Untangle and grow

A blog by Alison Maxwell

Monday, 8 December 2014

Taking risks in coaching

I was recently sitting with a coaching client who was giving me an update on how he had been doing since our last session - at some considerable length. He seemed to have lost the thread of his original story and he was now on the third sub-branch of his 4th point. Part of me was loosing the will to live, part of me was valiantly trying to follow his thread, but part of me was also curious.... is this what he is like with others?

Taking courage in both hands, this is more or less what I asked him. Do others struggle to follow his argument, had he noticed others disengaging as he speaks? And of course the answer was 'Yes'  and the door opened up to a richer and much more vital conversation between us.

When I work with developing coaches this is often one of the most challenging and risky aspects of coaching - using your own immediate experience of the client as part of the work. Firstly you have to be aware in the moment of how you are reacting to the client, secondly you have to get curious rather than judgmental about it, third, you have to get past your fears of being rude or impolite and lastly, take the risk and find a constructive way of calling it out.

Step 3 - getting past our fears, is often the most difficult. Being a 'talking by helping' profession, coaches like to frame themselves as supporters and helpers. Saying something potentially disruptive can work against our own self image. However my experience is that being 'useful' rather than 'helpful' can in the end be more valuable to the client.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Mastery in coaching (or anything)

I've been asked to speak at a conference this month in London on the topic of growing mastery in coaches, so have been reflecting on my own development as a coach and the work I do supporting coaches development as a coach supervisor.

In short, I find the topic of 'mastery' a slippery concept and difficult to pin down definitively. There is seems to be an assumption that mastery is achieved through accumulation - more experience, more tools,  more models ... just more. However, as big a danger for me, are coaches who fail to inspect their practice regularly enough. Over time we all develop habits of practice and habits of mind and we settle into a way of working which is familiar for us but not necessarily bringing all we can to our clients.

Dr. David Drake (Center for Narrative Coaching) suggest that mastery comes from four 'A's:

  • Awareness - expanding our capacity to be be aware of ourselves, our clients, our relationship and the wider systems and organisations they come from
  • Attention - knowing what to focus on in the coaching session and why. This comes from experience and the ability to spot the emergent patterns
  • Adaptability - too many coaches over rely on one model/theory/tool, adaptability implies a genuine openness to re-examine the basis of our practice and work with feedback
  • Accountability - coaches have a duty of care to their clients and a duty of performance to their organisations. Accountability means developing ethical and practice maturity.
In essence this is about about staying awake as a coach and holding our habits lightly.  Masters are not masters because they practice more, masters practice more consciously.

Join us at the Coaching Focus Knowledge Sharing event, 12th December 2014, at the Herbert Smith Freehills - City Gate House 39 - 45 Finsbury Square, London, 10.00-16.00. The booking link is here

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Breaking the seal

Confidentiality is a central tenet of the coaching relationship - without belief in confidentiality the client is unlikely to open up and talk about what is really going on for them.  If they find we have blabbed to the HR department about what has been said in a coaching session they are unlikely to come back for another session, never mind trust us again! Confidentiality is therefore key to effective working.

Yet confidentiality cannot be an absolute and I don't think we should guarantee it to clients. For example, like most professional coaches I have my own coaching supervisor and sometimes I need to talk about my cases with her - its part of the deal of keeping me working at my best. Clients therefore need to know that I might be talking about them - or at least my response to them - to someone else. Usually this is not a problem as long as I explicitly let them know that this might be a possibility as part of the up front contracting process. Clients often seem less bothered by confidentiality issues than I do!

However there are times and eventualities that cannot be foreseen and pre-empted by the initial contract  e.g questions of legality, safety, health, impact on others etc. In such (unusual) circumstances I would always encourage my client to 'break the seal' themselves and have the outside conversations that need to be had. Fortunately in 20+years of working with clients this has always been enough to move the situation on and I've never had to break confidence myself.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Coaching in the East

I have the pleasure of working with leaders from around the world and am always struck how conceptions of leadership vary depending on cultural background. I've just come back from a week's stint in Singapore working with a cross-section of leaders from across Asia and noticed how much we assume Western European notions of coaching and leadership are shared and understood globally.

Coaching, at least non-directive coaching, is predicated on the idea that boss and subordinate can have adult-adult conversations, in which the ideas of the subordinate are valued and encouraged. However in East, the relationship between leader and subordinate is much more deferential (and respectful) ... did you know that a subordinate in Japan would never initiate a handshake but must wait for the boss ? This means, for example, that open coaching questions can be met with incomprehension and anxiety rather than as an invitation to creative thought.

Does this mean that coaching won't work in the East? While these cultural impediments exist, the organisational culture and expectations are also hugely important in shaping leadership behaviours. It is just not as simple as saying one cultural group is ripe for coaching and another isn't. The group last week while initially mystified were ultimately keen to give coaching a go with their teams.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Outstaying our welcome

In my recent travels around the coaching world, I heard two stories from client organisations that troubled me. Both stories concerned external coaches who were still working with the same clients some years on from the original contract

To my mind as a coach supervisor, this sort of issue is potentially unethical and could give the rest of the coaching industry a bad name. The whole premise of coaching is that we are supposed to be helping our clients to be come more autonomous and capable, rather than creating a potentially dependent relationship between coach and client. Yes, I get that not all coaching issues 'fit' neatly into the typical 6x 2hour formula and that occasional extensions are required, however to be working with the same client years later is very questionable.

Cynically you might say that this is just coaches' driving up their billable hours.  I also think that clients can too grow to fond of their coaches and the time away from the fray that these sessions represent. However in the long run we do neither our clients, ourselves or our industry any good, and we must all take care not to stay beyond our welcome. If in doubt, talk to your coaching supervisor!

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Habits of mind and action

It is a curious phenomena that the act of talking out our problems with someone else (eg. a coach) often seems also to shift the problem - ' a problem shared is a problem halved' as the old saying goes. However it appears that this phenomena is more that just unburdening ourselves of a problem. Recent developments in neuroscience are starting to help us understand a lot more about the structure of 'thinking' and what it takes to change our thinking.

Neuroscientists  are suggesting that a 'thought' is merely a pathway of neural connections that have been forged in the brain. A bit like a ski path in the snow, the more we think in a particular way, the deeper that pathway gets, and consequently the harder it is to shift. We develop habits of mind as well as of action. If you've ever been stuck with a problem you will probably know the feeling of being stuck in a rut you can't get out of.

Talking out a problem with someone else literally can jump start our thinking process, forcing us to think down different pathways and come up with new possibilities. Great coaches are skilled at testing for habitual ways of thinking and catalysing new thought processes. While research suggests it can very difficult to shift old habits (of thought or action), forming new habits  is a whole lot easier. Overall good news I thought!