Reflecting on a recent agile coaching session

I recently went through a coaching assessment to make sure my skills are at the standard required to run an agile coaching course.

We do this for anyone running the course since all of us trainers hold ourselves out to be accomplished coaches and when people come to a coaching course they expect a lot more than just learning to do stand-ups and quote manifestos.

It wasn’t a long session but I was surprised that on top of it’s designed purpose (validating my skill aligned to learning objectives), it also created some really valuable learning for me. In fact it reminded me of the value of good coaching and the difference between a “nice chat” and a structured coaching conversation.

So this article is an extremely long reflection of that learning.

I start with a simple summary of the session, which might be interesting if you are going to go through something similar, but then I wander off and explore my own thinking about some lessons I didn’t expect to get out of it.

The result is a 4,000 word essay, which is a bit longer than the average tweet length and even longer than many of my long winded articles. So read on if you dare … and if you have a cup of tea handy.

The journey begins

The purpose of the session was really to assure that people running the agile coaching classes are delivering those classes to a high standard.

How high is the standard?

Bluffing is always an option

hitting your finger with a hammer is also an option, Its just not a good option

Most people don’t really know what coaching is and in this course people are supposed to engage in self-reflection as well as co-create the learning experience with their peers.

So maybe I can bluff my way in an agile coaching course by asking the class “zen like questions” without providing any answers. Then I can just leave it to the class to ponder the meaning of things until they discover how to release their inner coach.

What is the sound of one hand clapping?

A famous Zen Master

If we learn as much from our own mistakes as any coach can teach us, does that mean that hiring a coach is equivalent to making a mistake?

Me – trying to be a Zen like coach

Unfortunately, even children can sense a bad teacher in minutes and agile coaches are literally trained to establish and detect credibility, competence and authenticity.

So bluffing in front of people who are probing your authenticity and competence might be a very bad option.

But it is even scarier when you think about teaching something like coaching that requires empathy, presence and real listening. You can’t just teach people what the slides say – you need to actually coach them in coaching as well as supporting them through what is designed to be a little uncomfortable.

We already established our credibility

now we just needed to coach

Running an agile coaching course requires a reasonable level of confidence and running a successful coaching course means that your competence must exceed your confidence, not the other way around.

So how can I be confident, as I stand before a group of already experienced coaches, that I can promise them that they will come out of the class as better coaches than when they came in?

Well, there were 3 of us experienced coaches in the assessment and our goal was to do just that.

Together with an “expert coach” who would serve as our facilitator and, of course, as the primary assessor, we wanted to emerge from session confident that we could indeed stand before a diverse group of experienced agilitstas and make good on the promise that they would emerge from our courses stronger than they entered.

This sounds a bit grandiose as I type it, but to be fair to the potential students, why would they come to our class if they could gain just as much in a speed dating “peer coaching session?” When people come to a coaching class there is an expectation that they will be stretched and challenged and supported by someone who can do confidently what they are still learning to do.

Anyway, that was our goal.

This was not the first step in the journey though. In order to run the course we needed to have established our agile credentials and more importantly that we could teach coaching to people wanting to learn. So we did not need to dwell on that in this assessment.

Our course aligns to the ICAgile Learning Roadmap for Agile Coaching and the participants in the course are expected to have already been on the agile coaching journey for a while.

I am on this journey myself.

I have a background in coaching in a business context and I have since learned to be a teacher/trainer. But in fact I cannot call myself an expert agile coach, because the final destination of the road-map is to be assessed as a certified expert, rather than being an opinionated expert, as I am currently.

Whether ICAgile Certified Expert is my next destination or whether there are other areas to hone my skills first remains to be seen, but part of the coaching course is to encourage people to focus on ongoing growth rather than just mastering the content of the course. So our skillset in facilitating the course needs to reflect this.

Both we and the students coming to the class will have already proven that we can facilitate high performance in agile teams and that we know how to identify good coffee shops and do many of the other things expected of an agile coach.

Of course we also need to understand the learning objectives of the course, but we had already covered that before the session. The learning objectives are quite straightforward in theory and we were all confident that we understood them well.

In fact there was only one step left – we just had to demonstrate that we could actually lead a conversation to coach people at the standard expected of us.

For all my grandiose claims this sounds like a bit of an anti-climax . I claim that we will “stretch and challenge the students” and that they will emerge stronger than they were when they entered. This is a perhaps a dubious and very challenging goal.

But I think most people coming to an agile coaching course would simply take it for granted that the person running the course (and assessing their ability to coach) had actual experience in coaching people.

So, I guess predictably, the 3 of us took turns coaching each other and observing what happened when the others were coaching. Then we gave each other feedback on how each session went.

No great quest, No Zen riddles and No having to grab a pebble from an old monk’s hand before he closes his fist. Just a simple session where we ask each other some questions, listen for a bit and then give and receive feedback on how the session went.

My first learning from the session

I ask people to do this in every coaching course I run

  • Everyone runs more than one coaching session (as coach)
  • Everyone is on the receiving end of a coaching session (as coachee)
  • Everyone is expected to give and receive feedback on those sessions. We even teach the giving of effective feedback as part of the course

So if I expect my students to do it, I guess they would expect that I can do it myself without raising a sweat.

The theory is sound, but I was quite nervous about coaching another coach in front of 2 other coaches and then getting feedback on both what worked and what I could focus on to lift my game.

So that is my first learning from this seemingly straightforward session – Coaching a coach in front of another coach and then getting useful feedback makes me nervous.

Strangely though, it was not the fear of failing the assessment that was scary, it was the fear or minor social embarrassment when people I know comment on my performance in doing something I am proud of.

It was not even the idea of an expert coach assessing me and giving feedback, which I was fine with – it was the idea fear of showing my peers what I do and having them judge me (er I mean support me with meaningful feedback) that caused me to stop and think.

This is a bit embarrassing because I tell people if they want to participate in an agile team, in any role, then they need to see feedback from their peers as a gift, not as something to worry about.

I also have to admit that the 2 peers I was with are people you can trust to give useful feedback without judgement every time – so the stakes are lower here than for people in most agile teams. I really was in a safe space and the feedback sessions proved that to me as we went through them – they were both informative and friendly.

It is a little confronting to be wimpy when I have to do it myself. But learning comes when you need it, not when you are ready for it, so I continued bravely into the first coaching session 🙂

The experience was surprisingly positive

So what happens when coaches coach each other?

Coaches coaching coaches

I accidentally volunteered to be the first coach and my friend volunteered to be the first coaching victim (er “coachee,” if that is the word for it). We spent 10 minutes in a mini-coaching session and then emerged and shared feedback.

What surprised me though was how much I learned from those 10 minutes, when I was the coach.

I learned as I coached even though I didn’t mean to

The problem with coaching is that people say they want to be coached but they are often not ready to lay their feelings bare, question their own assumptions and then receive feedback that is both helpful and scary.

We often say that the coach needs to “create rapport” and “establish a safe environment.”

This is critical because if you don’t do it then your client (er coachee) will not be able to gain any value from your excellent listening or their deep thinking.

I would like to dedicate a whole article on this because a lot of people underestimate this part of a coaching conversation and they leap straight into what becomes either an interrogation or a polite chat without any learning.

I call this the Mindset Tax, because I did a great online course for teachers that suggested that if someone is not ready for growth then the coach and the coachee will need to spend a percentage of their time and energy on “non-coaching” so that they get value from the coaching. They introduced me to the term “mindset tax” an I have loved it ever since. If you can’t wait for my article then you can simply watch this video to see an example of this video https://www.edbatista.com/2016/12/three-more-horsemen-how-we-self-sabotage.html

Anyway that is not what I leaned in 10 minutes. I actually learned the joy of coaching when there is no mindset tax being paid.

The person I was coaching was not worried about the coaching process, nor worrying about my credibility as coach or his fear of learning scary things. So in 10 minutes we go right into the detail. He mentioned an issue and I asked some questions and he thought deeply about it without much prompting.

My job was easy because he knew what to expect from coaching and so we spent 10 minutes, purely on learning, rather than spending half our time getting him to be able to focus.

This made the session much easier than most coaching sessions and it reminded me that coaching coaches is actually easier than coaching people who are not experienced in coaching.

This highlighted something more for me though – even though I claim to be good at my craft, I sometimes rush people and start “coaching them” when they are not ready for it.

So I need to practice my “Placement.” Or in other words keeping track of the conversation and making sure we are focused on the right stage of the coaching discussion. This in turn reminded me that I can benefit a lot from reminding myself to use a framework (like GROW, CREATE, SCAR or other structured approaches). I used to know these things but perhaps I needed reminding because it was a real takeaway for me.

That was my view and it is still valid. But then I got the feedback from the other three coaches and there was more learning to come.

I found out that I had asked some pretty cool questions that really helped my coachee with their thinking (kudos to me) but that I also asked some questions that actually distracted him.

This is the art of coaching, sometimes you pull people out of the detail, sometimes you kick back and listen and sometimes you probe or challenge with “good questions” but the questions are not the goal, they are meant to support the other person’s thinking. I think the session went well enough but I learned that there were some real areas for improvement.

I didn’t realise that I had distracted my friend until I got his feedback and the feedback of the other two coaches who had been observing. So the feedback session turned out to be really useful to me and left me with something concrete that I can work on right away.

Key learning – practice my placement and do not assume my questions are helping. Check in more and let them solve the problem while I provide an opportunity for them to do so. Practice this basic, but critical skill.

That was probably my biggest learning for the day.

Next I relaxed and just watched someone else

My turn was over and so I got to sit and watch someone else. But this turned out to be harder than you might think.

Watching a bad coach struggle with someone who is not ready for coaching is great. You can see a lot of mistakes easily and then it is easy to point out some things you noticed.

But good coaching has the illusion of an unplanned conversation where the coach appears not to be doing much and the coachee is somehow having a series of epiphanies that lead to growth.

But the coaching process is structured and visible if you look closely.

So as I observed what was going on, without the burden of being involved. I could see things happening that probably happened in my own sessions and other things that may not.

I saw pauses, decisions, questions and some good stuff to help my own coaching. In fact it was ideal to see the whole thing being performed end to end right after I had tried to do it myself.

I usually show people coaching in class and then ask them to do it, but maybe there is value in having people try first and then see a good example of the end to end conversation after they try.

Anyway it also surprised me that in 10 minutes the entire arc of the conversation was completed more than once, allowing deeper thinking, but also creating a possible rushed experience. So the session was either awesome or stressful for the participant.

I often go too slow and I think I should probably push for faster resolutions, based on what I saw. My own session was good but my coachee and I were still finding meaning at the end of 10 minutes and there was not time to commit to action nor go back and explore the same topic further.

It reminded me that different approaches work well for different people at different times.

So again I should use good placement and checking in rather than focusing on my clever questions and compassionate listening without pausing to check I am helping the client with their agenda. But on top of this, I should either adapt my approach depending on who I am working with, or otherwise admit that for some people I am a good coach while for others I am just annoying. Either way the experience needs to be based on the receivers needs (the coachee again?).

Incidentally I also learned that I don’t really like the word Coachee. I guess I prefer “client” or “buddy” but I know that saying I am in a relationship where a client is paying for my empathy sounds really really bad and I am not there to be someone’s buddy when I am coaching, i am not there to commiserate or to justify their actions. So I am not sure what the best term is.

The most important learning here though is that it was harder to give feedback in this situation than it normally is. This was unexpected because the person I was giving feedback to was fine with it and the conversations were really comfortable. So it was not the trust that was an issue.

It was the background that was the issue. I found that I could pick up several things to share, but that I did not know the coaches personal goals in his coaching journey.

I usually do some goal setting with my client (growth seeker – no still not the right word). This helps because I think I can often give too much feedback.

Lot’s of feedback sounds great but it is hard to work on 400 things at once. I think good coaching is more targeted.

In a coaching conversation you can let the client lead. But over time you can set goals and then hone in on them when giving feedback, either during a conversation or when you observe them at work. So, for example, if I mention that I am focusing on “placement” then my coaching buddies are able to really look at my placement and then give pointed feedback on that – with real examples of what happened when I tried different approaches.

In our session there was a rubric, which helped in the absence of this goal setting, because it gave a bit of structure to our feedback. But I was reminded of the value of a series of coaching interventions (er – conversations and maybe observation/feedback sessions). By setting a goal and returning to the conversation we can chip away at big seeming challenges.

Then I as officially coached

Finally I was up for coaching. My friend asked what I wanted to discuss and I presented my problem for analysis.

This is where I learned my final lessons. The importance of the coachee role, regardless of the coach and the surprising insights that you can have in 10 minutes.

I had a topic to discuss but had not given it much thought. I said I felt like I had rushed one of my recent assignment and that while people seemed happy, I felt I could have done better.

So far so good. But when I coach people they have often given a lot of thought to their problems and therefore bring a lot to the table. I on the other hand had only given a couple of minutes thought to finding a topic.

This meant that we had a lot to cover in 10 minutes. It was not “mindset tax” because I was happy to be coached. It was more a problem of vagueness.

What I thought was the problem was actually a simplified symptom of an issue I had not thought through and my focus on the past actually did not need to be there – instead I should have been thinking – well that sucked, but fortunately I am all agile and stuff … how can I do better next time.

This created an interesting dynamic because there was very little to work with at first and the conversation perfectly mirrored my thinking. I started vague, then got confused and then went off in several directions before arriving on two insights that i have since taken to heart.

The first is that I often feel that I have been a minor player in someone else’s adventure. This is kind of the point of a lot of the work i do – I appear at a point in time, help people discover something and then I am on my way.

But the issue that I must now confront is that problem solving is a hobby of mine and having an impact on the situation and the people I work with is important to me. This is nice to know, but what hit me is that I need to take accountability for that.

I find work unsatisfying when I don’t see an impact in what I do. My parents drummed a simple promise into me when I was young

Your actions have consequences

my parents

I have found that some people find this is a threat – if you do the wrong thing there will be “consequences.” But in my family we would have used the term “Shellacking,” “Comeuppance” or “Karma” if we meant you will regret it.

What my parents meant is this

If you don’t think your actions matter then you can do whatever you want. But if your actions don’t matter then what is the point of you being there. To be happy, you need to know that your thoughts and actions matter.

This also means that when you are coaching, leading or collaborating, you should make it clear to others that you recognize that their actions have consequences – that they matter and that the world is different because they were there.

Without acknowledgement it is hard to be happy, but even if people say nice things, it is important to me that I can see the value I created, or at least the impact I had when I tried to do that

Me in a coaching class

So that was a big insight for 10 minutes – I am happier when I have goals and challenges rather than just a series of disconnected adventures. This means that when I teach and coach I need to take some extra time to evaluate what I want to achieve … not just to do a good job but because I enjoy it.

Interestingly though this means that the coachee is not just being coached. Or at least if it is me and I want to enjoy coaching, I need to actually think about what I want to get out of it and also reflect on what i am doing to get that.

So what? So I guess I am happy with the word coach, because they are coaching. But I don’t like the term client, because they are not just paying for a service, they are providing that service as well. So I guess the real title would be “partner” or “one who wants some help while searching for something they are not yet clear they want.”

Unfortunately I don’t think people will understand those titles so I guess I am happy with coachee for now.

But more importantly I think I underestimated the accountability and importance of my role as the one being coached.

I came in with a vague problem and the expectation that we would discuss it, but that in 10 minutes we would not be able to really get to the depth of insight that might lead to real change. So I did no preparation and I started with a problem that I was happy to talk about, but not one where I had a clear need to resolve a core issue.

The result is that we stumbled about a little as I sorted out what I wanted to talk about. This took some time. But in fact in 10 minutes I stumbled forward from a vague understanding of an issue that I have not given a lot of conscious thought to and then stumbled on 2 insights that I value. So perhaps I should have been more consciously open to the potential of the coaching session when I committed to it.

Anyway that is a global learning for me, but what were my two specific insights.

The first is the one I mentioned above – if I am going to work on something I need to feel that my own actions are meaningful. Everyone probably has this need but I feel it very strongly. Meaningless work stresses me out a lot.

The second was more tactical and may not make sense out of context. The “coaching question” I had was to reflect on the rushed nature of a particular assignment, rather than on a problem I was going to face.

But my coach helped me turn that around to what I should do next time. Rather than regretting what happened or generically feeling that I should do something different, we ended up talking about how I can apply the learning when I return to the same client site.

We worked through a couple of options and I have now formed a more meaningful plan to slow down and assess the environment next time when the client is feeling rushed and would prefer to keep zooming. This didn’t all happen in the 10 minutes but resulted from it as the planning is simpler than discovery of the insight, which is what the session achieved.

So now I am working through a simple plan to work with specific people to go through a couple of things in more detail. This is not a bad outcome for a 10 minute conversation I had not properly prepared for.

It also made feedback on the session hard for me though.

I got exactly what I wanted from the 10 minutes even though I didn’t know what I wanted to start with. But I think I would have been hard to coach because my visible thinking was a good reflections of my internal thoughts – vague confused and rapidly shifting.

I am not sure if a coach would feel like they were on target if their client appeared more muddled as the session went, but in this case the lack of the coach trying to seize control allowed me to really do the thinking I needed to do.

So my final, lesser, learning is that each coaching session seems to follow a pattern but actually looks quite different from the outside. I tell people this but it was interesting for me to see 3 sessions in a row. It gave me the opportunity to see it more clearly.

Anyway I didn’t bother to share that with my peers because I was still pondering it when the session ended.

What next in this ongoing journey?

I will ponder my blog article on mindset tax and the value of placement and (I guess) presence during coaching later. Meanwhile I will simply experience some gratitude that I got some unexpected learning from 3 ridiculously short coaching sessions and the opportunity to then discuss each of them in detail. This was a very useful exercise in retrospect and something I want to build on in the future.

My aspiration now is that if I can get all that from 3 x 10 minute sessions then, in theory, people should get quite a lot out of a longer commitment to coaching or to learning coaching.

I just need to work out how to create the same spontaneous, serendipitous results through good planning and teaching good coaching and shared learning.

Shorter term though – I need to remind myself to “keep the client’s agenda” when coaching and specifically, to focus on improving my placement and my checking in.

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