Agile fables · Capability growth

Jason’s coaching journey – the struggling coaches

Some context before we start

This is the second in a series of long articles about Jason, who is an agile coach.

In the last episode, Jason was coaching away happily when suddenly it all came crashing down.

In this episode we look at how he reacts and how his friend Sonja tries to help him through some agile coaching.  Then we look at some tips on how Sonja could have more effectively coached Jason.

coach focus when slapped

The story continues

Jason was fuming as he left Jo’s office.  But he calmed down long enough to ask himself what advice he would give to someone he was coaching, if this happened to them.

You cannot control what happens in the world, but you can control how you react

It sounded like good advice when he gave it to others, but right now it just made him more annoyed. Generic advice from a cocky coach was certainly not what Jason needed right now. He would actually be pretty annoyed if some fool started bombarding him with platitudes right now.

Fortunately Jason ran into Sonja when he got back to his desk.  Sonja was an agile coach who Jason worked with and they often supported each other as peers.

Jason started to explain what had happened.

“hmm,” said Sonja, “I guess you can’t control what happens in the world, but at least you can control how you react.”

Jason stopped talking and stared at her.

Mistaking his silence for listening, Sonja continued talking.

She started to explain the Cynefin framework and how different problems needed different approaches in order to solve them.  This was something Jason had frequently used with his own clients – but in this context, right now, he really did not see the connection.

It almost sounded like Sonja was giving him advice before she had even listened to what he was experiencing.

Jason half listened to Sonja, but he also continued to stew over his issues while she spoke.

For some reason Jason started wondering if the Cynefin framework needed another quadrant called “totally stupid idiot problems – where morons are just pointlessly dumb, stupid and moronic.”

“Sense, punch, find a smarter team, respond” Jason muttered out loud

Sonja stopped talking and looked confused.  Jason smirked but to Sonja, those words words made no sense at all. She realised he might not be ready for her words of wisdom.

Conclusion 1 – Giving advice to someone who is really annoyed is rarely the best coaching technique to apply

Sonja switches to question mode

Sonja was an experienced coach and she had more tools in her kit-bag than just giving advice.

Sonja switched to asking open questions and listening without judgement.  She asked Jason about what Jo had said and Jason really opened up to her.

She kept asking questions, listening and even making some comments.  Jason kept talking passionately and in detail.

They spoke about the new changes in great detail.  They both agreed passionately that the new approach the company was taking was a mistake.

In fact they went through that many of things that were completely wrong and the many sensible things that they should do instead.

 “Thanks, Sonja,” Jason said after an hour or so, “It is great to have another coach available at times like this – I feel like I just had a full on coaching session.”

In fact Jason and Sonja had several more long and passionate discussions on the topic over the next few days.  Each time, Jason felt vindicated and he thanked Sonja for her coaching.

But Jason was wrong.  Sure, they had been having a passionate and energetic conversation.  Sonja had validated Jason’s opinions and had allowed him to vent.  But I don’t think that was really helping Jason tackle his problem.

Conclusion 2 – Coaches are not there to understand all the issues in detail, nor to help the client to dwell on a problem.  Coaches are there to help the client learn how to tackle issues for themselves

What else will not work

I recently wrote an article about a specific approach to coaching – the “what, why, how approach.”  That approach is a great technique for building a capability or skill, but it is not useful for coaching people with issues like this one.

Being a good role model helps.  If Sonja can show that she has dealt with this and is starting to move forward then that might help Jason do the same.

But in the short term it might just leave Jason to get his coaching fix from someone else, someone who is willing to spend an hour re-enforcing and validating Jason’s concerns.

I often use storytelling in my coaching, using the story to highlight a concept for further discussion.  But Jason is unlikely to respond well to hearing someone’s own story when he is trying to make sense of his own. So maybe story telling will be more useful when Jason understands the issue and is looking for alternatives in how to resolve it.

In short, good coaching is not about deciding what your client should do, it is about helping them remove the impediments that are stop them stop them being able to work out what to do themselves.

Good coaching is also about building the resilience, confidence and capability for the client to tackle their own issues in the future.

So how can Sonja help Jason?

Some theory from the secret coaching handbook

The good news is that, according to super advanced psychology, there is a standard process for reacting to a slap in the face.  Logically then, the coach can help Jason by intervening at the right point in the process.

(Actually this is based on some un-validated pop psychology that I have picked up along the way, but if I am right then the following approach will still work).

The “Slap, interpret, react” process

When Jason got slapped in the face, it hurt. Following the slap, Jason can react in a number of ways and the way he reacts will make a difference.  But before he can react, Jason needs to make sense of what happened.  Then, Jason’s reaction will be based on how he interprets the slap in the face. This creates a three step process.

coach slap steps

First comes the slap

Jason did not enjoy being smacked in the face with overwhelming bad news. In fact he (not literally) got knocked off his feet by it.


A good coach might help Jason prepare for a challenging situation or even to avoid it.

We can do this by helping Jason with new skills (see this article), by creating a “safe to fail culture” or by protecting Jason from baddies (see this article).

But sometimes things are beyond the control of either Jason or his coach, so we can’t avoid them.

We learn through adversity, but what we learn is not always helpful

Failure can be a great teacher and many of the lessons I have learned in my life came when I was well out of my comfort zone and really feeling like I was being slapped around by fate.  Resilience and agency both develop through the experience of overcoming adversity.

But failure is also an erratic and sometimes poor teacher.  Looking back, many of my bad habits came from dealing with adversity successfully but developing a sub-optimal coping mechanism.  The approaches that served me to get through the day also held me back in other situations.

This is where Sonja is struggling to help Jason.  By focusing on the conversation on the detail of what sucked, Jason is expending a lot of effort on something he cannot change.

Besides consuming his energy, this can actually teach him the wrong lessons if he interprets events in a way that makes it seem pointless for him to grow.

Sonja’s best strategy here is to help Jason process the issue, but shift his focus to what impact it is having and what he can do about that, rather than dwelling on all the stupid things that his boss Jo was doing.

But doing this, Sonja can help Jason move from victim to player in the game of life.  He can now start to interpret things in a way that provides him with options.

Perhaps Sonja can simply ask questions like “what impact is that having on you?” or “If that happened to a friend, you would feel for them, but what advice might you give them?”.  Or perhaps Sonja has other tools in her kit bag.

Second comes interpretation, the greatest lever for the coach

Once Jason starts to move from reliving the bad experience to trying to make sense of what it means, then coaching can really help him.

coach slap interpretation

The “I am an idiot interpretation”

For example, one way people react to a set back is to blame themselves.

This is partially useful, since they can explore what they could have done differently.  But there is a real downside too.  If Jason should have seen things coming but missed the vital clues, then we might conclude he is not up to the job.

This is an example of a fixed mindset – Jason spending time thinking about whether he did a good job or a bad on, then interpreting this to mean that he is good or bad.  When this happens, people often reflect on all the other times they did bad work.

Jason could then come to the conclusion that he is not up to it all.  Either he should quit or he needs to be fixed.

But these are not usually the best options.  If Jason quits, then the lesson he might learn is that he is a quitter who fails and leaves.  This thought will really inhibit his ability to grow.

But even if Jason concludes that the failure is in his style and ability, then “fixing Jason” can seem like an overwhelming task.  Plus, it might seem like Jason cannot deal with the issue today because he needs to go away for extensive renovations before he is fit to tackle these challenges.

If I am an idiot, what is the point of trying to do better.  I will just get slapped in the face again.

This sounds dumb when I describe Jason, but if you listen to your client you might find more often than you expect, they blame themselves and cannot move forward.  They might even seek a lot of reassurance or they might even just shut up, because talking about how they suck at everything is both painful and useless.

So Sonja’s job here is to help Jason focus on the future and on options he actually has for dealing with things, or on the constraints and opportunities that exist.  This empowers him to move forward.

The “I’m right and they are all idiots” interpretation

On the face of it, Jason does not seem to be blaming himself.  Instead he is talking about how others are to blame.

Jason seems to be doing what I have a tendency to do – blaming an outside person or force so that no learning is needed.

I am surprisingly forgiving and understanding of myself, but I have a weakness where I can deal with issues by finding a root cause (person, organisation constraint or anything) and then deciding that since that was the cause, it was not my fault.

This feels better than facing problems … but of course it means you are powerless to change things and there is no need to grow.  This is a real inhibitor.

In fact I used to keep this great cartoon up on the wall to remind myself about the choices I could make.  It is from the adventures of a boy and his toy tiger – Calvin and Hobbes.

If you have time and you are a Calvin and Hobbes fan, you can follow this link for more great coaching advice.  I have used these cartoons as a personal coaching bible many times.

Anyway, again Sonja can help Jason here.  She can help him to focus on what he could have done differently, bow he contributed to the problem and how he reacted.  But better yet she can ask questions that bring the issue back into his control – “How did that impact you?,” “What does that mean for you – what has to change?” or “What are your thinking, what next?”

The useful interpretation – “what does that mean for me?”

Rather than interpreting the event as a confirmation that Jason is bad, or that other factors are at play and that Jason cannot control his fate, Jason might interpret the event as another step in his journey.

If Jason can interpret the slap in the face like this, then he will be able to find options for a way forward.  This is useful because it enables action:

This is where I was going, but then that stupid setback occurred.  Now I can’t do what I wanted, so what can I do?

If Sonja can help Jason get to this point, then they can move forward to looking at alternatives and potential actions.  This is where we really want Jason to be using his brain power.  Not on what happened to him, but on what he can do next.

Third comes the reaction – empowering Jason to act

I am pretty good at looking at problems and pondering them.  But sometimes I am not as good at actually acting on the solution I identify.  Others are pretty good at acting, but only ever consider one option.

Jason is a man of action and once he is clear on what to do he will be awesome.  But Sonja can still help him a lot here.

coaching slap react

Rather than telling Jason what to do, Sonja will ask him what he is thinking of doing.  When he explains his ideas then she can ask what outcome he thinks he might achieve and what challenges he needs to overcome.  Best of all, Sonja can help Jason create a picture of where he wants to be, so he can find a path to get there.

For me, I always think a coach should help the client explore multiple options and their outcomes.

Having multiple options means that Jason can think things through from multiple perspectives, greatly enhancing his chance for success. It also helps build the equivalent of muscle memory so Jason can process future challenges and find solutions.

The trick here is to keep Jason in control of the thinking while Sonja focuses on the process of thinking.  By that I mean her questions can provide a structure to help Jason think, without taking ownership for the thinking away from him.

People usually come up with great approaches that they believe in when they are able to reflect on the right questions with a good coach.

I hope that was helpful, even if it was a long read.  In the next episode I will share some tips that might help Jason and Sonja in their journey.  The real key though, is to focus on moving from slap, to useful interpretation, to options for reacting to the slap.



2 thoughts on “Jason’s coaching journey – the struggling coaches

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