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

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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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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Coach, Are you an Innocent Bystander? or a Passive Enabler?

You know that feeling when you're coaching. Your client is doing what they always do. Maybe they talk a lot and never really get to the point. Maybe they "I don't know" a lot and deflect all invitations to explore new paths. And, since you've been here before, you let them do what they do, feeling powerless and "skill-less" to change the course of the conversation. 


You're an innocent bystander to your client.

Innocent because it's not your fault (it's the client's fault). Bystander because you're on the sidelines watching and listening, and being a little bit of a victim, too.

This term came to me in a Master Class session I was leading on Establishing the Coaching Agreement. We were discussing challenges with clients who are difficult to pin down, who can't seem to focus on what they want from the coaching, who only want to talk about what's already happened, and who never come to the coaching session with a topic in mind.

Listening to these stories led me to reflect on my own coaching. Of course, I have clients like this, too.  With reflection, I had an epiphany - I've been taking the role of "innocent bystander" with clients who don't come to the session with a clear topic, ready for coaching.

I'm now reframing.

When I pull back from the coaching conversation and blame the client, I'm not really "innocent". In fact, you could say I'm guilty. Guilty of not being a full partner, of not owning my responsibility to lead the coaching session to be a purposeful conversation.

I'm also not a bystander! My presence and actions with my client have an impact, always! By letting them ramble on, I'm enabling them to continue their default patterns of thinking, reinforcing their stories and assessments of how life is for them, and accepting the lack of focus and forward movement this is probably not working for them in other parts of their life.

From "innocent bystander" to "guilty enabler" - there's a powerful reframe! It's a wake-up call for me and I'm mindful now as I work with clients, students and colleagues to return to the core of coaching - my role is to be a partner, to support the client to "do/be what they don't want to do/be, in order to have the life they want." which mean I sometimes have to do what I don't want to do, or say what I don't want to say.

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The Big Question: Am I coaching or doing something else?

We all bring more than just coaching skills to our coaching conversations
Sally and Joan (not their real names) joined the PCC master class for a deeper dive into their coaching skills and competencies. After the usual logistics and introductions we jumped right into a conversation about the ICF Code of Ethics. It didn’t take too long for their big question to surface.  “I’m worried that someone will find out that my‘real’ coaching isn’t really coaching. I do coaching and I add in other things, based on my expertise and knowledge about the areas the client want to work on.  Am I really coaching or is this something else?”
We created the terms “pure coaching” and “hybrid coaching” to hold the distinction.  I was struck by the level of worry these coaches had that what they called “hybrid coaching” wasn’t acceptable.  I was concerned that their worry affected their coaching. Could they be as confident and bold in serving their clients if this was in the backs of their minds?
I was sure that alleviating that worry would help these coaches be the best they could be. Since I’m committed to coaching excellence, I also wanted to understand this question better. Were they really coaching, or did something need to change for their coaching to be aligned with the coaching competencies?
With our distinction between “pure” and “hybrid” coaching in hand, we focused in to understand this big questions, and to find ways to address their concerns.
What were they doing in their coaching sessions that was concerning to them?
They were using their expertise to frame their questions, provide new perspectives, and explicitly share information that was new to the client.
How were they doing this?
Sometimes they asked permission - “Can I share something that might be useful?” and sometimes they assumed permission because the client had hired them for that expertise. They offered what they knew, without insisting that the client believe it or use it.
Why were they doing this?
Because it fit, in the moment, with what the client was working on. Because they believed that it would serve the client at that time.
What would you say? Is this coaching, or something else?
As we worked through the competencies, we came to the following conclusions:
When offering your expertise to the client, it’s important to maintain your focus on serving the client and the client’s agenda. This expectation is woven into all of the PCC level coaching competencies. 
This means that what you share should be pertinent to the topic at hand. It also means that it’s presented in a way that serves the client’s continued growth, development, and ability to become self-sustaining.  My students talked about offering another perspective, not the “answer”. Even when teaching the client something new, they hold it as “just another perspective”. Allowing the client to choose what to do with the information reinforced their trust in the client - the she is able to integrate new information and make choices that serve her best.
There’s  also an Ethical question that arises. Is it “ethical” - that is, aligned with the ICF Code of Ethics and Professional Practices - to coach using our expertise and knowledge in this way?
As we read the Code of Ethics, we saw no prohibition on bringing what we know to the coaching. In fact, we noted that we train in different domains of coaching (leadership coaching, relationship coaching, etc.) and engage our client in these specialized coaching services. Of course, our clients would expect us to have perspectives on leadership if they’ve hired us to be leadership coaches!
What we saw is that ICF asks us to stay true to the following tenets:
  • Honor our agreements with our clients
  • Do not misrepresent our services or qualifications
What is your agreement with the client? What services are they expecting you to provide? 
The agreement should clearly state that you are providing specialized coaching and clarify what that means. Clients should expect that you will bring in your expertise and know how you will use that expertise in the coaching engagement.
Are you qualified to provide that expertise or perspective?
Think about your qualifications for sharing your knowledge with your client, including formal training, education, research, and real-life experience. If your client wanted only that expertise, would you be a qualified candidate to provide them? If you can say “yes” to that (and others would agree), offering that experience to your clients would be appropriate.  
In the End…
After looking at this big question through the lens of the coaching competencies, the students completed the class with less worry. They could see how they were coaching and using their expertise to serve their clients. That was a success in itself!  
They also committed to reviewing their agreements with their clients to make sure they were representing themselves and their coaching appropriately.  And, they made a longer-term commitment to pay attention to their motivations for sharing their expertise during coaching sessions, so that they were staying aligned with serving their clients in the moment.
As the instructor, I was impressed by the honesty and vulnerability that these coaches brought to their work in the class. Without that, we wouldn’t have learned as much as we did, and the impact on their coaching wouldn’t have been as great.
What’s your Big Question about your own coaching?
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