is the leader of one of them. The conversation runs for a while and Simon’s description of the relationship and what he’s experiencing from the other – what he describes as distance and defensiveness – sounds tough.
As he speaks, I become aware that the room we're in feels cold. It’s a sunny day and the aircon is turned up high. I glance around the room at the stark furniture. The tables and chairs are in perfect formation. Functional, straight lines. There’s nothing that suggests or reveals a human touch. No pictures, no plants, no photographs. This is the room where he meets with Sandra, leader of the other organisation.
I comment on this, share this observation, then offer a reflection, an idea: ‘How far are you trying to find a cold, formal solution to an issue that is essentially about human relationship and trust?’ Simon looks stunned for a moment, then pauses, then goes quiet. I’m wondering how he will respond. Could this be a (proverbial) light bulb moment? Is there something about this room that holds the key?
Then Simon speaks. ‘You know, I hadn’t realised it. We’ve built our relationship on formal lines – terms of reference, strategies, proposals – and we’ve never really taken the time to get to know and understand each other as people.’ A penny has dropped. I can see it in his eyes. I respond: ‘Do you know what you need to do?’ Simon nods and jots down a note. The meeting is finished. It lasts 10 minutes.
I wrote a short mini-article, 'Let's get physical', for Training Magazine Europe this week. Drawing on principles from Gestalt, it describes a brief coaching intervention with a new manager that involved physical experimentation, not just conversation. The results were quick and dramatic.
If you're interested in looking further into this approach, have a glance at a previous Gestalt coaching article: 'Just do it.' It describes a longer case study along with the theoretical principles that underpin it. Also have a look at Simon Stafford-Townsend's brilliant blog: 'Experimentation in Gestalt therapy'.
I would be very interested to hear from others who have used this type of experiemental approach in coaching, group facilitation etc. What was the issue, how did you approach it, what happened as a result? I look forward to hearing from you!
How would you describe your coaching style? What questions would you bring to a client situation?
In my experience, it depends on a whole range of factors including the client, the relationship, the situation and what beliefs and expertise I, as coach, may hold. It also depends on what frame of reference or approach I and the client believe could be most beneficial. Some coaches are committed to a specific theory, philosophy or approach. Others are more fluid or eclectic.
Take, for instance, a leader in a Christian organisation struggling with issues in her team. The coach could help the leader explore and address the situation drawing on any number of perspectives or methods. Although not mutually exclusive, each has its own focus and emphasis. The content and boundaries will reflect what the client and coach believe may be significant:
Appreciative/solutions-focused: e.g. ‘What would an ideal team look and feel like for you?’, ‘When has this team been at its best?’, ‘What made the greatest positive difference at the time?’, ‘What opportunity does this situation represent?’, ‘On a scale of 1-10, how well is this team meeting your and other team members’ expectations?’, ‘What would it take to move it up a notch?’
Psychodynamic/cognitive-behavioural: e.g. ‘What picture comes to mind when you imagine the team?’, ‘What might a detached observer notice about the team?’, ‘How does this struggle feel for you?’, ‘When have you felt like that in the past?’, ‘What do you do when you feel that way?’, ‘What could your own behaviour be evoking in the team?’, ‘What could you do differently?’
Gestalt/systemic: e.g. ‘What is holding your attention in this situation?’ ‘What are you not noticing?’, ‘What are you inferring from people’s behaviour in the team?’, ‘What underlying needs are team members trying to fulfil by behaving this way?’, ‘What is this team situation telling you about wider issues in the organization?’, ‘What resources could you draw on to support you?’
Spiritual/existential: e.g. ‘How is this situation affecting your sense of calling as a leader?’, ‘What has God taught you in the past that could help you deal with this situation?’, ‘What resonances do you see between your leadership struggle and that experienced by people in the Bible?’, ‘What ways of dealing with this would feel most congruent with your beliefs and values?’
An important principle I’ve learned is to explore options and to contract with the client. ‘These are some of the ways in which we could approach this issue. What might work best for you?’ This enables the client to retain appropriate choice and control whilst, at the same time, introduces possibilities, opportunities and potential new experiences that could prove transformational.
What are your favourite coaching questions? I often use 3 that I’ve found can create a remarkable shift in awareness, insight and practice, especially in team coaching. I’ve applied them using variations in language and adapted them to different client issues, opportunities and challenges. They draw on principles from psychodynamic, Gestalt and solutions-focused coaching and are particularly helpful when a client or team feels stuck, unable to find a way forward.
* ‘What’s your contribution to what you are experiencing?’
* ‘What do you need, to contribute your best?’
* ‘What would it take..?’
Client: ‘These meetings feel so boring! I always leave feeling drained rather than energised.’ Coach: ‘What’s your contribution to what you are experiencing?’ Client: ‘Excuse me?’ Coach: ‘What do you do when you feel bored?’ Client: ‘I drift away, look out of the window.’ Coach: ‘What might be the impact on the wider group when you drift away?’ Client: ‘I guess others may disengage too.’ Coach: ‘How does the meeting feel when people disengage?’ Client: 'Hmmm…boring!’
Coach: ‘What do you need to contribute your best?’ Client: ‘It would help certainly if we could negotiate and agree the agenda beforehand, rather than focus on things that feel irrelevant.’ Coach: ‘So you want to ensure the agenda feels relevant to you. What else?’ Client: ‘If we could meet off site and break for coffee from time to time, that would feel more energising.’ Coach: ‘So venue and breaks make a difference too. Anything else?’ Client: ‘No, that’s it.’
Client: ‘I don’t think I can influence where and how these meetings are held.’ Coach: ‘It sounds like you feel quite powerless. How would you rate your level of influence on a scale of 1-10?’ Client: ‘Around 3’. Coach: ‘What would it take to move it up to a 6 or 7?’ Client: ‘I guess if I showed more support in the meetings, the leader may be more open to my suggestions.’ Coach: ‘What else would it take?’ Client: ‘I could work on building my relationship with the leader outside of meetings too.’
These type of questions can help a client grow in awareness of the interplay between intrapersonal, interpersonal and group dynamics, his or her impact within a wider system, what he or she needs to perform well and how to influence the system itself. They can also shift a person or team from mental, emotional and physical passivity to active, optimistic engagement. What are your favourite coaching questions? How have you used them and what happened as a result?
I took my mountain bike for repairs last week after pretty much wrecking it off road. In the same week, I was invited to lead a session on ‘use of self’ in coaching. I was struck by the contrast in what makes a cycle mechanic effective and what makes the difference in coaching. The bike technician brings knowledge and skill and mechanical tools. When I act as coach I bring knowledge and skills too - but the principal tool is my self.
Who and how I am can have a profound impact on the client. This is because the relationship between the coach and client is a dynamically complex system. My values, mood, intuition, how I behave in the moment…can all influence the relationship and the other person. It works the other way too. I meet the client as a fellow human being and we affect each other. Noticing and working with with these effects and dynamics can be revealing and developmental.
One way of thinking about a coaching relationship is as a process with four phases: encounter, awareness, hypothesis and intervention. These phases aren’t completely separate in practice and don’t necessarily take place in linear order. However, it can provide a simple and useful conceptual model to work from. I’ll explain each of the four phases below, along with key questions they aim to address, and offer some sample phrases.
At the encounter phase, the coach and client meet and the key question is, ‘What is the quality of contact between us?’
The coach will focus on being mentally and emotionally present to the client…really being there. He or she will pay particular attention to empathy and rapport, listening and hearing the client and, possibly, mirroring the client’s posture, gestures and language. The coach will also engage in contracting, e.g. ‘What would you like us to focus on?’, ‘What would a great outcome look and feel like for you?’, ‘How would you like us to do this?’
(If you saw the BBC Horizon documentary on placebos last week, the notion of how a coach’s behaviour can impact on the client’s development or well-being will feel familiar. In the TV programme, a doctor prescribed the same ‘medication’ to two groups of patients experiencing the same physical condition. The group he behaved towards with warmth and kindness had a higher recovery rate than the group he treated with clinical detachment).
At the awareness phase, the coach pays attention to observing what he or she is experiencing whilst encountering the client. The key question is, ‘What am I noticing?’
The coach will pay special attention to e.g. what he or she sees or hears, what he or she is thinking, what pictures come to mind, what he or she is feeling. The coach may then reflect it back as a simple observation, e.g. ‘I noticed the smile on your face and how animated you looked as you described it.’ ‘As you were speaking, I had an image of carrying a heavy weight…is that how it feels for you?’ ‘I can’t feel anything...do you (or others) know how you are feeling?’
(Some schools, e.g. Gestalt or person-centred, view this type of reflecting or mirroring as one of the most important coaching interventions. It can raise awareness in the client and precipitate action or change without the coach or client needing to engage in analysis or sense-making. There are resonances in solutions-focused coaching too where practitioners comment that a person doesn’t need to understand the cause of a problem to resolve it).
At the hypothesis stage, the coach seeks to understand or make sense of what is happening. The key question is, ‘What could it mean?’
The coach will reflect on his or her own experience, the client’s experience and the dynamic between them. The coach will try to discern and distinguish between his or her own ‘stuff’ and that of the client, or what may be emerging as insight into the client’s wider system (e.g. family, team or organisation). The coach may pose tentative reflections, e.g. ‘I wonder if…’, ‘This pattern could indicate…’, ‘I am feeling confused because the situation itself is confusing.’
(Some schools, e.g. psychodynamic or transactional analysis, view this type of analysis or sense-making as one of the most important coaching interventions. According to these approaches, the coach brings expert value to the relationship by offering an explanation or interpretation of what’s going on in such a way that enables the client to better understand his or he own self or situation and, thereby, ways to deal with it).
At the intervention phase, the coach will decide how to act in order to help the client move forward. Although the other three phases represent interventions in their own right, this phase is about taking deliberate actions that aim to make a significant shift in e.g. the client’s insight, perspective, motivation, decisions or behaviour. The interventions could take a number of forms, e.g. silence, reflecting back, summarising, role playing or experimentation.
Throughout this four-phase process, the coach may use ‘self’ in a number of different ways. In the first phase, the coach tunes empathetically into the client’s hopes and concerns, establishing relationship. In the second, the coach observes the client and notices how interacting with the client impacts on him or herself. The coach may reflect this back to the client as an intervention, or hold it as a basis for his or her own hypothesising and sense-making.
In the third, the client uses learned knowledge and expertise to create understanding. In the fourth, the coach presents silence, questions or comments that precipitate movement. In schools such as Gestalt, the coach may use him or herself physically, e.g. by mirroring the client’s physical posture or movement or acting out scenarios with the client to see what emerges. In all areas of coaching practice, the self is a gift to be used well and developed continually.
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant with over 15,000 followers on LinkedIn. How can I help you? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org