‘To venture involves risks, but with the potential for great gain.’ (Fook & Askeland)
A critical success factor in coaching and action learning is a willingness for participants to disclose opportunities or challenges they are facing, in order that they may learn through critical reflection and increase their sense of agency. At times, this may involve surfacing subconscious personal and cultural assumptions to enable self- and peer-examination. In doing so, we may draw on fields of learning and practice including Chris Argyris and Donald Schön’s double and triple-loop learning.
The originator of action learning, Reg Revans, urged, ‘Swap your difficulties, not your cleverness’. Yet, although this can sound simple in principle, in some contexts it may run against norms and conventions of behaviour. In some cultures, for instance, to disclose a difficulty – especially in a group – could feel politically risky or even shameful. If a person were to share openly in that context, peers from the same cultural group could also feel anxious for that person and desire to protect them.
This safeguarding instinct may be amplified in health and social sector contexts where participants may be used to working with vulnerable people and groups and-or have lived experience of trauma. If their professional training has evolved from or been influenced by counselling or therapy, they may find posing high-challenge questions uncomfortable or threatening; especially if they associate asking searching questions with, for instance, investigations or judgements re. access to services.
In some cultures, to disclose personal rather than strictly situational challenges can be regarded as inappropriate and unprofessional. Fook & Askeland (2007) suggest that, in such contexts, it can be useful to distinguish between 'personal' and 'private'; where the former relates to the person’s abilities, characteristics and qualities – that is, within learning scope – and the latter to that which may be regarded culturally as appropriate to hide. ‘This helps us to define the limits for what to share.’
In some cultures, rationality and objectivity may be regarded as having higher value than intuition, subjectivity or emotion. Participants may find themselves preoccupied with problem analysis and formulating definitive answers and solutions, rather than enabling a person to sit with ambiguity, uncertainty and tension. A vital role for a coach or facilitator is to build trust, curiosity and critical reflexivity; drawing on any filters, biases and experiences that emerge as tools for transformation.
‘If you can walk away from a landing, it’s a good landing. If you can use the plane the next day, that’s an outstanding landing.’ (Chuck Yeager)
‘I think I just crashed the plane!’ That made me laugh. We had been toying with the metaphor of flying an aircraft to think about different stages of a coaching or action learning process. My nephew, a trainee pilot, had explained to me previously how landing a plane after a flight can be the tricky part. There’s a risk that, having touched down, the plane bounces off the runway and takes off again, resulting in something like a kangaroo-effect along the runway until it finally comes to a halt.
During an action learning facilitation training workshop this week, a participant guided the group successfully ‘down’ into the action stage, only inadvertently to have it take off again as she opened up to further questions for exploration. In the learning review afterwards, one of her fellow participants commented with a smile that it felt, perhaps, more like a turbulent landing than a crash into the runway. That was a relief. Yet, how to land a plane without the bumpy-bounce effect?
Tony Stoltzfus in Coaching Questions (2008) offers a useful guide that focuses on three successive stages to help create a shift, from possibilities to decisions to committed actions: Could do; Want to; Will do. Could-do raises possibilities and options into the frame. Want-to touches on energy and motivation. Will-do moves towards determination and traction. We could picture this sequence as something like: What could you do? Is that a step you want to take? What will you do, by when?
Stoltzfus goes on to highlight potential issues to look out for and to attend to, including ‘insurance’ and ‘equivocation’. The former involves helping a person to identify and address critical factors that could either ensure or undermine their success. The latter can be useful if a person appears to be feeling ambivalent or only superficially committed to a course of action. It’s the person’s own choice as to whether they follow-through. This is, however, about helping them to land themselves well.
Examples of insurance-type questions are: ‘Are there any obstacles to getting this done?’ ‘Who else do you need to check with?’ ‘On a scale of 1-10, how confident are you that you’ll complete this step by the deadline?’ ‘What would it take to raise that to a 7, 8 or 9?’ ‘How could you change the step or the deadline to make this more realistic?’ ‘What could you do to increase your chances of getting this done successfully?’ ‘Do you need an accountability person or mechanism to help you do this?’
Examples of equivocation-type questions are: ‘Are you ready to commit to that next step?’ ‘You said you might take that next step. Is there anything holding you back?’ You said you ought to do this. What would make it something you’ll do because you really want to do it?’ ‘You sound like you're procrastinating. You can choose to do this or not to do it. What will you do?’ ‘Is there anything we need to discuss or change about the step you’re considering that would help you to make a more decisive choice?’
Stoltzfus ends by offering some tips on tentative language to listen out for at the action phase that could indicate a person is equivocating, or hasn’t yet reached a decision point: ‘I could…’ ‘I might…’ ‘I’m thinking of…’ ‘One possibility…’ ‘Maybe I should…’ ‘I ought to…’ ‘I’d like to…’ ‘Someday…’ It’s analogous to hovering above the runway without yet having achieved touch-down. Try: ‘How do you feel, here and now, as you consider each option?’ ‘If you were to land this, what would you need?’
[See also: A good ending; Get a grip; Grit]
‘Revolution starts in the mind. Question everything.’ (Bryant McGill)
If – a tiny word, one of the shortest in the English language – framed as a question, can open up a whole array of possibilities. It can raise insights and ideas into awareness by presenting a hypothesis that stretches the imagination and creates the potential for breakthrough. Used in coaching, consultancy and action learning, it can help shift a conversation beyond the what-is to the what-could-be; from a place of stuck-ness towards radical and liberating solutions.
Posed in invitational, coactive tone: ‘If we were to have a really useful conversation, what would we be talking about?’ ‘If we were to introduce this change, what would it mean for you?’ ‘If we were to move ahead with this, what would you need?’ ‘If you were to do this with confidence, what would you be doing?’ ‘If you were to be successful in this venture, what would that make possible?’ ‘If you had a good-enough answer to this question, what would it be?’
If you were to draw more on the power of ‘if’, what difference could that make?
That was a scary moment. My Dad had developed a dangerous arrhythmia and drastic action was needed to save his life. Paradoxically, the solution lay in stopping his heart. After what felt like a breathtakingly-long pause, the cardiologist restarted his heart to re-establish a healthy rhythm. Thank God it worked and we could all breathe again.
More recently, my laptop got into a mess. It was operating so slowly and experiencing so many glitches that I wondered if I needed to replace it. An IT trainer friend, Rob, had a look and discovered that, for some time, I had been closing the lid to power it down, rather than turning it off-and-on again to reboot it. He restarted it and then it worked.
A teacher friend, Kathrin, commented that people professionals who deal with challenging relationships, complex issues and wicked problems can get into a tangle too. Over time, it can feel harder to see the wood for the trees, a bit like having pressed on day-after-day without sleep. If you're feeling stressed or burned out, you need a restart.
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'Growth occurs when individuals confront problems, struggle to master them, and through that struggle develop new aspects of their skills, capacities and views of life.' (Carl Rogers)
A common consideration we face in coaching and action learning is, when asking a question, whom the question – or indeed the answer to the question – is for. For instance, if a person is describing a scenario in sketchy terms, we may be tempted to ask them to say more about it so that we have a better picture of the situation they have in mind. If they use jargon or acronyms with which we are unfamiliar, we may ask them to explain what they mean in order to fill our information gaps.
If you work in a job such as a manager, professional or consultant, this approach to asking questions may sound and feel very familiar to you. It’s probable that you are employed in such a role because you’re an expert in your field and are able, therefore, to contribute. It may be that others come to you with tricky problems in the hope that you can solve them for them. It’s likely that you will ask questions that help ensure you’re able to offer an appropriate diagnosis, prescription or solution.
Now turn this on its head. In coaching and action learning, I don’t need to know very much at all about a situation another person is talking about. My role is to help them to explore fresh avenues of thought and experience for themselves, in order to find or create their own innovative solutions. When I present this idea in training workshops, however, I often see participants look back at me with scepticism. ‘How are we supposed to pose useful questions if we don’t know anything?’
In one such workshop this week, I invited a group of online participants to engage in a simple experiment with me. I asked them to pay close attention, while I described a real challenge I’m dealing with. Before I began to say anything more about the issue itself, however, I turned off my microphone. Then, after a few minutes of speaking, I turned on my microphone again and asked them what questions they could now pose to help me think through my own issue more broadly or deeply.
It was a lightbulb moment. After a few moments of silence, questions began to emerge. ‘Which aspect of this matters most to you?’ ‘If you were to be successful in moving ahead with this, what would that look like?’ ‘Which part of this is causing you greatest anxiety or concern?’ I then turned off the microphone again and spoke further. A few minutes later, microphone back on again…then another invitation for questions. The group paused again, then posed further questions to me.
‘Where are you at now in relation to your thinking about this?’ ‘How will you know if you have landed on the right decision?’ ‘What support will you need to move this forward?’ It was a powerful moment of realisation. As we reviewed together what had happened, some profound group insights emerged. ‘We didn’t get drawn into the issue with you because we didn’t know what you were talking about.’ ‘Our questions focused on you in relation to the issue, rather than on the issue itself.’
The client is the expert. My role is to help develop, release and apply that expertise to influence change.
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‘Just ask the question.’ (Sonja Antell)
A key skill in coaching and action learning is simply to pose a question. Adding pre-amble before a question, or post-amble (as one action learning participant aptly named it this week) afterwards, is one way of establishing rapport and sometimes credibility by adding background and context to a question. We may hope, too, to communicate empathy and soften the hardness that a short, succinct question alone could convey.
Here’s an example of pre-amble: ‘I can identify well with the situation you are describing today. I’ve been in similar situations too and it reminds me of some of the challenges that I faced then. Given that experience, if I were to ask you a question now, I think I might ask…’ And of post-amble: ‘The reason for my asking this question is that sometimes people in the kind of situation you have described find it useful to consider…’
That’s OK, right? Yet imagine this. The person who is being coached, or the person presenting during action learning, is often engaged in an intense thinking journey, grappling internally with a challenge or struggle and seeking to make sense of it in order to move forward. A simple question can feel like a useful, light-touch nudge, a prompt, a possibility. Pre- or post-amble can distract the person, feel like interference and disrupt the flow.
So how to handle the relational and cultural risks of being too direct? How to avoid coming across as abrupt or rude? This is best addressed at the contracting and ground rules-setting stage. Helpful key questions to reach clarity and agreement from the outset include, ‘What are we here to do?’ and ‘How shall we do this?’ Then, as we step back periodically to review our work together, ‘What are we doing well?’ and ‘Even better if..?’
[See also: Claire Pedrick: Simplifying Coaching (2020)]
‘Collusion arises when the coach is only asking questions in a supportive fashion, being non-judgemental and listening, aligning with the other's worldview and failing to challenge or give feedback from a different perspective.' (John Blakey & Ian Day)
In those days, we called it non-managerial supervision. These days, we’d call it coaching. My job involved meeting monthly with individuals who had been long-term unemployed. They were on placement, now, in a diverse range of community-based projects throughout London. The idea was to help participants discover and create the necessary confidence, competence and credibility to get paid employment. Some were supported with college training. All had the opportunity to gain valuable real-work experience.
Sonja was a young black woman, a single parent on placement as a classroom assistant in a local community school. I loved her bright spirit and admired her remarkable resilience in the face of the many life challenges she faced. Every time we met, I would try to affirm and encourage her. I had been unemployed and I knew some of the psychological and emotional difficulties it could cause. My coaching focused on support, hoping it would help her to continue to persevere and, through that, to flourish in her future.
Six months into Sonja’s one-year placement, we reviewed our sessions together: what was working well and what would most improve them as we moved forward. To my great surprise, Sonja challenged me to be more challenging: ‘Most mornings, I arrive at the school late. When I tell you it’s because I’m a single parent and it takes longer than I expect to get my kids ready before work, you accept my reasons and empathise with me. Yet, if I’m to get a job, I need to learn to stop making excuses and to get a grip on my life.’
I felt speechless, and yet this turned out to be a critical turning point in my coaching practice. Ana Karakusevic expresses this well: ‘If you equate listening with being silent, not disrupting the status quo, not interrupting another person’s monologue, not challenging their view of the world ...you’re not ready to be a coach.’ I read resources, including William Glasser’s provocative Reality Therapy, and shifted the balance and orientation of my coaching to offer challenge from a base of support. It transformed everything.
'Diagnosis determines intervention.'
There’s a very big difference between ‘What’s wrong with you?’ and ‘What’s happened to you?’ Jo Watson’s book, Drop the Disorder (2019) is a timely and courageous personal-professional challenge to the creeping influence of the biomedical model into social-psychological therapeutic thinking and practice. In her aptly titled article in the book, ‘There’s an intruder in our house!’, she reflects with a pained air of near-despair on this gradual, alarming and depressing diagnostic drift:
‘It wasn’t always like this. I joined a profession that held a shared belief about the nature of human emotional distress. We understood that the many forms of human suffering we witnessed – ranging from feeling low and suicidal to self-injury, hearing voices, overwhelming anxiety and dissociative experiences – were responses and reactions to what had happened in people’s lives and, in many cases, the resourceful and creative coping strategies they had developed to survive.
We clearly and consistently made links between emotional distress and causal factors like poverty, racism and abuse. There was a deep, collective ‘knowing’ that social circumstances were linked directly to human suffering and this acknowledgement translated into a connection with the political arena. Yet, as I write, this work has been consumed by a biomedical monster that has crept into our house and made itself very much at home. In fact, I don’t feel this is my home anymore.’
Jo is challenging a fundamental risk of the biomedical therapeutic model, that it locates a perceived problem in an individual, irrespective of a broader context. In doing so, Jo echoes disaster management expert Marcus Oxley’s insight (in a different arena) that, if we see a pattern of symptoms in people attending an Accident & Emergency unit, it may well reveal something implicitly about conditions in that context. It’s always about the person, but it’s rarely only about the person.
‘I’m not a teacher, but an awakener.’ (Robert Frost)
I imagine something like a coffee table between us. As the client talks about a challenge, issue or opportunity they are dealing with, I imagine them metaphorically painting a picture on the table, perhaps adding something like colourful photos from magazines, to depict their situation vividly. If, as a coach, I allow myself to follow the client’s gaze, to focus my own attention too on the scenario that is unfolding, I risk losing sight of the client. It may weaken the contact between us; draw us both into the place where the client already feels stuck; diminish the potential for transformation.
How can I know if this is happening, if I have inadvertently become preoccupied with or seduced by the drama the client is presenting? Here are some tell-tale signs: ‘Tell me more about…’; ‘I’d be interested to hear more about…’; ‘Could you share a bit more of the background..?’ It could be that the client’s issue resonates with an area of interest, expertise or experience of the coach; or that the coach has subconsciously slipped into diagnostic-consultant mode, with a view to finding or creating a solution for the client. It’s as if, ‘If you give me enough information, I can resolve this for you.’
A radically different approach is to hold our attention on the client, to be aware of the figurative coffee table in our peripheral vision, but to stay firmly focused on the person (or team) in front of us. This is often where the most powerful coaching insights and outcomes emerge. Here are some sample person- (or team-) orientated questions: ‘Who or what matters most to you in this?’; ‘What outcome are you hoping for?’; ‘As you talk about this now, how are you feeling?’; ‘What assumptions are you making?’; ‘What are you not-noticing?’; ‘What are you avoiding?’; ‘Now that you know this, what will you do?’
A nuanced new year
I spent 5 years learning French, 4 years learning German, 3 years learning Greek, 2 months learning to teach English and 1 year learning Hebrew. I've also learned a smattering of words and phrases in languages as diverse as Japanese, Arabic, Spanish, Filipino and BSL. Whereas traditional language-learning often focuses primarily on vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation, I find myself especially interested in social-psychological dimensions such as confidence, context and culture. Manoeuvring between languages often calls for a nuanced interpretation rather than simple translation, paying attention to, say, intention, meaning and relationship before mechanics like spelling or word order.
I find there are similar dynamics at play in other (and equally-complex) human-relational arenas such as leadership, teamwork, coaching and facilitation. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung commented astutely: ‘Learn your theories as well as you can, but put them aside when you touch the miracle of the living soul.’ Textbook techniques will take us so far, yet real transformation often emerges through the sensitive manifestation of human-spiritual qualities in our relationships and practice including: presence, contact and trust. This calls us continually to explore questions such as, ‘What does this person (or group) need in this situation at this time?’ This is very different to a simple, ‘If X, do Y.’
As we enter the New Year, I’m aware of so many complex challenges that are impacting dramatically on people, communities, organisations, nations and the entire natural-environmental ecosystem. In such circumstances, it can be tempting to grasp hold of simplistic, mechanistic solutions that, we hope, will help us to feel less anxious, less vulnerable and less out-of-control. We may risk closing in on ourselves to defend and protect those beliefs, behaviours and interests that provide us with a sense of reassurance, safety and security. In 2023, I hope and pray, with open mind and heart, that I will stay close to the call-principles that guide my practice: prayer, presence, participation.
How about you? Happy New Year! Light shines in darkness. We can be hope.
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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