Dave arrived clutching a notepad and pen in hand. ‘Can we use this meeting to create a strategy?’ I was his coach and intrigued by this request. ‘I guess we could do that,’ I replied, ‘and I’m wondering what else is in the picture that may explain why you’ve brought it here.’ He looked surprised at first, then a little sheepish. I continued, ‘It might normally be something you would work on with your line-manager. After all, it’s his role to mentor you in this area.’
Dave put his paper down, sighed and explained how he and his line-manager had had an argument that week. Things felt very frosty between them now and Dave felt abandoned with the strategy piece. So I proposed options for the way forward. ‘We could use this meeting to look at the strategy, or we would use our time to explore how you might move forward in your relationship with your line-manager. What would be the best use of this time for you?’
Dave chose to switch the agenda to the relational piece. If he could resolve that, he could work on the strategy with his line-manager and that would be more effective in the long run anyway. It was a good lesson for me in pausing and stepping back one pace before diving in. ‘Why this, why now?’ or ‘What else is going on here?’ can be useful questions to ask oneself or the client before racing ahead into action points.
Sarah looked stressed as she handed me the report. ‘Could you cast an eye over this for me before I forward it to the management team?’ I noticed the tension in her voice. ‘What kind of feedback would you find helpful at this stage?’ I asked. I had learned through experience that, sometimes, when a person asks for feedback they are really seeking affirmation. ‘Any comments on how it could be improved’, she replied.
I glanced at the report and it looked confused, unclear. I felt surprised because, when this person had spoken on the subject earlier, they had sounded very clear. I started to make amendments to the text in an attempt to streamline it but it quickly looked like a teacher’s red pen all over the page. So I stepped back and thought, ‘what would make the biggest improvement?’ and jotted down a few notes along those lines instead.
Nevertheless, I still felt uneasy. What was really going on here? I mentioned my unease to Sarah and commented on how the written piece came across very differently to her spoken presentation. ‘I don’t like putting things in writing’, she replied, ‘I struggle to say what I really want to say.’ ‘How critical is it that you should submit a written report?’ I asked. She looked surprised, hadn’t thought of that. ‘What format would enable you to present at your best?’
Sarah went away and discussed this idea with her own line-manager. She had assumed a written report was needed whereas he now assured her it wasn’t. As a result, she decided instead to leave the report and to present orally to the management team. I could see a huge weight lifted off her shoulders. Once again, it was valuable to step back from the immediate presenting task to consider what might lie behind it.
And so it strikes me there’s wisdom in being curious, in exploring the story behind the story. Not jumping to conclusions too quickly, not looking before leaping. I need to be careful of my own need to feel needed, my own need to resolve the dilemma that could drive me to focus on addressing the immediate presenting issue. I need to learn to pause, breathe, pray, take one step back and enable the client to do the same.
Nick is a coach, trainer and OD consultant.