January 1, 2017
Dear Coach,

Welcome to my Blog. Here you'll find essays I've written about coaching. Some of the questions I'm exploring are (1) What makes coaching work? (2) What helps coaches do their work well? (3) How do coaches continue to be masters of their profession? and (4) What the heck are those ICF coaching competencies, anyway?

My passion is helping coaches to be their best, so they can bring the best of coaching to their clients.

There's something here for all coaches, at all levels of experience. I’ll bet you'll learn something new, find a new perspective to consider, or just encounter a new way to say what you already know from experience. It’s all good, and (probably) good for you, too! .
You're welcome to browse - I'm sure you'll find something that resonates with your experience. You can also search on Categories and Tags for specific topics.

If you find something that you enjoy, please share with your colleagues and friends, and copy the link so you can find it again. Leave a comment if you’d like. You just might spur a new essay about something I’ve learned from you!

It's my privilege to offer my thoughts on coaching.. Enjoy your reading!

Sue McLeod, PCC
Essays and information about the skills and competencies of coaching.

Creating Silence


The scene in the photo above literally stopped my in my tracks. I was hustling from Georgetown's building on Mass Ave. to meet a friend for dinner and passed this opening between the buildings. Stunned by the glowing purple sunset, I stopped and (of course!) had to capture it with my camera. There's nothing like a gorgeous sunset to take my breath away and create a pause in my thinking and my purpose.

Powerful questioning in a coaching conversation can do the same. They can be magical. When your questions are working, they seem simple and effortless. It's not just the words we use. It's the pace and timing, and the intention behind the words. It's not just one question, either. It's a group of questions that respond to the client, build on a theme, or shift their perspective in a new direction.

And, sometimes, it's what we don't say or don't do that creates what our client needs - silence.

I was reminded of this the last time I was in DC, staying with friends and teaching coaching.

I was playing “What’s That?” with the precious two-year old son of my friends. I had turned the tables on him. Instead of being on the receiving end of his incessant questions, I was questioning him. He quickly answered when I pointed to his socks, pants, shirt, hair, and nose, but was stumped when I touched his forehead. He paused, looked around, and there was an unusual silence. I resisted the temptation to tell him the answer or move on to his arms and fingers.

After a what seemed like an endless pause, he started to speak… “ffff…”. Another pause, then “fffooorrr…”.

More quiet and glances around the room. Suddenly he looked back at me and said “fore….head!” with a big smile.  I was delighted! And grateful I had allowed the silence for him to think and create a new connection between his forehead and its name.

The next day I was with a group of students, observing their coaching. One coach had the good fortune to ask a question that the client didn’t answer right away. To her credit, the coach endured the silence and waited. In our debrief discussion, the coach admitted that she was mortified, thinking that the client didn’t understand the question. The client countered that the question was a tough one. She needed the time to think.  It was the perfect opportunity to remind the students that clients will tell you, pretty quickly, if they don’t understand your question.

The questions that invoke silence have taken them to a place where there isn’t an easy answer.

When you have the good fortune to create that silence, take a deep breath, stay connected to your client, and wait. What’s happening in the silence is more valuable than anything you can say.

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Swimming Upstream - From Giving Advice To Asking Powerful Questions

 

Swimming Upstream -From Giving Advice to Asking Powerful Questions

Alewives are fish who spawn in fresh water and live their lives in the ocean (like salmon and other anadromous fish).  Each year they make the journey from the ocean, up rivers and streams to their spawning grounds. Fish ladders, like the one in the photo, provide a pathway around man-made obstacles like dams and roads. It is amazing to watch these small fish swim up this ladder and fight against the strong current of the rushing water.

I sometimes feel that learning to be a coach is a similar journey going against much that has made us successful in other work that we do.

I was reminded of one of the struggles in my journey to become a coach, just last week.

I’m on the phone with a client, listening to her and doing my coaching thing. At the same time, I’m aware of what’s going on in my head. You would think that after 15 years of coaching my problem-solving brain would know when to take a break! But no, it’s chattering away today with brilliant solutions and insisting that I share these with my client. It’s confident that one of these will be the magic key to unlock what’s holding her back.

It’s hard some days to suppress my years of math, computer programming and consulting when finding THE answer was the objective. Hmmm… Could the Sudoku puzzles I work on everyday also be reinforcing this preference?

I’m also aware that I’ve defined my value in relationships by what information, ideas or solutions I can offer to others.  Even the cards and gifts I give have to be “just the right thing”. Moving away from problem-solving was the biggest transformation for me when I became a coach. And the chatter in my head tells me it hasn’t disappeared. It is just held at bay when I’m intentional about my role in the conversation.

I’m not alone in this. Many of my students come from problem-solving professions and struggle to understand the coach’s role. I’ve come to believe that learning to coach requires un-learning how we relate to others and redefining the value we bring to the relationship.  In order to truly step into a coaching mindset, we must shift from being the one to find that magic key and become the one creating the opportunity for the client to find that key for themselves.

I’m noticing that just writing this is bringing up some anxious thoughts: “But that’s no fun! It’s too passive, too much in the background!”; “What about all the stuff I know that would be so helpful for my client to know, too?”; “Who am I if I don’t share a few brilliant solutions for my client?” It’s interesting to listen to these thoughts and notice what’s important to my ego!

I’m curious about what you learn about yourself when you listen to your anxiety about giving advice.

I like to think that I’m good at managing my inner problem-solver while coaching. I’ve learned to hear the chatter as input to my coaching, rather than as something to say out loud. To do that I need to stay centered and connected to my client. I need to tap into my curiosity. I need to shift my listening.

It might go something like this.

My client is taking about how she’s not being consistent in the pause practice she agreed to last time.  My problem-solving brain has ideas about how she could set an alarm, pair it with an existing habit, and a few other brilliant ideas for helping her to do this.

I take a deep breath and ask “What have you been noticing?”. I use this curious, open question to buy a little time and space for me to shift my listening.

Breath again. Shift my body to an open and curious stance.

“Maybe some structure would be helpful to her”, I think, as she continues describing her struggles. I’m pulling away from my specific solutions to consider the theme of what my problem-solving brain is saying.

Breath… listen…be curious.

Now I notice something new emerging in what my client is saying.

I tune in even more and stay curious. I keep breathing and wonder what does the client know already? Where is she now in her journey?

I hear judgment about how pausing is a waste of time, it’s a good idea but it feels weird to do. She’s doing it sometimes, but not sure she can do it when it matters. Hmmm, this isn’t about alarms to remind her, it’s about something deeper.

Here’s the place to put aside my brilliant ideas, and start asking questions.

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Are You Asking Enough Questions In Your Coaching?

Coach, Are you asking enough questions?

Not that there’s a quota or anything, but I’m curious about how many questions you’re asking in your coaching. I ask, you see, because I’ve recently listened to some coaching and noticed that there were lots of statements and just a few questions.  If coaching is an inquiry approach, what’s happened to all of your questions?

What am I hearing in place of questions?  

One thing that I hear is restating what the client said, without adding much to it.  This is often introduced with “Client, what I heard you say is …” followed by the same words that the client used. Often, the client responds with “Yes, that’s right.” and then continues their story.

You might think that this is a demonstration of “active listening”, and it’s true that the definition of the ICF Active Listening competency includes restating. But this competency asks you to do more than just restate what you hear, including

  • Sharing what you hear about the client’s goals, concerns, values and beliefs, which are often not expressed directly in their word
  • Sharing the essence or “bottom lining” the client’s communication that breaks them out of their long, descriptive story

The PCC Markers go a step further and ask you to “notice and inquire about” the client’s language, emotions, behaviors, and the clues that hide in their voice such as changes in tone, inflection or pace. 

This might sound like “Client, I heard you start talking more passionately and stridently as you described that situation. What emotion are you noticing are you tell that story?” or “Client, I heard you use the words “she’s driving me crazy”. What does that that mean for you in this situation?”

If restating, word for word, what you hear the client say is taking up time and space that could be used for questioning, you might be missing out on opportunities to create new awareness that comes from inquiring about and exploring what your client is saying, not just listening to them speak.

I invite you to notice how many questions you’re asking, and challenge you to shift the balance to more questions and fewer declarative statements.

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Artful Interrupting

In coaching, we talk and listen. We interrupt sometimes and stay silent at other times. How do we know when we’ve got the balance right, when we’re not letting the client talk too much, not interrupting at the wrong times, and when we aren’t taking up too much airtime ourselves?

The basic elements of any conversation - listening, speaking, interrupting, and staying silent. We use them all in coaching and each one isn’t hard to do. The art is knowing when.  When to listen and then listen some more? When to interrupt and insert something into the conversation? And what should you insert, a question or observation and how short or long should that take? When to allow for complete silence when neither you nor the client is speaking?

I wish there were some simple answers to this. I wish I could say that the coach should speak 25% of the time, or that the coach should always interrupt when the client has been talking for more than a minute. But, of course, coaching conversations are complex and unpredictable. More improv than script.

I think it’s helpful to go back to the basics and reground ourselves in the purpose of the coaching conversation and the role of the coach and client.

Here’s what I’ve come up with.

The purpose of the coaching conversation is for the client to make progress on the agenda they bring to the table, by creating new awareness or learning that allows them to move beyond their current thinking, and then commit to actions that will continue to move them forward after the coaching session is complete. This is done in the context of moving them towards the larger goals they set for themselves when they agreed to a coaching relationship.

The art of coaching is to partner with your client to create what she needs to make the progress she want to make.

The role of the client is to be very self-centered, to be thinking about herself, talking about herself, remembering her past, and imagining the future. 

The role of the coach is to be present and respond to the client while create the pathways to help the client to explore beyond their current thinking. The coach is keeping the discussion on track, and following the structure of “beginning, middle and end” of the coaching conversation. The coach also weaves together the current agenda with the client’s larger goals.

There’s no formula or algorithm that can describe what this sounds like. It’s improv, remember.

But here are some ideas of when the coach should be interrupting:

When the client has gotten off track. She said she wanted to talk about her boss, now she’s talking about a colleague. Interrupt to negotiate which path she wants to be on.  This is a quick trip back to Establishing the Coaching Agreement!

When you’ve heard the story before or she’s completed a cycle of logic that has her right where she started from. This is also a good time to interrupt and engage because your job is to help her find some new ways of thinking, not allow her to retrace the old paths.

When the client takes off talking before you’ve had a chance to set the agenda. Interrupt to create the structure that makes coaching a purposeful conversation - what’s the topic? what do you want from our conversation today? what’s important about that? what do you need to work on to make progress? where shall we begin?

And here are some times when you should refrain from speaking:

When you’ve asked a question and the client doesn’t answer right away. Don’t assume they didn’t understand and jump in to correct yourself. They’ll let you know if they’re confused. Silence usually means they are thinking, that they didn’t know the answer! This is a good thing. Give them as much silent time as they need to come up with an answer.

When you think of a great idea, that comes from your own experience, that you think the client “must know” or you believe will rock their world, and your tempted to share. Keep it to yourself for a little while. Reconnect with where your client is now, because being captured by your great idea has certainly taken you away from the present and your connection to the client. Ask another question or two. If your idea still has legs, share it with the client in no more than 2 sentences. Then ask them what they think about what you shared. Was it helpful? How can they use it to move them forward?

The best way to know how well you’re navigating a coaching conversation is to listen. Yes, that means to record a coaching conversation and listen.  What should you listen for? Great question. I’ll talk about that in my next post.

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Hey Coach, Where are you taking that client?

“Questions are the currency of coaching, “ and asking questions is a fundamental skill of a coach. Our coaching artistry is expressed in the questions we ask, the questions we don’t ask. It is colored by how we ask and when we ask. It is shaped by the intention we bring to our questions and how we hold the responses our questions bring forth.

When I was learning to coach, questions seemed awkward and unnatural. Now, when I’m coaching, the questions come easily and flow out of me, coming from the connection with my client. I ask questions that I don’t know the answer to and sit calmly, waiting to hear the response. Each question causes my client to pause, ponder, and discover something new. I am tuned in to her; questions arise from within me and, somehow, each is the perfect question to ask next. The session flies by, we are in perfect sync, new insights popping up at every turn. By the end of the session, my questions have caused profound transformation and my client is delighted.

WAIT!!!!  Oops - I’ve obviously wandered off into Coach Fantasy Land. Sorry about that!

To be honest, I’ve had my moments of coaching flow that feels like what I described above. Those are the moments we live for, aren’t they? The rest of the time, I can be artful in my questions with a calm and connected presence, in spite of what’s going on inside my head and my own emotions.  It’s like meditation. The problem-solving and leading questions are in my stream of consciousness, but I let them float by without sharing them with my client.

By doing this, I stay in the flow of the conversation, making choices of where to allow the client to continue on her path and when to disrupt and shake things up.

The questions that disrupt the coaching flow are leading questions. When the coach asks a leading question, there’s a change in direction, a change in what the client thinks about. You can feel the energy shift. 

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Because leading questions can have a big impact on the coaching conversation, they are important to understand.

What is a Leading Question?

A leading question is one that moves the client towards a specific answer or response. Here are some variations:

    • The question includes the desired response
      • “Would having an alarm ring every hour be a helpful reminder?”
    • The question suggests the desired response
      • “What would happen if you had an alarm ring every hour to remind you to pause?”
    • The question influences/manipulates the other to give the desired response
      • “I’ve heard that setting an alarm can be really helpful and it works for me. What do you think about trying that?”
    • The question eliminates a set of possible responses
      • “I see two options. Would it be helpful to use an alarm or to pause before you walk into a room ?”

These are simple examples and my assessment is that the coach is asking these questions as a disguise for advice she wants to give. I call these “faux questions” or “advice in the form of a question”.

The leading questions you ask might be a little more nuanced or cleverly worded. I invite you to reflect. Do you know what your leading questions sound like? Are you aware of the trigger that moves you to want to lead the client?

Isn’t Every Question a Leading Question?

When you get right down to it, all questions lead the client’s thinking in a particular direction. All questions are leading, to some extent.  

“What??”, you say. “Does Sue really mean that? What about all those beautiful “what” questions? Or the list of questions provided by Co-Active Coaching that Sue recommends so highly? How can they be considered leading questions?”

OK, maybe that’s a provocative statement. But consider the following:

The wonderful, open question “What do you want?” is asking the client to focus on the future, on themselves, on their desire - rather than on the past or present, on other people or the situation, or on what they don’t want or the story they are making up about the situation. 

“What are you noticing?” suggests they focus on their noticing, rather than somewhere else. 

Think about all of your favorite coaching questions. Might they be considered “leading” in some way?

The level of disruption our questions cause is related to the timing and our intention in asking the question. When you ask a disruptive or leading (but not a “faux”) question, consider the following: For what purpose are you leading the client in that direction? Is it aligned with the objective they set for the coaching session? Is it aligned with the larger coaching intention of creating awareness that supports the client’s development?  Are you leading them where they need to go? Are you taking the next step on the path, even if steering them to the right?  If you are in the flow, the question won’t feel “leading”.

If, on the other hand, the question abruptly change the direction of the conversation or is not in the flow, it will feel disruptive and leading. For example, if the client is revealing that what’s stopping them is a fear of betrayal and appearing weak, and your next question is “What do you think your boss wants from the meeting?”, your question is disrupting the flow.

Sometimes, this disruption is just what’s needed in the conversation. Sometimes, it’s not.

What are you choosing for the client when you ask a leading question that disrupts the flow of the conversation?

 

Interested in examining your coaching questions in a supportive community of learners?  Join my Coaching Master Class starting in May!  http://suemcleodcoaching.com/master-class.html

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