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For most coaches, the worst question they can be asked is “What do you do?” So imagine my consternation when, at a reunion of my law class some nine years ago, ten years into my coaching career, my former law professor asked me “What do you actually do, Lauron? I know that you are a leadership coach, but what do you actually do?” I had great difficulty responding to his seemingly reasonable question. I mean, he is probably the brightest person I have ever met – couldn’t he work it out!

I didn’t feel so bad when, a few weeks later, I joined some coaching groups on LinkedIn and found numerous coaches asking “What do you say when someone asks you what you do?” Yes, some of these were newbie coaches but several were as experienced as I was, if not more.

The problem for me was that, in that moment, I was faced with two options: giving a long explanation which, whilst it may have been informative, no one would have stuck around for; or a short ‘elevator-type pitch’ which would’ve been vague, insufficient – a “nothing answer”. I chose a third response which was a weak attempt at a humorous response that fell well short of a reasonable response. Whilst I don’t remember what the response was, I know that every time I remember the moment or think of my professor and his look of incredulity, I feel the very same deep cringe I felt in the moment of my response as if it happened yesterday.

So, what is the answer to this question and why is it difficult to answer? Let me deal with the second question first. Part of the answer I have already mentioned.  It is almost impossible to answer in a couple of sentences. The other part is that the methodology we use is different depending on the coaching training school you attended – and most experienced coaches have attended different training schools and have managed to integrate the different methodologies into a model that works for them – and besides, it’s normally not a single model…by now you can no doubt start to understand how our own explanations of what we do gets so complicated that we even get confused in our attempts to respond!

However, and I know you are probably coming to this conclusion yourself, this is an unnecessarily complex way of trying to respond. The question is a “what” question – answering with methodology is a “how” answer. Strange that we coaches who make a living out of asking questions, overlook this misdirectedness.

So, what do we do? It depends (now hold back on the “here we go again” for a moment please) on what the client wants or needs and what they need is normally to be helped at one, or a combination of, three levels of response. Remember, what Einstein said:

“We cannot solve problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

 An American coach and coach trainer, Chad Hall, in his book “Coaching the Person, not the Problem” uses an unresolved Rubik’s cube as a marvellous metaphor for the issue that clients bring to their coaches. Let’s use this metaphor to help us think of the options a coach may have in helping their client resolve their Rubik’s Cube. These options might look something like this:

  • The coach can fix the cube and hand it back to the client – the client, however, will have learnt nothing and will need help when faced with the same, or a similar, problem in the future.
  • The coach can show the client how the coach fixes the cube – the client may follow; however, it may take some time before the same, or a similar, problem arises in their lives again by which time they probably wouldn’t remember how it was done or have forgotten some of the steps.
  • The coach might give the unresolved cube to the client and let them work it out, which of course they are unlikely to.
  • The coach might explain how the logarithms work and the reasoning behind them, and then ask the client questions that help the client think their way through the problem.
  • The coach might hand the unresolved cube to the client and watch how the client attempts to resolve it.
  • The coach might hand the unresolved cube to the client and watch how the client attempts to resolve it and raise the client’s awareness as to how their frustration and anger might be getting in the way of resolving the cube.
  • The coach might hand the unresolved cube to the client and watch how the client attempts to resolve it and raise the client’s awareness as to how their frustration and anger might be getting in the way of resolving the cube, and explore how this may be a pattern in the way the client deals with other problems in their lives, etc.

By now you get the picture, I know.

Basically, each of these examples falls into one of three levels or categories of coaching:

  1. Coaching the issue – at this level we help the client fix the problem in front of them. In this instance, the coach’s focus is on the Rubik’s cube on the table.
  2. Coaching for competency – at this level we are building the client’s competency to deal with this issue in the future. Here the focus is on what they do when they try to fix the problem and how they might improve this competency or skill.
  3. Coaching the person – here we facilitate a process that helps the client to think more broadly for themselves. Once the client shares their Rubik’s cube with us and defines what they believe to be the problem, the focus needs to move away from the external problem and onto the person. Both the coach and the client put their attention on the client with the problem serving as a kind of mirror by which the client sees themselves. The goal of coaching isn’t just to solve a problem but to help the client grow, develop and even transform. Here the shift is internal, as opposed to external changes created by the client. These internal shifts could be:
    1. A change in attitude
    2. Dropping an old belief
    3. Picking up a new belief
    4. Seeing oneself differently
    5. Developing new forms of self-talk
    6. Establishing new boundaries
    7. Recognising and dealing with boundaries
    8. Stirring up motivation to ensure the internal shifts stick (Chad Hall)

At the first two levels, coaching is normally transactional. Transactional coaching is necessary and useful in many instances. When we coach the person, the coaching is likely to be transformational – the internal shifts are powerful forms of growth for the client.

I think Pamela Weiss says it far better than I can:

“Our task as coaches is to help widen the circle—opening our clients to new possibilities and potential; inviting them to see and inhabit more of the sky. A coaching relationship is a place where the coach sheds light on the client’s “blind spots,” challenging and stretching their fixed views of themselves, others and the world. This is work which none of us can do alone. It’s only together that we can expand our sky.”

How I wish Pamela had been at the reunion to rescue me!

Please keep yourselves and your families safe and well.

PS: A cautionary note: please understand that the examples I use and commentary I provide are largely anecdotal and based on my observations of and experience with numerous clients over 20 years. Although I tend to read extensively, I am not a psychologist and the “theories” contained herein are intended to provoke thought, discussion and awareness. I hope that you enjoy them in the manner intended.

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