“Change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not.” Arnold Beisser M.D.
The first few coaching sessions with James, a Director in a large global organisation, were challenging. Although he was clear on the need for coaching and had requested it, his agenda was less obvious. We knew the context, the situation but the specific thing to be worked on wasn’t clear from the start and didn’t really emerge over those early sessions.
I worked hard, REALLY hard, trying to help – to find the right question, the right observation, the right nudge. But they eluded me.
In one session, genuinely stuck, and at a loss what to do, I explained that was how I was feeling and said to him “I don’t really know how to help you”. It was a big and difficult decision for me to say that. After all, as a coach I might be expected to know how to help in any situation. And to James I may seem incompetent and not worthy of the investment of his time. We hadn’t been working together long enough for him to be sure I was worth working with.
He didn’t know how I could help him either he said.
We muddled our way through to the end of the session and I left feeling exhausted and hugely frustrated with myself. Why couldn’t I find the right question? What was stopping me from doing a good job?
I had some supervision and planned how I would approach the next session. I was ready to name the stuckness in our sessions. Was it, I would wonder out loud, indicative in any way of how he was feeling – both stuck in his career and in his life? This might shift things a bit, move us along. It was worth a try.
And then James turned up looking both invigorated and yet more at peace with himself. He knew exactly what he wanted to work on and we worked well together till he had a clear plan of action at the end of the session. It was really quite remarkable.
What had made the difference? It’s not possible to pin it down to just one thing as a number of things had occurred between sessions, but one stood out a little more than the others.
He mentioned it at the very start of the session. He had reflected on our last conversation and wondered if he was wasting MY time. He clearly felt uncomfortable about that possibility. He reflected on what we had tried to explore and the way we had gone round in circles and off on tangents aplenty without ever landing on anything long enough to do the work that was required.
He had also reflected on what had happened since – the conversations that had taken place, the meetings, the presentations, and come to the realisation that he is quite capable of leading the big change agenda he is tasked with. In fact, he believes he’s just the man for the job.
This was a big change from the man who had been at the previous session – lacking confidence and worrying about being found out. (As many leaders are, and do, by the way.)
The thing that seemed to make the biggest difference however was my observation about not knowing how to help. He was “unstuck” by that observation. It had spurred him on somehow to deep reflection and some new actions.
This can happen in a coaching relationship. Although we do what is sometimes referred to as “the work” in the sessions, much of the change occurs between sessions as the client experiments and tries things out for size.
My coaching practice is heavily influenced by Gestalt psychology. A central principle in this approach is the coach’s “use of self” as an instrument of change.
Through this use of self, the coach establishes a presence that supports the client to raise his/her awareness of a situation and their role within it.
By working in the “here and now” and noticing the impact the client is having on me as coach, I can share that insight. There are important decisions to be made though – I have to choose whether and how to share it. Do I think it might help, and can I do it in a way that means it is truly heard?
Often the behaviours which the client needs to change play out in the session and by sharing my experience of them I can help the client become more aware of their behaviour and their impact on others.
The other benefit from sharing my own internal landscape in this session was, in the words of Dorothy E. Siminovitch and Ann M. Van Eron, to “ground the interaction in an intimacy that supports taking important personal risks that the client might otherwise perceive as too threatening.” * In other words it encouraged James to open up more, to become a little braver himself.
This “use of self” is not learned in a prescriptive manner – as we all draw on our unique experiences and knowledge. In my coaching work I draw on all my business and life experience and sometimes use models and techniques that I have learned. But mostly it’s just me. I am the “instrument of change”. My presence, my intuition, my questions, my observations, my interventions are the ingredients that I bring that are different – the ingredients that would otherwise be missing in the client’s world.
One of the most surprising, and lovely things about coaching work is that I never know what will be the difference that makes the difference. I might think I have a killer question that will get the heart of the matter, when in fact a simple silence, held in just the right way, or an observation about just how I’m feeling, has a transformative impact.
This is what makes this special work such a joy, such an adventure, and so rewarding.
Until the next time …
*Source; “The Pragmatics of Magic. The Work of Gestalt Coaching.” By Dorothy E. Siminovitch and Ann M. Van Eron
(The photo I have chosen is not just because it is an instrument too – a barometer I think, but because of the name Schon which is featured. Donald Schon was a philosopher who contributed to theories of organisational learning. He wrote of the need for us to reflect both “in action” – thinking on our feet, and “on action” – after the fact, as James did. A rather lovely coincidence I think.
“James” is not a real person – he is a composite of several clients. The story is true, but it is a combination of several stories to protect client confidentiality.)