Seth Bate, Joyce McEwen Crane and Teresa Schwab
By mastering the four basic skills employed extensively by professional leadership coaches, anyone can help their colleagues find their own answers to pressing quandaries. But first, one must be willing to suspend the instinct to provide advice and instead focus on exploration.
In an effort to be helpful, people often give colleagues and friends advice and easily offer their own amassed knowledge. This might help when the challenges people face are known and predictable. In other situations – the daunting, complicated situations that require effective people skills and trying out new things – we can better serve people we care about by helping them dig deeper to explore and access their own creativity and resourcefulness.
As professional leadership coaches, we’ve learned a set of skills that we believe anyone can pick up and use to help others navigate the dark spaces of civic and workplace challenges – those times when it’s hard to see what’s going on and the path forward is complex or unclear. Professional coaches spend countless hours practicing and honing these skills, but anyone can try them on to improve their own effectiveness and to assist others in improving theirs.
Deep listening, exploring purpose, losing attachment to the outcome and direct communication help form the backbone of professional coaching and are designed to help people receiving coaching better understand what is important to them and open them up to the many possibilities available to them. Once the options have been completely explored, a coach encourages deliberate action: What will you try next? When will you do it? How will you learn from it? How will you stay accountable to make sure it happens?
While these skills are open to anyone, they aren’t intuitive for everyone. It is always much easier and seemingly more efficient to provide what you think are the answers to another’s problem. Effectively utilizing leadership coaching skills requires suspending one’s own experience and judgment in service to helping others make progress on what matters most to them. In the sections below, we’ll outline some of the skills that you can practice.
But first, a story – based on a typical real-life situation – will give us a better understand what it looks like to use coaching skills with a colleague rather than to give advice.
Josh had assigned the ringtone to only one contact. He knew Carolyn, a colleague from his graduate school days, was texting him – again.
Carolyn was trying to make an important decision. She had been in her job less than a year. She had helped make a difference very quickly, re-establishing relationships that had languished under her predecessor and promoting a higher standard of excellence. The culture change around her was noticeable but slow. Carolyn knew that progress was underway but would take time. She expected to be in her position for five to seven years.
Already, though, another division of her company had reached out. The other division, sometimes an internal rival with her own, invited Carolyn to apply for a position it was creating. Carolyn felt energized by the possibilities that the new position would hold for her – she could create something new instead of slowly remolding an existing system. But interviewing for the new post could damage all the work she had put in so far; there was no way to apply secretly.
“I know I’m repeating myself,” Carolyn told Josh over the phone. “I feel like I’m walking through the forest in the dark. I keep going in circles and bumping into things. I don’t know which way to go.”
Josh had listened and offered advice many times. Yet Carolyn continued to come back to him. Although he had definite opinions about what she should do, he set those aside and chose to take a different approach this time. He asked, “Imagine you have a pair of night vision goggles and can clearly see the path in front of you. If you look miles down the road, what do you see at the end? What do you notice along the way?”
There was an awkward pause. Then, hesitantly, Carolyn began describing the forest path. “At the end of the path I see an exciting new place that I’ve never been before. I notice that the path is rugged, uneven, steep and maybe even a little dangerous. Although what’s at the end seems so exciting that I don’t mind because I want to get to the end and explore this new place. It feels worth the risk that I need to take to get through the steep and dangerous climbs.” When Carolyn had finished describing the path, Josh asked, “What was that experience like for you?” Carolyn responded, “On one hand, I realized I wanted stability in the path, but when I saw the place at the end, I realized I also wanted the possibility and excitement of what the new place could offer me. Josh, I don’t want to waste all the hard work I’ve put in so far, and I don’t want to disappoint anyone. But if I don’t take this opportunity, I know myself well enough to know that I will regret it. And with that regret, I’ll start to get bored. I guess the biggest obstacle here is that I want stability, but at the same time I want new, challenging opportunities to live without regret. I guess it comes down to me figuring out which is most important to me.” Within a few minutes, Carolyn used this different perspective on her situation and made her choice about how she would navigate the forest.
When they were finished talking, Carolyn thanked Josh. “I could tell you were really listening,” she said. “You trusted that I could find my own way.”
If you’ve experienced a session with a professional leadership coach, Josh’s unusual question probably won’t surprise you. It’s the kind of query that a skilled coach might use to shift a difficult conversation out of an unproductive, repetitive pattern and into a fresh, more open space where barriers can be more easily seen and surmounted.
Josh had realized that he didn’t necessarily care what decision Carolyn made – what he did care about was that she made the decision that was best for her. Josh knew that she was so mired in her worries and what-ifs that she was having trouble untangling herself from the issue. Josh suspected she had all of the answers within herself, but what she needed was a partner to help her reveal them. Someone who could step away from their previous interplay and approach her quandary differently. But helping others make the switch isn’t something that happens by accident.
The Skills: Listen – and Listen Some More
Lots of leadership books emphasize the importance of listening. Still, it is very common to hear people admit, “I’m not a good listener.” Most people have learned technical solutions for improving their listening skills, such as being able to mirror what has been said by using the speaker’s exact words or a paraphrase. These techniques can often help people feel heard in a way they’ve never been before.
Still, this kind of listening is awkward and hard to do. Probably the most common barrier to intense listening is something we all know about and regularly experience. We tend to think much more about what we will say next than about what is being said to us. The reasons we get caught in this trap are because we are trying to connect, we are trying to be helpful or, in less-than-noble situations, we are trying to demonstrate how smart we are. (Ouch!) By thinking of an answer that sounds “right” or looking for a transition to share our own knowledge, we miss the chance to listen deeply to what is being said.
This deeper kind of listening goes far beyond understanding the words that are being said. It requires a much more adaptive approach – curiosity, keen interest and listening without evaluation. Instead of working to fit what is being shared into our own worldview, this kind of listening is about attempting to understand the models of thinking and beliefs and internal experience or feelings of the speaker. In this sense, when we listen, we connect with others by starting from where they are (not where we are). This is the kind of listening Josh offered Carolyn, and it’s the kind of approach needed with colleagues, friends and family members who are facing difficult challenges with no easy answers.
Honing in on Purpose – and Setting Your Own Agenda Aside
If you’re in a session with a professional leadership coach, you are bound to get asked a question about your purpose – that deep-seated desire that compels you to move forward. It is common for professional coaches to ask several such questions in a single session: What would you like to accomplish in this conversation? How does this connect to your larger purpose? What would be the purpose of the next action you are considering?
Playing a coach’s role is to help others focus and be “on purpose” in a way that ensures that they get what they truly want – not what the coach imagines they want or what the coach wants for them.
As you’re attempting to play a coaching (rather than an advice-giving) role with a colleague or friend, you’d be wise to make a significant use of questions about purpose, too. They are fundamental to making gains on a leadership challenge and helping us stay focused on what is important. It’s all too easy for us as human beings to leave our purpose unstated or gloss over it as we move forward on executing an action plan.
Playing a coach’s role is to help others focus and be “on purpose” in a way that ensures that they get what they truly want – not what the coach imagines they want or what the coach wants for them. You genuinely want someone else to move forward, so you encourage the person to consider different perspectives from within themselves without pushing them toward a particular conclusion. Coaching also involves helping others explore multiple options, weigh the risks and decide what to do next, all the while leaving the responsibility of taking action with the other person. But doing this well means setting aside any particular agenda or outcome you have in mind in favor of partnering to help someone else choose a direction they can live with and are committed to exploring. Coaching is not about the coach’s purpose or desires – it’s about the purpose of who you are coaching and what they want.
If you pull up a 1980s sitcom on Netflix – one that was filmed in front of a studio audience – you will know when someone makes a remark that cuts to the quick. Rather than guffaws, the audience will react with a chorus of “oooo!” You may have heard the equivalent in a meeting. Afterward, you might have heard “I can’t believe you said that!” or “Well, everyone was thinking it.”
Playing a coach’s role means developing the ability to name interpretations about what is going on without dressing them up. This skill of being direct comes from a belief that people are capable and resourceful, and are ready to hear the truth, or at least a blunt, unvarnished interpretation of the facts. Once a situation has been named, or a previously ignored elephant in the room is acknowledged, there is often new “heat” for the people you want to help. This heat provides energy for deciding how to respond to what is really going on. It often elevates the courage for people to address the issues.
Anyone can use the skill of being direct. Saying what needs to be said, with compassion, but without a long preamble. Not softening the words. Trusting others to be resilient enough and interested enough in making progress to take it. They may not like what they hear, but with a new perspective, they have the chance to shift gears. And, if you say it and it lands wrong, it’s OK to admit your error and apologize. Believe it or not, this kind of truthful and authentic communication actually strengthens relationships.
Admittedly, this approach to direct communication carries risks. There are other, gentler ways to raise heat that are also available to anyone. One is using the language of the people you are trying to mobilize. How do they describe their aspirations? What names do they give their challenges? By incorporating their own words, you can say plainly what needs to be said and help them say it, too.
Another way to engage in direct communication is by using a metaphor – preferably one already named by the person or group. If you hear a metaphor, even a cliché like “We just can’t get on the same page,” you can ask questions that build on it: “What are the different pages people are reading?” “How far apart are the pages?” “Who chose the book?” “What makes you certain it is the right book?” “Who won’t turn the page?” “Who is skipping to the end?” By employing a metaphor, you make it possible for people to say what needs to be said with less risk, because they are exploring an image. You also make it possible for people to compare their images and learn from their similarities and differences.
It Takes Practice
The four coaching skills outlined in this story – deep listening, exploring purpose, setting aside your own agenda and direct communication – can be useful at any time in any situation. But they are especially helpful in situations where you are well-placed to empower someone else to take charge of their own workplace or civic challenge. Clearly these skills are quite different from strictly exercising authority or helping through offering your opinions and experiences. While there is value to doing that sometimes, it can place unnecessary limitations on learning and progress.
Formal coaching training isn’t necessary to play the coach’s role to help a friend or colleague. (Although we think it’s essential if you ever intend to be a professional leadership coach.) But ongoing, sometimes awkward and frustrating practice definitely is. Believing there is value and committing to trying a different approach is often the first step. Stay alert to opportunities to practice one or more of these skills in all aspects of your life. Similar to starting a new workout program, it will get easier with practice.
Trusting others to be resilient enough and interested enough in making progress to take it. They may not like what they hear, but with a new perspective, they have the chance to shift gears.
Part of your practice should also be opening up yourself to not just using coaching skills yourself, but also encouraging others to play the coach’s role with you. Ask them to deeply listen to you, to challenge you to explore your purpose, to stay focused on the exploration, not the outcome,
and raise the heat on you by being direct. This kind of practice is routine and crucial in the world of professional leadership coaching, and we think you’ll learn a great deal about how to use coaching skills with others through the experience of having them used with you.
We encourage you to make a plan. When will you practice one of the skills discussed here? How will you ensure that you take the time to know whether it was effective or not? Whose support do you need to make sure that you follow through? If you can become adept at applying these skills in your daily work and life, we believe that you’ll be on the path to more profound, impactful interactions with those around you and contributing to the creation of a better climate in your community, business or organization.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2016 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe