How to be coached

When we learn how to coach we learn a new way of relating to and supporting someone in the achievement of their goals. But as I’ve engaged in coaching conversations and formal coaching sessions I’ve noticed that the coachee also has to learn a new way to relate to a new form of support. This is my initial attempted to write a primer on the role of the coachee.

The primary job of a coach is to help the coachee think, plan and act. This primer will deal with these areas in order.

Think

When we are coached it’s not surprising that we begin by relating to our coach as an authority figure. In life we are used to instructors, doctors, supervisors and mentors giving advice and guidance on various topics. So we might begin with the model in our minds that imagines the coach as a machine for turning our thoughts into advice. We provide input, the coach provides the output. This isn’t how coaching works.

Helping someone to think and providing someone with an answer are antithetical. Someone who expects someone else to figure something out for them will think less, to start with, and any answer that a third party can provide will be drenched in said person’s own biases, not built from scratch for your needs. A good coach only provides advice when he or she feels able to add something simple and open to discussion. A coach never expects to solve your problem with some gilded wisdom.

And because your coach will not diagnose you like a doctor proscribe you treatment, because your coach will not listen, think and then spit out a solution based on your input, you can worry a little less about being correct and unambiguous in your answers. That is to say, there’s not really a correct or incorrect answer to most coaching questions. Coaching questions seek a useful answer!

In practice that means if your coach asks you what you think is causing you stress at work, for instance, it’s perfectly OK to say you don’t know. To offer an unambiguous answer for the sake of appearing certain and correct is far less useful. It’s also OK to change your mind or to pause for as long as you like to ponder the question. You are not being assessed!

If the answers to your questions are not to help the coach figure out a solution, what exactly is the point? Simply, your coach wants to help you to think. He or she will do this by listening, asking questions and challenging you when necessary. The solutions will always come from you. Your coach is there to help you find them within yourself.

If this sounds simple, you’re right. In essence the job of a coach is to be a great listener and a great question asker. In practice this isn’t nearly as simple as it sounds. But that’s not for you to worry about.

Plan

Humans are, generally, poor planners. This isn’t to say we can’t learn to plan better but when the item in question is important to us, something to which we have attached emotional weight, personal pride, hope and dreams, planning isn’t a simple act of placing items in some sort of flow. Planning becomes emotionally charged and we make errors of judgment; taking on too much, applying magical or overoptimistic thinking, being too cautious for fear of failure, or failing to consider our human needs, acting as if we can be driven like a machine and placing too much pressure on willpower alone.

Your coach’s second job is to support you in planning your actions. This is also a listening and questioning task but here your coach isn’t trying to help you think through your goals but to think practically about how you will work towards them

It’s tricky, as a coach, to know exactly how to input in this section. So it’s useful if you keep in mind that if your coach presses you to explain a course of action it isn’t because he or she disapproves. Once again, you are not being assessed. Your coach will press you to deepen your thinking and question your assumptions because an unrealistic plan has failed before it has begun.

Then, when you think your plan is ready, your coach will push you to break it down even more, think it through and consider all the ways in which things could conspire against you. This is necessary not because your coach doesn’t believe in you (a coach who loses faith in his or her coachee must immediately withdraw from the relationship) but because the enthusiasm and self belief necessary to plan a big life change may well render the coachee blind to the pitfalls.

By helping you to anticipate problems your coach lets you plan for them, be aware of them and build them in to your considerations. This should increase your confidence and reduce the chances of a morale sapping error.

Act

When the thinking and planning are done it’s time to do. In this phase your coach acts as a mirror, reflecting your longer term desires and connecting you to your state of mind when you created your plan.

Psychologists refer to two special states of mind; the cool state is you sitting back, reflecting calmly on the world and making plans based on rational thinking and clear self knowledge. The hot state is you in the moment, surrounded by distraction, temptation and confusion. Hungry, tired, harassed. In this state we frequently make perfectly reasonable choices based not on our long term goals but on relieving immediate pain.

Self discipline is a wonderful thing but even the most disciplined of us finds it hard to remember when he’s cold and tired, hungry and on the late train home, why exactly not eating a big, satisfying bag of chips is such an important thing.

Now, this is not to say that your coach will always be on hand with the egg salad and green tea whenever you need it, but he or she will certainly be there to remind you, when will power is low, why you made the choices you made. And, when slips happens as they always do, your coach will help you to remain realistic in your emotional responses, potentially reframing thought processes that might otherwise derail you.

For instance, someone seeking to find a new job might have planned to attend two networking events during a single week but, when the moment came, felt unable to attend. It’s not unusual for a person to feel guilt, shame, a sense of failure and powerlessness after such events. Your coach will help you see these events for what they are: useful information. Finding out that what seemed achievable wasn’t isn’t evidence that you are in some way innately flawed, it shows us that there is some underlying challenge that so far we have failed to recognise.

So, as a coachee during the acting phase, what do you need to keep in mind?

You are accountable only to you, your coach isn’t a supervisor or teacher who you can let down. Your coach will support you whatever you do
Be honest about how you feel about your plan and how you feel about executing it. If something is bothering you then say so, that uneasy feeling might be a useful clue
It is always OK to change your mind – a plan is a tool to guide you, not a perfect path from which you mustn’t deviate. If in the process of acting on your plan you learn something that makes you want to alter course, say so
This has been a very brief primer on what it means to be coached. It does not represent anything near to a complete guide to the role of the coachee. As time passes I will add to this document but for now remember that you are the boss. Your needs, your feelings, your desires and fears, are, in the context of the coaching relationship, all good. There is no shame, no guilt and no sense of obligation to the coach. You are accountable to you. Your coach is here to help you surpass not his or her expectations but your own.

The Hardest Part

My job is simple.

  1. I talk with people about what I do to see if they want me to do what I do for them
  2. I read, listen to and watch stuff to help me get better at what I do
  3. I write and record stuff to help people understand what I do
  4. I go to places and work with people to help them be more creative

That’s it.

Every day I have to get up and do one or a combination of those things. These things are simple. They aren’t easy, but they are simple. The hardest part, however, is keeping them simple.

It’s very easy to overcomplicate things. I’ve been spending some time lately thinking about why that is; what is the tendency to overcomplicate stuff based on? I believe it may be a combination of two compounding factors.

We refuse to believe that life can be simple.

This is one I’m fairly fond of. We are surrounded by complexity but when we strip back that complexity a lot of it is fluff. Consider diets – the simple directives to eat mostly fruits and vegetables, avoid anything too processed and stop eating when we are full are enough for almost all of us yet we seem hard wired to look for something more satisfyingly arcane.

We want to get out of doing the hardest part.

Eating healthily every day by applying some simple rules takes discipline and hard work. We can avoid this by seeking out more and more complex ways to do something simple.

My job is simple. My work is hard. I can’t help but feel that if I look hard enough I can make my job complicated and my work easy. Every day is a battle to overcome that compulsion.

 

Creative Focus

Today I am asking you to pay attention. Not to this blog post, though we should begin here, but rather to something else of your own choosing. And not any old attention. A special kind that many of you won’t be accustomed to.

We all think we know what that means to focus but in my experience we tend not to pay attention to things in a neutral way, we pay attention in a way which is analytical, judgemental, preconditioned by various assumptions and aims.

Consider a conversation with a friend. When you pay attention to your friend, are you paying attention in a neutral way or are you on the lookout for a specific thing? Waiting to see if they mention the thing you expected them to say, looking for an opportunity to tell the story you’ve had queued up or silently correcting their grammar? Or should that be correcting their grammar silently?

The problem with this sort of focus is that we’re only ever really looking for one thing and in looking for that one thing we miss everything else. I’m reminded of a time when I was a child. My dad asked me to go get his lawn trimmer from the shed. I went in, looked, looked and looked and couldn’t see it. I came out to tell my dad it was not in the shed. We went back in together and he found it instantly, right there by the door. Why didn’t I see it?

It turns out that I didn’t see it because it didn’t look like what I was expecting to see. In my mind I pictured something orange because I’d been exposed to so many adverts from Flymo. But this trimmer was green. Attention, when conditioned by incorrect or unhelpful assumptions, is often worse than useless. Instead of focusing us and making us better at what we do, it can ensure we miss the very thing we’re looking for.

Creativity is dependent on insights. In a very real sense, when we express creativity we don’t make anything, all we do is see things that others haven’t seen yet and understand them, find a connection or a meaning that others don’t notice and then find a way to express that. Seeing things we aren’t expecting to see requires a special kind of focus, a focus based on the three fundamentals of mindfulness:

  1. Concentration
  2. Clarity
  3. Acceptance

In this sense, to concentrate, means not to direct attention at a narrow question but just to place attention on something and follow that thing. To ask questions but not allow those questions to become the focus of attention. Concentration takes time. Depending on how you ask the question you might find that you need between 15 minutes and half an hour to properly get going in any given task. How long do we usually allow ourselves to concentrate on any given thing before we give up or tick off the task as complete?

Clarity is what we develop when we allow our focus to seep into the object of attention without judgement and without precondition. When humans look at the world we make quick judgements about what we see. Once we have placed something into a box, labelled it and stacked it in the appropriate section of our consciousness, we stop noticing anything new about that thing. In many ways we replace the thing with our labels. The thing is no longer the object of attention. In mindfulness attention must remain on the object, not on the questions or the labels.

Acceptance is the final piece of the puzzle without which we cannot gain real insights. Most of us like to see what we expected to see. Seeing something unexpected is mentally harder work. Depending on the subject it may be emotionally challenging too. Without acceptance, without openness to seeing and hearing, feeling and perceiving whatever comes, we quickly begin to devote energies to rejecting things we don’t want to know about. Before too long we aren’t really concentrating on the object anymore, we’re more concerned with avoiding the things we find uncomfortable or upsetting.

When I coach teams and individuals to help them overcome creative blockers, self limiting assumptions and anticreative beliefs, the hardest part is often to help them develop the level of concentration, clarity and acceptance necessary to find the insights that will direct the creative flow.

So that is what I want you to try to do today. Think about the object of your creativity, examine it, without judgement and without preconditions, without expectations and without the desire to conclude or take anything away other than simply a deeper level of clarity.

Choose an object, place your focus on it, and just rest with that. Watch as your focus deepens, clarity emerges and then accept what you perceive. Do this often enough and insight is inevitable. You have begun the creative process.