A to Z of coaching: H – Holding the space

In this alternative series on the A to Z of coaching, I’ve held off on topics such as happiness or habits or hope as candidates for the letter ‘h’, to be potentially revisited on subsequent runs through the alphabet.

Instead, I want to explore the concept of ‘holding the space’.

Wait, what? Is that one of those touchy feely things? Does it involve some awkwardness and the unexpected introduction of a candle? (This was my initial reaction to the concept, btw).

Holding the space may sound a bit woo-woo but it is, in fact, one of the key elements of successful coaching. Much of the progress made in coaching depends upon that space being created, and ‘held’.

In essence, it’s about providing the opportunity for a high quality conversation.

If I had to identify three components, I would choose:

  1. Generating a sense of safety – allowing the coachee to see that it’s ok to talk, that it feels safe, both emotionally and psychologically, to be ourselves in the conversation
  2. Building a sense of confidence – experiencing first hand that talking about this will help to improve things and that the momentum generated will give us greater courage to tackle harder challenges
  3. Staying with the uncomfortable – delaying the reflex to avoid dealing with something or not giving in to the impulse to switch to a less challenging question

From my experience, I can sense that I’ve been successful in holding the space when people share observations like “I haven’t spoken openly about that before” or “I wasn’t expecting to say that”. I also notice a sense of emotional release and a renewed ‘lightness’ arising from progress made.

However, not everyone wants that space. Some aren’t ready. Some are ideologically opposed to such work.

But for most, such conversations are highly valuable. And that value derives from the insight that what is causing us to become stuck is rarely due to unsolvable complexity, but more often a lack of willingness (or practice) to examine it properly.

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This post was adapted from one of Aodan’s Sunday morning newsletters, eagerly anticipated by hundreds of readers. Give yourself the gift of that weekly wisdom by signing up here.

A different way

One of the privileges of being trusted to help many people through the practice of coaching is to get exposed to a diverse range of perspectives on the professional world.

I regularly find myself enthralled and enthused by how some embrace challenges in a way that wasn’t obvious to me.

It’s a reminder that human ingenuity is under-appreciated and when we lose hope, it’s often because we forget how resourceful we are as a species.

Of course, we are social beings. We find ourselves looking to others in comparison and sometimes seek comfort in hoping that others think and feel the way we do. There’s a time and place where that’s helpful but in finding succour in company, we can often seek validation for a specific approach.

There are always different ways of proceeding. It may take extra effort to push beyond ‘groupthink’ but it’s usually worthwhile.

If you’re feeling stuck, it’s worth remembering that not only is there a way out, but there are likely to be multiple paths.

Sometimes in our search for different ways, we need to back ourselves to find them.

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This post was adapted from one of Aodan’s Sunday morning newsletters, eagerly anticipated by hundreds of readers. Give yourself the gift of that weekly wisdom by signing up here.

The weight of permanence

In our pursuit of certainty, we crave permanence in the things that are important to us.

Alas, so much of our world is transient. Change is constant. Impermanence is reality.

And yet, when it comes to our professional performance we have a tendency to attach permanence to events and perspectives that are no more than passing moments.

When our pitch of an idea or offering is rejected, it can feel like we are rejected and thus should not try again.

When we experience a streak of ‘bad days’, it can feel like we have lost our capability and thus shouldn’t expect to regain it.

When we are overwhelmed, it can feel like there’s no way through and we lose our belief in recovery.

But all such moments do pass. Failures turn into successes. Bad days are replaced by good days. We find ease where previously we were lost.

When moments of struggle arise, it doesn’t help us when we attach the weight of permanence.

This too shall pass.

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This post was adapted from one of Aodan’s Sunday morning newsletters, eagerly anticipated by hundreds of readers. Give yourself the gift of that weekly wisdom by signing up here.

A bumpy re-entry

You’ve probably heard about the so-called Great Resignation era we are living through. People are leaving their jobs at significantly higher rates than previously. Some reports suggest up to half of employees are intending to move roles in the immediate future.

The pandemic has interrupted the normal flow of life. It feels like there are massive pressure points building up in the system of our working world. Something has to give.

Now that re-introductions to office buildings are picking up pace, we’re likely to see an acceleration in career movement. The disruption of lockdown era habits will trigger greater momentum in this process. In this otherwise uncertain world, you can be relatively certain that things are going to look a lot different when next spring comes around.

So, my question for you is how do you feel about this?

Are you excited? Does it fill you with dread? Are you bemused as you watch others fret and fuss? Are you feeling some FOMO and asking yourself if you should be looking to change too?

If you’re finding this period anxiety-inducing and perhaps even overwhelming, you’re far from alone. And there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with you either. You’re responding in a human way.

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This month, I’m back working in physical spaces that were out of bounds since March 2020. I’m delivering workshops in actual rooms with actual breathing, living human beings present. I’m coaching in actual offices and I don’t have to remind people to ‘unmute’ themselves.

I’m surprised at how uncomfortable it is. I’m delighted to be out and about, thrilled to see people I haven’t seen in a long time and relieved to be able to work in a way that is more helpful for clients. But so much of it is weird. There are new rituals and new ways to screw up. There is awkwardness, tension and uncertainty.

And that’s before we get onto finding and fitting into ‘office appropriate clothes’…

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Re-entry can be bumpy.

When astronauts brace for impact as their spacecraft travels through the earth’s outer atmosphere, they’re not wondering if their reactions are appropriate. They’re focused on getting through the bumpy phase. They know it doesn’t last.

As we find our feet in this transition, it’s useful to remember that we’re readjusting. We would normally show patience to others in such circumstances and similarly need to give ourselves some leeway to handle the bumpiness.

You’ll get through this. And it will be worth it.

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This post was adapted from one of Aodan’s Sunday morning newsletters, eagerly anticipated by hundreds of readers. Give yourself the gift of that weekly wisdom by signing up here.

A to Z of coaching: G – Growth

This is an ideal time to revisit our modern attachments to the concept of growth.

Growth is a universally popular idea, with almost religious meaning for some. Growth is endlessly marketable, offering hope and a path of progress.

‘Up and to the right’ is the trajectory that underpins modern economic life and is the context for much of our professional work. We congratulate ourselves when we point to evidence of such growth.

As individuals, we are obviously vulnerable and limited yet are receptive to stories of our infinite potential. At the organisational or societal level, we can structure ourselves to achieve extraordinary things but run up against the limitations of our environment and of our capabilities to supply or produce.

This brings us to the question of sustainability. And ultimately to ask to what end are we pursuing growth?

Is growth motivated by attempting to fit in, to impress, to dance to another’s tune, to outperform, to control or to dominate?

Is growth arising from an understanding of values, from building on known strengths, or aligning to the servicing of the expressed needs of others?

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Life stretches us, often unexpectedly. A mix of self-selected and unwelcome challenges allow us to find new levels of resourcefulness and adaptability.

But we don’t always thrive when stretched. We can be traumatised, rattled and diminished.

It is perhaps in this context that growth has most meaning and leads to my preferred definition: growth expands our capability to handle what arises.

We’re not always motivated for growth. We may lack confidence or belief. We may be exhausted. We may feel unsupported or question the benefits of moving away from a position of comfort.

But we are more likely to make progress when we tap into the intrinsic motivation of expanding our capability for caring for others and broadening our contribution beyond our own selfish whims.

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Coaching is highly relevant to the pursuit of growth. We coach for performance, for improvement and for development. Working with a coach can be described as having a partner in growth.

However, coaching work is limited unless it also opens to questions of sustainability and alignment. This requires courage, in coming to terms with uncertainty and discomfort. The process of growing requires us to open to what emerges, no matter how unexpected or non-ideal.

Developing our capability to handle what arises benefits us and benefits others. That is growth worth pursuing.

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This post was adapted from one of Aodan’s Sunday morning newsletters, eagerly anticipated by hundreds of readers. Give yourself the gift of that weekly wisdom by signing up here.

Nearest and latest

As professionals, we like to reassure ourselves with demonstrations of self-determination.

We stand for something. We set goals. We assert our influence. We speak up. We allow our egos to dance.

But we remain social beings. We are wired to take notice of what others are doing and saying. We might prefer to deny our human nature but in doing so we inevitably set ourselves up to struggle.

The person nearest to us has an oversized influence on how we feel and act. The further away we move, the more that influence diminishes.

The latest interaction or update can colour our mood and adjust the direction of what we’re doing. What was essential previously has been relegated to once-important.

No matter how accomplished we may feel we have become, we are influenced by the nearest and latest.

So, we are very much applying our wisdom when we carefully consider to whom we are proximate and to what we give our attention.

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This post was adapted from one of Aodan’s Sunday morning newsletters, eagerly anticipated by hundreds of readers. Give yourself the gift of that weekly wisdom by signing up here.

Do I have to?

Reframing ‘Have to’ as ‘Get to’ is one of the most popular concepts in positive psychology.

You know how it goes. There are times when we’re frustrated that we have to do something. Maybe we don’t want to do it, or would prefer to be doing something else. Maybe we’re just fed up of it?

But when we step back and think about it a little differently i.e. reframe it, then we can shift our relationship with the obligation in question. Replacing have to with get to reminds us of our capability and our privilege, and that we can actually contribute.

So instead, our inner dialogue sounds more like, “I have a job. I get to be of service here. I can make a difference”. Posture, energy and attitude all shift in a better direction.

In recent months though, I’ve observed a fascinating change in the dynamic of ‘get to’ and ‘have to’.

The pandemic has upended many things. There’s been a bunch of tasks that previously we had to do which we no longer have to do, or at least are not permitted to do. Similarly, there are quite a few things that we no longer get to do, or at least can’t fully until restrictions ease.

As the world readjusts to wider interaction, we have a (brief) moment of opportunity to recalibrate our have tos and get tos.

Maybe our list of have tos doesn’t need to be as long? Maybe we get to do more than we feared possible?

Perhaps the old line about death and taxes has more relevance than ever?

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This post was adapted from one of Aodan’s Sunday morning newsletters, eagerly anticipated by hundreds of readers. Give yourself the gift of that weekly wisdom by signing up here.

A to Z of coaching: F – Flexibility

When times are stable, there is a certain value in focusing on keeping things steady, on maintaining the status quo.

Some of us have lived through such eras. Some of us have enjoyed long, unbroken runs of predictable success. Some of us have indulged in the certainty of knowing what was coming next.

But those good runs came to an end, as all streaks inevitably do.

Right now, we’re living through a time of great uncertainty, with the pandemic accelerating other disruptions in the technological, social and environmental domains. It’s not a comfortable time if your primary yearning is for things “to go back to normal”.

While not all of us are in the same boat, and circumstances play a significant part in how well our lives are playing out, it is also true that how we interact with the changing world determines our ease with it.

Psychological rigidity, where we seek to avoid the mental challenges we face, is a poor long-term strategy for handling what comes at us. In the professional context, greater rigidity only ensures that the breadth of what we are capable of contributing will shrink progressively with every new disruption.

The opposite of rigidity, of course, is flexibility. At our best, we are open, compassionate and curious, willing to embrace whatever situations or opportunities that may arise.

Psychological flexibility, as popularly defined in ACT (see below), has three key elements:

  • the ability to feel and think with openness
  • attending voluntarily to your experience of the present moment
  • moving your life in directions that are important to you

Trust me, it’s easier said than done. It’s not just a case of ‘lightening up’ or ‘chilling out’. Developing our flexibility requires hard work, but is an excellent return on invested energy.

Coaching provides a secure environment for the development of psychological flexibility. By opening to what’s really going on, and gently exploring options that are in greater alignment with values and aspirations, we can build our capability to handle whatever arises.

Exercises:

As referenced above, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a highly useful methodology that has evolved in recent years from approaches such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). It underpins much of my coaching work and is particularly effective in helping develop psychological flexibility.

Here are two assessments that allow you to see where you are today in regards to psychological flexibility. Both are simple and quick, the first allows a visual representation, the second a brief questionnaire. If the results pique your curiosity, I would advise further research.

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This post was adapted from one of Aodan’s Sunday morning newsletters, eagerly anticipated by hundreds of readers. Give yourself the gift of that weekly wisdom by signing up here.

What if?


Our minds are particularly skilled at generating ‘what if’ type questions.

When we’re tired, or stressed, or over-indulging on our media consumption, we are prone to hearing these kinds of questions in our inner dialogue:

  • What if this pandemic goes on for many years?
  • What if I can’t handle the return to the office?
  • What if I can’t find a better job?
  • What if I can’t regain my fitness?

When we’re rested, or energised, or feeling supported by others, our minds tend to spark questions like these:

  • What if I looked for a promotion?
  • What if I started my own business?
  • What if I moved to a new location?
  • What if I backed my own abilities more?

No matter what our mood, the what-ifs keep coming. The more we chew on them, the faster they come.

What if we realised that these what-ifs are open questions about events that have not yet happened and in many cases are never likely to happen?

What if we remembered that we have the choice to let these questions pass, like clouds moving across a summer sky, or decide to take action where appropriate?

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This post was adapted from one of Aodan’s Sunday morning newsletters, eagerly anticipated by hundreds of readers. Give yourself the gift of that weekly wisdom by signing up here.

A to Z of coaching: E – Emotions

There’s no crying in baseball.

And some suggest there should be no crying in any workplace.

The reality though is that every professional is also a human being. And human beings are messy. If you want access to the genius, to the dedication, to the collaboration and every valuable aspect of a professional’s contribution, then you also need to embrace the full complexity of their humanity.

Human beings experience emotions. Sometimes they are useful for us, other times less so. But in the longer run we do better when we learn how to embrace them, learn how to handle them in different contexts and above all develop the agility to respond to whatever arises.

Emotional Intelligence is a useful construct, and the work pioneered by Dan Goleman and developed by many others has provided opportunities in the workplace to engage with concepts such as self-awareness, empathy and adaptability in a supported way.

Coaching makes room for emotions. It’s not necessary to be emotional in order to make progress but being open and curious as emotions arise allows for a deeper understanding of where we are and what is most important for us.

In the coaching context, it’s also important to hold that space of inquiry rather than looking to move on or avoid the more profound insights that our emotions may be helping us to see.

1. What are you noticing?

It can be helpful to cultivate a habit of noticing as emotions arise. As an example, if you become angry it can be useful to say to yourself, “I’m noticing I’m getting angry”, rather than immediately acting upon that anger or engaging in self-criticism for being angry. This act of noticing also provides some breathing space to allow you to respond to what is arising in a way that’s more aligned with what you value.

2. You *are* that kind of person

“You’re an engineer, you wouldn’t understand”. “You’re a coder, you’re not paid to have feelings”. Sometimes, we utilise stereotypes to exert control over others, or avoid engaging with stuff that feels strange or inconvenient. This can result in some deciding that the business of emotions doesn’t apply to them. But it does. All of us can develop our ‘EQ’, work on our emotional agility and build our confidence to handle the unexpected.

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This post was adapted from one of Aodan’s Sunday morning newsletters, eagerly anticipated by hundreds of readers. Give yourself the gift of that weekly wisdom by signing up here.