How did an idea – encountered during a dialogue – move coaching beyond competencies and skills?
It was during a conversation 17 years ago that Edna Murdoch, co-founder of the Coaching Supervision Academy, happened upon an idea that Who you are is how you coach!
For those who were taught that the coach is never part of the picture – “It’s all about the client.” – this can be quite surprising. Who I am influences how I coach? Really?
I can easily answer who I am: I’m a Master Certified Coach (MCC), a coach educator and I’ve been coaching since at least 1990. I have a name, an address, a social security number, a degree or two; and I’m an ENFP – that’s who I am. At one level, yes.
What Edna was, and is, talking about is more complex: the nuance of how I coach is subtle stuff. It is not only my credentials, my experience, my validated competencies or what it says on my website.
Coaching is not simply a set of techniques, though techniques are important. It is not a set of preplanned transactions, though there are transactions between coach and client.
Coaching is an exchange, an interaction, a dance between two human beings who have experiences, pressures, hopes, dreams, biases, preferences, styles, personalities, patterns… The list goes on and on.
These factors shape who is interacting with the client from moment to moment and session by session throughout a coaching engagement. Who I am at a given moment is how I coach.
On a more technical basis, we can turn to research on the key factors that determine successful outcomes between coach and client. Dr. Erik DeHaan, in Relational Coaching (John Wiley and Sons Ltd, West Sussex, England, 2008), quotes studies about helping professions that conclude the character of the helper is one of four key factors which determines positive outcomes from the engagement.
In other words, once again – who you are matters.
My core self shapes how I interact with and am seen by my clients. If I am reserved, quiet, contemplative by nature, that’s likely to be how I coach. If I am energetic, fast paced, crisp, driving – that’s how I show up. Fortunately, the world is full of clients looking for the right match.
Regardless of that core self, who I am also changes from moment to moment. In different contexts, I am a bit different, and if I know that, I am more prepared to deal with it.
In a stark example, people with whom I work in both French and English say that I’m just a bit different when I speak English and when I speak French.
When I coach a senior executive in a large health care company, I’m a bit different from when I’m working with a scientist. I’m aware that I speak differently. My pace is different.
And, here’s a key point, how I think of myself is a bit different, too. I am quite fond of scientists and, on the other hand, I’ve had both positive and negative experiences with very senior executives in health care.
Knowing this about myself helps me be effective.
Another way of looking at who we are comes from Transactional Analysis (TA) – the ego states of parent, adult, and child.
My own supervisor helped me see that at a specific point, my coaching client and I were moving from state to state. I saw that for the briefest moment I was a rebellious child while he was a rather bossy parent. We didn’t get stuck there, but in that moment, my interaction with him and my coaching questions were coming from somewhere other than my best self, my competent MCC self.
What can we do with this notion, “Who you are is how you coach?”
Since 2009, I’ve been studying and teaching Coaching Supervision, in which a coach strives to be awake, aware, and conscious of all that is happening in a coaching session and relationship. Supervision often comes down to generating a good sense of our core self, our triggers to the extent we can know them and, most importantly, to know what is going on for us from moment to moment.
In supervision, we ask questions such as, what am I experiencing right now? Am I reacting blindly or habitually? Am I distracted or present? Am I a competent adult right now (in the TA sense)?
The story of Alice In Wonderland (Lewis Carroll 1865) illustrates this as well as anything I know. In one passage the caterpillar asks Alice, “Who are you?”
Alice responds, “I knew who I was when I woke up this morning, but I’ve changed so many times today, I’m not sure.”
As a coach, I believe I am obligated to know, as best I can, who I am as I accompany my clients on their learning journey. During a single day, I, like Alice, have been known to change many times.
Understanding our Emotional Intelligence is part of understanding ourselves as coaches.
Emotional Intelligence calls for us to be self-aware and to self-regulate. It explores our access to a range of feelings, positive-negative balance, balance of thoughts-wants-feelings, self-other balance, empathy and relationship strategies. What I’m calling out here is the need for self-observation in contexts.
The more aware I am of how I show up in various settings, the more capacity I have to make choices in service of my clients. If I’m on autopilot or assume I am as constant as the north star, I delude myself.
One of my great learnings I received was from the EQ Profile, an instrument that measures one’s internal experience under stress.
I learned that I have excessively high standards for myself. If I don’t watch myself, I can go to my cranky place when I’m afraid of not measuring up. It’s not a nice experience for my clients! They get confused about the different Sam who suddenly walked in the room.
Back to France for an example. I was, at a certain moment, so freaked out about speaking French in a professional context that I got all flustered and grumpy with my colleague in front of the group. None of the participants cared about my French; they were all engaged in the cool demonstration! As a French friend once told me, “Sam, tu mets le bar trop haut!” Translated, “You set the bar too high!”
Meanwhile, that old caterpillar in Alice and Wonderland? He gets it. He is at home with his own continual internal changes.
How about you? Do you know your patterns? Do you know what triggers you when coaching particular sorts of people? Do you diminish your quality when you lose your footing?
-Sam Magill, Sr., MCC
Join us at this month’s podinar to explore who we are in how we coach!
Editor’s note: We’re so glad to share Sam’s insights with you through this guest blog post. Join Sam and me (Alison) for our upcoming podinar, where we’ll explore the topic of Who you are is how you coach! We’ll dive deeper into the topic and you can ask your own questions. We’d love for you to register and join us live, or register to receive the recording afterward. LIVE Wed. March 28, 2018, 10:30-12:00 PT / 1:30-3:00 ET.
My father passed away recently. My thoughts are saturated with him.
There are many words I’d use to describe my dad, but the word optimistic stands out the most.
A few years ago, I asked my dad what it was that made him so optimistic. He replied simply, “I’ve never failed!” Hmmm….
Can you imagine?! Living for nearly 86 years and believing you’ve never failed?! (To be clear, my dad, a humble man, wasn’t boasting, just explaining.)
As I’ve reflected upon my dad, I’ve wondered about the mindset that resulted in his believing he’d never failed. (Most days, I feel like I’ve failed at least once before breakfast. I didn’t inherit his optimism.)
I’ve determined that the key to his optimism was in his perspective and what he chose to focus on.
Clearly, my dad’s belief that he’d never failed was a product of his perspective. Most people living his same life would likely frame it differently. They might say they’d failed many times, in smaller and bigger ways, learned from those failures, and applied what they’d learned.
While my dad did accomplish a great many things in his life (mainly in the business arena – many said he had a Midas touch), he definitely lived a very human and imperfect life. He wasn’t a good student (he played too much), he made decisions (or didn’t make decisions) that he would have made differently in hindsight, and not everything he pursued came to fruition.
What you and I might call failures didn’t seem to stick with him. They didn’t matter or were irrelevant to him. He focused so little on what didn’t work out that his ‘failures’ were consigned to oblivion.
What was it about my dad that created such an optimistic perspective? My dad focused on the positive. I know, yawner, right? How many times have you heard, “Focus on the positive!”?
Throughout my life, I’ve heard it dozens, if not hundreds of times, though never from my father. He simply did it.
Our own data from the EQ Profile, an instrument that reveals one’s level of positivity under stress– reveals that people who focus on the positive, experience fewer distressing feelings. Something about focusing on the positive makes the rest of our experience better, lighter.
So, I’ve decided to attempt to reverse engineer exactly what it was that my dad focused on that allowed him to be so optimistic. I’ve written this blog post as if he’s teaching me how to shape my focus to become more optimistic.
My hope is that if you have clients who could use a bit more optimism, this post might be a resource for them.
Find the intersection of what you are good at, what you love to do and what makes a difference. And DO THAT!
When you spend time in that sweet spot, you’ll find that you are having fun, that you are in the flow, that you feel joy and gratification. Over time, you’ll enjoy the experience of mastery, which is its own reward.
My dad went to work, most days, up until a week or so before he died at age 87. Work was his medicine. Work never felt like work to him. It’s what he chose and loved to do. He experienced mastery.
Focus on what’s working, what’s good, what’s positive. Any given day is full of pluses and minuses. Focus on the pluses. Doing or experiencing more of the pluses will get you further than trying to focus on and fix the minuses.
My dad’s doctor recommended hospice to our family more than two and half years before he died. When my dad was ill and began to feel an ounce better, he focused on that. And that ounce got bigger and bigger until he WAS better. He did this throughout his life, focusing on what was good, on what was working.
A Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) sounds good, sure. But most of the time, for most people, setting realistic goals works better. Setting a series of realistic goals that result in a string of small wins usually produces better results than swinging for the fences. Once you have a string of wins behind you, and you know what you can confidently produce, then you can aim higher.
It’s easy to look at my dad’s accomplishments and imagine that he set one BHAG after another. I know that he didn’t. Whatever he did, he started small, planned and analyzed thoroughly, worked smart and hard. And that created small successes that led to bigger ones.
Focus on what you’ve done that’s worked. Focus on what you’ve done that you’re proud of. We spend way too much time ruminating on what we didn’t do or what didn’t work. That only makes us miserable. The book, Hardwiring Happiness, provides the neuroscientific evidence that proves this point. By focusing on our successes, our pleasures, our pluses, we can live a happier, more content, more fulfilled life.
My dad loved his life. Even at the end, when he was practically blind, quite deaf without his hearing aids, and needed a walker to get around, he focused on what he still could do, and he got joy from that.
Look for and see the best in others. When you look for, see and acknowledge the good in others, they feel seen and appreciated. And they do more of what you noticed. And they enjoy being with you.
At the end of his life, my dad had a company with three full time employees who had worked for him for a decade or more. They were more like family than employees. They loved working for my dad, and enjoyed the time they spent at work.
We can always hope. No matter how dark things are, no matter how difficult life can be, we can always hope things will get better. Studies show that hope isn’t simply a dream or a passing belief. It’s a dynamic cognitive motivational system that is conducive to growth and improvement.
My dad never stopped hoping that even the most intractable challenges in his life would get better.
I recently started reading a book called Happiness is a Choice, after hearing the author interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air. The idea that happiness is a choice kind of ticked me off.
Choice assumes control. And I don’t believe I can control my thoughts. And I don’t believe I can control my emotions. So how is it that happiness can be a choice?
I’ve come to learn, from studying my dad and from reading the books mentioned herein, that when we focus on the good in ourselves, in others and in our lives, we are happier, more joyful, more content. And focus is a choice.
While I may not be able to control my thoughts or my emotions, I can control my focus. And I will.
I will aim to place my focus on the good in myself, the people in my life and the events of my life, to honor my dad, and to become more optimistic.
How do you focus on opportunities and positivity?
Is it a struggle? Or something you’ve made great progress on?
President | Learning In Action
In our last post, we talked about what an acknowledgement is, why it’s important, and what makes it hard. If you missed our last post, you can find it here.
Part of what’s made acknowledging someone difficult for me in the past has been knowing what to say. I’d be able to notice the opportunity to acknowledge, and then I’d get all stuck in my head about what to say and how to say it.
That’s why we created this quick and easy ‘how to acknowledge primer’ for anyone who wants to build better relationships and get better at acknowledging, but isn’t sure how.
First, a bit of clarification.
Good question. All of these terms can sound the same, and the nuanced differences between them are important. A compliment, while positive, is often nonspecific, and can easily contain an implicit judgment.
For example, if I say, “You did that well,” I’m making a nonspecific comment and a subtle judgment. I’m judging that you did something well. And while a compliment is better than a sharp stick in the eye (😊), it falls short of acknowledgement.
Positive feedback is a step above a compliment because of its specificity. In some instances, it has been found to help people perform better. Positive feedback tends to be mainly focused on performance (what someone is doing) and usually comes with an agenda (to improve performance).
For example, if Ben works for me, and I say, “Ben, that spreadsheet you put together was so detailed, it helped bring to light several issues we were unaware of. Great work!” My praise of Ben is focused on my judgement of what was good about his performance that I want more of. Ben probably will focus on being detailed now.
Don’t get me wrong. A compliment and positive feedback, typically, are better than criticism, finding fault or saying nothing at all. They may be a place to start for someone whose natural tendency is to focus more on what’s not working than on what is.
An acknowledgement is different.
An acknowledgement recognizes the whole of the person, both who they are being and what they are doing.
It does so in specific and evocative language that feels true to both the giver and receiver. An acknowledgement is more a statement of a shared reality than a judgement. It focuses slightly more on who the person is being than on what they are doing.
An acknowledgement is a powerful way of saying “I see you. I see you being who you are proud to be.”
Acknowledging people we are in conflict with or have a challenging relationship with may not come naturally. When we are in conflict, we may tend to look for what’s wrong versus what’s good, and that has the impact of worsening the relationship.
Consider this approach for improving an important and challenging work relationship:
Making Good Relationships Better Through Acknowledgement
While acknowledging someone you already have a good relationship with may be more natural, it can still be challenging to find the right words. Consider this approach for improving important relationships, such as those with parents, children, friends, close work relationships, or your spouse:
Take it For a Test Drive
Try out these acknowledgements and let us know how they work. And share how they can be improved. We love feedback (positive or negative) – AND acknowledgment. 😊 Do you have an approach of your own? We’d love to hear about it.
What’s a podinar? A podinar combines the best parts of a podcast and a webinar. You’ll listen in on a fascinating interview of Master Certified Coaches and be able to interact, asking questions of panelists and engaging with the audience.
Join us for this 90-minute podinar, and hear our panel of expert executive coaches debate questions on topics like these:
We want to support coaches in providing the best coaching possible for their clients, and so they can make a thriving, successful living as professional coaches.
Join our moderator and a panel of four expert MCC coaches, including some who helped shape ICF:
Alison Whitmire, president, Learning in Action
Amy Ruppert, MCC, The Integreship Group
Pamela Richarde, MCC, InnerVision Enterprises
Peter Reding, MCC, Coach For Life
Terrie Upshur-Lupberger, MCC, Altus Growth Partners
Have a question you’d like our panelists to answer during the podinar? Ask in the space provided when you register, or you can ask during the live podinar.
All registrants receive a link to the recording after the event!
Hope to see you there,
– Team Learning in Action
You work so hard for your clients. You generously share yourself with them. You deeply and genuinely care for them. And you courageously and exhaustively work on developing yourself so you can be better for them.
That was an acknowledgement. It’s powerful stuff, right? It feels amazing. And it feels amazing because it feels true. Acknowledgement is a potent ally in coaching.
An acknowledgement is an affirming statement of who the client is being and/or what they are doing in that moment. It notices, mirrors and anchors the best in the client, reinforcing who and how the client wants to be. The acknowledgement feels true both to the giver and to the receiver. And it’s delivered as a statement of fact.
An acknowledgement isn’t the same as positive feedback. Positive feedback is an evaluation of one’s performance, with an agenda to improve it. And while that has a place in the working world, acknowledgement is a better coaching tool because it takes the coach’s judgment out of it. The coach isn’t evaluating who or how the client is being. They are simply seeing the client being their best and saying what they see.
For a coach, an acknowledgement is a way of saying to the client “I see you. I see you being who you want to be. You are doing it now! Look at you!” (In the Zulu tribe, this is the way they greet each other – “Sawubona” – translated, “we see you”. It’s a form of deep witnessing and presence.)
Acknowledgement of the client is every bit as important (maybe more so) as asking powerful questions, active listening or planning and goal setting. Acknowledgement is a foundational element of the coach/client relationship that builds the trust and intimacy needed to do the rest of the work.
In her book, The Power of Acknowledgement, Judith W. Umlas writes about the seven principles of acknowledgement. While you can read all seven here, they boil down to the potent effect that acknowledgement can have on both the person being acknowledged and the relationship between the giver and receiver.
When the relationship between coach and client is an intimate one, the coach’s acknowledgement can act like a kind of self-affirmation for the client, because it feels so real, present and true. Studies on self- affirmation have been shown to improve health, education and relationships. Also, acknowledgement of who the client is being (separate from what they are doing), in my experience, has led consistently to deeper relationships that have allowed for deeper work.
Clearly, acknowledgement is an essential aspect of developing the coach/client relationship and anchoring the essence of the client. So why don’t we coaches acknowledge more?
I’ve been actively engaged in coach training (involved in one coaching program or another) for the last 5 years. I’ve had the opportunity to observe dozens of coaches at all levels – from MCC to no CC, ICF and non-ICF type coaches – and I’ve witnessed surprisingly little acknowledgment. Not that there aren’t ample opportunities. The opportunities for acknowledgement are abundant. It’s caused me to be curious about why we coaches don’t acknowledge more.
My hunches about why we don’t acknowledge our clients more include:
• We don’t acknowledge ourselves enough.
OK, here we go again, it’s back to us. Yes, it is. We can’t give to our clients what we don’t give to ourselves. (A lesson I just keep learning!)
• We consider it unimportant or that they know already.
This is actually just another way of saying we don’t consider it important for ourselves and we already know (clearly a theme here).
• Our wants/action orientation.
At Learning in Action, our deep experience with the EQ Profile has helped us understand how everyone has a preferred method of self-soothing. And we coaches can, if we are not fully conscious and aware of our internal experience, project our own self- soothing onto our clients. Those of us who self- soothe by acting, doing something, fixing the problem, can insert that bias into our coaching and we can tend to miss the opportunity to simply observe, witness and be present with our clients. And we can coach right past the opportunity for acknowledgment.
• Our thoughts orientation or being too much in our heads.
Some of us self-soothe by thinking more and turning our focus inward as we coach, searching for that next, awesome, powerful question that will lead to a breakthrough for the client. When we are turned inward, focusing on our thoughts, looking for that next question, figuring the way forward, we can overlook the opportunity for acknowledgement of our client.
• Can’t figure out what to say or how to say it.
This was definitely me for a very long time and sometimes is even now. I can recognize the opportunity for acknowledgement and somehow just can’t figure out what to say to acknowledge the client in a way that feels natural and authentic. It has taken lots of practice and I’ve gotten better. That said, even now, when I feel like I’m stumbling over an acknowledgement of my client, I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who notices. My client almost always, beams afterward, even if it felt awkward to me.
We can all get better at acknowledging our clients if we want to. And it’s definitely worth the effort as it’s one thing that can change everything about the quality of our coaching.
Here’s where to start:
1. Acknowledge yourself
Take time every day to acknowledge yourself. Who were you or what did you do for your clients, your friends, your family, that was of service to them? Acknowledge that. (I use the Five Minute Journal for acknowledging myself).
2. Learn your biases
We have a responsibility to our clients to be aware of our biases. When we don’t (and sometimes even when we do), they can show up in our coaching in ways that don’t serve us or the client. We, of course, recommend the EQ Profile for helping us to understand our biases. There are many, many ways we can deepen our understanding of our own biases, including developing an understanding of biases that affect coaching in general.
3. Develop your skill for acknowledgement
Acknowledgement is a coaching skill, like any other, than gets better with time and practice.
In part 2 of this blog (stay tuned), I’ll be sharing a coaching tool for developing acknowledgement. And it’ll do double duty for you. It can help you to develop your own ability to acknowledge your client. You can use it as a tool for your clients who are not so good at acknowledging their co-workers or team.
What about you? What’s been your experience of acknowledging your clients? What works for you? What’s the impact it has on your coaching? We look forward to hearing about it!