‘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]
‘What are you willing to take responsibility for?’, ‘What are you willing to commit to?’, ‘What are you willing to do?’ These are important questions in leadership and coaching. After all, people may appear to agree or give passive assent to all kinds of things, especially if they believe that ‘Yes’ is the correct answer in that culture or context. It doesn’t necessarily mean they will do it or, perhaps, that they will do it e.g. in the spirit or timeframe or to the standard hoped for. Half-hearted efforts are sometimes worse than not-do, especially if they result in poor quality or dangerous short cuts.
Our willing-ness touches on deep beliefs, values, intention and motivation. If I am willing to do something, assuming I am able to do it too, it points towards a choice, a decision, an action, a behaviour. It’s the energy behind movement, the driving force that makes something tangible happen. We can often sense the ‘will’ emotionally and physically, a mysterious inner dynamic that propels us forward. It’s like shifting a car into gear, releasing the clutch, feeling that pull. Without the will, the best thoughts and ideas may stay in-principle and never become outworked in practice.
This is the notion behind John Whitmore’s W (Will) in GROW and David Clutterbuck’s 4th I (Intention) in 4xIs in coaching. If we stop simply at, ‘What actions will you take?’, we risk a person drawing up an action list, a list of actions-in-principle. The ideas generated here may stay at head level and not touch the spirit or galvanise the soul. ‘What matters most to you in this?’ and, ‘What would make this worthwhile for you?’ tap into values and emotions. Moving from there to, ‘So - in relation to that, what are you willing to take responsibility for?’ creates traction, momentum and commitment.
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