Untangle and grow

A blog by Alison Maxwell

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Leaving it in the past - issues in coaching

I'm very clear as a coach that I am not a counsellor or therapist. I don't have permission, training or  expertise to go delving about in someone's past. However I'm equally aware that sometimes the roots of present day issues brought into coaching conversations lie in the past.

Take Peter as an example (obviously all specifics are changed!). He is way too nice for his own good - he ends up taking on too much work for others and usually puts his own needs last. He's come to coaching to work on his assertion skills. He's also very aware that this stems from his difficult childhood where pleasing his parents was his default strategy. Knowing this however doesn't help him show up differently at work. He sighs and says something along the lines of 'That is who I am...'.


This is a conundrum for a coach. To what extent is a difficult past a rationalisation for not talking responsibility in the present? Do you take the conversation into discussion of the past in an attempt to undo past wrongs? Or is the work more about acceptance and looking to the future?  To my mind the only legitimate choice is to help the coachee recognise the impact of past experience on the present and help them work out if they want different choices for the future. Do they want keep re-reading the last chapter or start writing the next?

Monday, 17 March 2014

The either/or trap

I'm sitting today with a new coaching client - a likeable man in a demanding job, but stuck in the 'either/or trap'.  On one hand he wants to move on in his career but isn't sure he's got what it takes, but on the other hand he feels a sense of duty to his team, but loathes the culture of his organisation. He's in the 'either/or trap' - stuck between two equally unpalatable choices, expending massive mental energy but not getting anywhere or making any decisions.


The 'either/or trap' is a classic dilemma that often presents itself in coaching conversations. Curiously enough the client will often show you this dilemma with their body language as well as their verbal descriptions - literally holding the two halves of their problem in their hands. This is a tip-off that the client has made the assumption that they only two choices, and the trick (if indeed it is a trick) is to help them step outside of this self-created mental limitation. This could be looking for a third way forward, or perhaps a compromise between their choices or... or...


Monday, 10 March 2014

Listening for the assumption - skills of coaching

One of the least useful pieces of advice I was given in my early career as a manager was 'Don't assume". Surely if I'd know I was assuming I wouldn't have done it! Assumptions are almost by definition outside of our awareness - they are simply the water we swim in. We develop habits of mind as well as habits of action, as a way of short cutting life's routines. After all, if we had to re-decide all our decisions everyday, including which side of the bed to get of, we really wouldn't get much done. However many of our assumptions - our habits of mind -  as well as being invisible, are simply outdated, have ceased to serve us and need revision.

On our own it is often very difficult to see what is an assumption and what is fact, so one of the more useful ways a coach can serve us is to help us see our assumptions afresh and give us the chance to do a bit of much needed rewriting.

We've all probably been taught about active or deep listening - and many of us have got very good at this. However an under-developed skill in coaching I believe is 'listening for the assumption'. I have been surprised how many times in my coaching practice the real shift often comes when we can surface and explore the nature of the assumptions that are being made by the client.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Taking our own medicine?

If you move in coaching circles it can't have escaped your attention that coaching supervision is considered the 'done thing'. All the professional bodies speak of it as an essential element of good practice, and (rightly) refuse accreditation if a coach hasn't adequate support. Possibly more importantly, purchasers are increasingly insisting on it and see it as a hall mark differentiating the professional coach from the amateur.

So how come the up take of coaching supervision is so poor (if admittedly slowly improving)? Maybe it is the cost, but I have a sneaking suspicion that there is more to it than that and wonder if it is about revealing our practice to another who will potentially find us wanting. (The term 'supervision' doesn't help here! ) So much of coaching happens behind 'closed doors' and to let another in can be daunting. Or perhaps it about 'problematisation' - I notice many supervisees report 'nothing to talk about' when what they actually mean is 'I'm not stuck with anything' at the moment and therefore don' t want take up my time. Interestingly whenever they start to talk about their practice it is always a rich and often developmental conversation that ensues.

I value my time with my own coaching supervisor hugely and find our conversations a vital source of support and continued challenge to my practice as a coach. However, more than that, I feel that if I ask my clients to reveal themselves to me it is only fair that I am prepared to do the same. Perhaps if we called it 'coaching the coach' we would be more prepared to take our own medicine?

Friday, 31 January 2014

Slow burn - Fast burn?

Where did we get the idea that every coaching session has to produce a magic ‘ah—ha’ moment? These days I meet way to may coaches in my supervision practice who seem to carry around a huge self-induced pressure to produce fireworks in every session - and if they don’t, seem to feel they have failed the client or not done it ‘right’. As a result they push through their coaching sessions without adequate exploration or creativity, in the desire to get their clients somewhere  ... anywhere.


The therapy world talks about the  idea of slow burn change vs fast burn. Fast burn change is where the client rapidly comes to a conclusion or a decision, but may be short lasting or worse, in the wrong direction.  Slow burn change is where nothing much seems to happen until one day the accumulated work precipitates a radical change without it being obvious where it came from.

To my mind, our coaching clients take many decades to get to be the rich, exciting and frustrating mix they are today and it is extreme arrogance on our part to assume that a few hours with a coach will fundamentally change them. Often our work is slow and patient, waiting for the tipping point to come.  Coaches would do well to remember they can only go at the pace of the client .. and to let themselves off the hook if each and every session is not stellar.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Waiting for confidence to arrive

I seem to work with quite a few folks for whom 'confidence' or more accurately lack of it, seems to be a root cause. Its not unusual therefore to get into a conversation with someone about how they are held back  by their self-esteem and confidence 'issues'.

A common theme I often hear is a contingent one - 'I'll be confident when... x, y, z is true'.  Confidence will only become available to them some time in the future, and guess what, that time is always some way away. This theme is often allied with unrealistic self-expectations, and confidence seems to be associated with the need to be perfect ... 'I'll be confident when I'm perfect'.  And of course that time will never arrive for any of us.

Confidence only comes in the 'now' by accepting that you are never going to be perfect but that you are probably (already) good enough. That means taking responsibility for your state everyday and not postponing or procrastinating. As Susan Jeffers says 'Feel the fear - and do it anyway!'