‘That was hard work. Exhausting. How to keep thinking of good questions…and then even more good questions??’ I hear this time and again from coaches and from leaders who are keen to develop a coaching style. The pressure is on to create a magical experience, find a ground-breaking solution, that leaves the other person feeling totally dazzled and impressed. Or at least that they found it useful enough to warrant paying you a fee - if you’re coach or trainer in private practice(!)
But what is really going on here? Whose conversation is it? Who is responsible for any outcome that is achieved? Is it really all down to the leader, coach or trainer to make something happen? What part does the client play in enhancing their own performance and development? In my experience, these are really important questions to think though, discuss and contract around with the client. It clarifies and manages mutual expectations and forms a healthy, effective relationship.
A key principle is to build the client’s capacity to make best use of the resources, the opportunities, that are available to them through me and, by extension, in other situations. This often entails supporting and challenging them to develop their personal leadership: that is, their ownership, proactivity, resourcefulness and influence over their own learning and growth. This could involve, say, working to develop a curious, assertive stance in place of a more defended, passive one.
So, in practice, irrespective of the person’s presenting issue, we will spend time negotiating and contracting explicitly around, e.g. ‘What are we here to do?’, ‘What do you want to be different?’, ‘How shall we do this?’ and ‘What are you willing to take responsibility for?’ This reinforces what we do as a coactive process in which the client, rather than coach, takes a lead role. And, critically, it ensures that we focus our attention and approach on what the client will find most useful.
What am I evoking? What’s my contribution to what I’m experiencing? These can be great questions for coaches, facilitators and leaders. How often have you sat in a meeting, for instance, and thought, ‘I am so bored.’ It’s one of those moments where you can feel so much energy being drained out of you, so much oxygen being sucked out of your lungs, that it almost hurts physically. You’re desperate to get out but can’t think of a polite and convincing enough excuse to exit the room.
Or maybe you’re in conversation with a colleague, with a coach or in a training workshop and thinking, ‘This is such a waste of time. I’m not getting what I need from this.’ Such experiences can create a sense of life, of work, of relationships, of outcomes happening to us. It’s as if we are passive recipients at the mercy of others’ actions and behaviour. It can leave us feeling helpless, powerless and hopeless. And I’m wondering…is there another way of framing and stance-taking in this?
So here goes: ‘What’s your contribution to what you’re experiencing?’ ‘What do you need to receive and give your best?’ I often pose these questions when working with leadership teams. At first, I see puzzled faces but, when the penny drops, the difference can be transformational. It’s about disrupting normal personal and cultural patterns of belief and behaviour. It’s about challenging and supporting proactivity, ownership and influence. It’s about choosing. It’s about waking up.
There’s a skill in learning to engage, negotiate, contract and lean into the experience like this - and it takes practice: ‘I would find this more purposeful and worthwhile if….’ ‘I would like to focus our attention on X…’ ‘How about we do it this way instead…then I could bring something useful to it?’ ‘If we could break for 10 minutes, I could come at this with so much more energy.’ Take the initiative: Seize it. Shape it. Make it happen. What’s your contribution to what you’re experiencing?
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.