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.