How do coaches stay interested in people?

Being a coach is about having good conversations.

Sure, there are times when you are reading documents, examining data or making observations, but the reason you are doing those things is to prepare for the conversation that you will be having with the person or team that you are coaching.

The conversations that you have are quite specific too. The topic is always the person you are talking to. It is always about them and how they make sense of the world.

Sure, you might be talking about changes in the organisation, challenges in managing stakeholders or the crushing pressure of a tight deadline, but the reason you are talking about these things is to come back to the same topic – the people you are coaching and how they can make sense of it all.

Once they can make sense of it all, they know what to do next and they know who they want to be. Once they know those things your job is to get out of the way until it is worth having a another conversation.

You better find people interesting

If that is true, then you can expect to spend a lot of time talking to people and talking exclusively about them and not yourself. But in fact you won’t even be doing the talking, you will be listening to them do the talking.

If you do not find those conversations interesting then it will suck to be a coach. You will constantly be stuck in conversations you find neither interesting nor energising, and that would really suck.

Just as bad, if you do not make these conversations count for those you speak to, then you will not be effective as a coach. If the core of coaching is having good conversations and you are not having good conversations, I guess that once again, it will suck to be a coach.

Ouch – I guess if you want to be a good coach, you better find the people you coach interesting. If not then you better find more interesting people to coach and those you were coaching better find a more useful coach.

Is coaching for me then?

I think that I am a good coach, but I am not someone who enjoys drama or long conversations. I skip over the long conversations in books when I read them. I watch tv with dialogue in it, but I get distracted quickly and start talking or fidgeting when there are long sections of dialogue. Perhaps I am unsophisticated, but that is how I am.

I wonder then – is coaching for me? Will I find it interesting if I do not enjoy endless ongoing dialogue? (spoiler alert – yes, but it took a while for me to learn exactly what it is that I love about coaching: what really makes it fun for me).

What makes coaching fun for me?

When I am at my best, I am wrapped up in solving a complex problem, unaware of the rest of the world while I remain engrossed the mystery that I am unravelling. I am probably not a good communicator as I get lost in what I am absorbed by.

When I get stressed though, I prefer to jump into action without thinking much at all. I really do not like to stop to talk a lot when I am stressed, I want to be left on my own or I want to be acting my way through the stress. I am not a “talk it out kind of guy.”

I think these are traits that have been with me since I was young – Happiest when I am fully engrossed in a problem and relieved when was stressed but I can start to move to action.

These are some of the traits that people recognise in me, but they are NOT the traits that make me a good coach:

  • One of the worst things a coach can do is to start to ponder and solve the problems that someone raises when being coached. In fact, when the coach starts doing the thinking, the coach is no longer doing the coaching.
  • Another of the worst things a coach can do is to cut the client off, in order to move to action, because the coach is getting frustrated or bored with the way the client is talking about the problems they are facing.

When I first started coaching I thought that since these traits are part of who I am, they would also be the biggest impediments I would face when coaching.

They turned out not to be the biggest challenges for me though, possibly because I was aware of them. Maybe, but I think it is probably because I can maintain greater distance when hearing about other people’s problems than I have when I am solving my own puzzle and possibly because I have a lot more more patience with the things that stress my clients out than I have with things that stress me out personally.

Either way, the biggest problem I had when I started coaching was getting stuck in what I would call “circular conversations.”

What I mean by circular conversations is the kind of discussions where we return to the same point again and again, and then run out of time for the discussion, without ever getting to either a new insight or a new committed step forward.

I found that I was interested in helping someone think for themselves and I was asking a lot of questions and even listening a lot. But I was somehow trapping my client in a circular, almost ground-hog day, discussion. At the end of half an hour I would be trying not to ask the same question and the client would be trying to answer honestly without thinking we had come to a dead end.

Actually we had come to a dead end and it was because I was missing something, not because the client was not ready to talk or because I did not want to listen.

What I was missing was, I finally learned, was a process behind my coaching. I was having a conversation but I was not stepping back to observe where the conversation was at and where it was heading because I had no map for the conversation.

I like building a process, so I always liked the idea of a coaching model. But I am not always good at following a process. I would be in the conversation, so focused on what was being said, without knowing how to move forward, because I was not able both listen and maintain a map for us of where we were.

Once I learned to listen to the other person while keeping a map in my mind, I found that the conversations were a lot more effective. I also found that they were a lot more interesting.

I resisted this at first because I was worried that using a cookie cutter process while not really being truly present to hear what the client was talking about would be transparent and un-empathetic. It wasn’t though, at least with individual coaching.

I did find it somewhat challenging with individual coaching to avoid being clunky as I switching between listening and checking my map, kind of like a driver new to using GPS.

But I found it far more challenging with group coaching, which surprised me. I found myself torn between the false dichotomy of getting people to adopt a new way of working, like Kanban, and really listening to them in order to help them find their own answers.

People told me that Shu Ha Ri is the way to go, but I worried that Shu meant telling them what to do rather than listening to their stories.

I was partly right about that. If you are more interested in the new way of working than you are in the people and their growth then you are a good scrum master, but I think you are missing a great journey as a coach. I certainly lose interest in new frameworks and chasing people to adopt new practices.

What I came to believe though, is that there is nothing wrong with Kanban, Scrum, Safe, Disciplined Agile or even Prince 2. There is nothing wrong with teaching people a new idea or a new way of working, as long as you do not mistake that for the core conversation of the coach – the listening part of coaching.

You can explain a new framework or way of working to people once you have listened to them, if it is relevant to them. You cannot really say that you are coaching if you are introducing your ideas to them and not listening to them.

So the model for coaching is not the same as the model you want them to use for working. The coaching model is about the conversation you have with people and the way of working can be change that you are keen on them using once you understand where they are coming from.

At least for me, a basic coaching model or coaching arc makes a huge difference to the conversations I have. It is separate to and more useful to me than any solution I can offer the team. Yet, ironically the coaching model that I use is not something that really holds my interest for long.

Coaching frameworks are good, but the reason I use them is to get into the conversation that I think will help my client. So there we are, back into having the conversation.

What makes coaching interesting for me, day in day out, and what makes the people interesting to me, day in day out, is the unfolding stories that come out of our coaching conversations.

What a framework does for me is to help me to listen better. This was the biggest break through for me and the biggest challenge in learning to really coach.

I had to learn to use a structured way to listen. I needed to use it to ask questions, to reflect what people were saying and most importantly to let them explore their own thinking without me derailing them.

The real way I found to stay interested in the people I coach is to really listen to understand them. Not to listen to think about how to respond but simply listen to what is being said. Once I could do that, I found that the conversations that I found myself in were endlessly interesting and often surprising.

So I guess for me it is as simple as that. The way to stay interested as a coach is simply to really listen to what people say so you can reflect it back to them and watch in wonder as they go from turmoil to clarity and inertia to action.

What I found created the most interesting coaching conversations, and the most effective, was to stop listening to try to work out how to help people and to start listening simply to understand what they were saying.

So that is now what keeps me interested in the people I coach.

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