Category Archives: Coaching A to Z

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 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?

***

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.

***

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.

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.

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.

A to Z of coaching: D – Decisions

Our path forward is illuminated by the decisions we make. In many ways, we are a product of our choices.

It’s useful to remember that only some of our decisions are conscious. Much of our decision-making happens when we’re running on autopilot or occurs beneath the level of our consciousness. This behaviour is largely driven by habit or by biases of which we have varying levels of awareness.

Perfection in decision making is essentially unattainable. We can’t always rely on making the right call. Realising that can actually free us up to a more open mindset, and allows us to improve, to avoid ‘analysis paralysis’ and the dubious practice of postponing important decisions by days, weeks and even years.

One of our roles as a professional is to pursue mastery in decision making. By resolving to be a life-long student of the topic, we can increase our percentage of successful decisions, gain a deeper understanding of our biases and experiment with technical approaches. We can broaden our perspectives beyond pithy cliches such as ‘Go with your gut!’

Coaching work can be helpful in two domains, firstly by raising awareness of our existing decision making approaches and secondly by giving appropriate space to the exploration of more significant decisions as they arise. In my experience, at least one-third of sessions focus on those types of decisions that can weigh heavily on us, at least until we’ve gained clarity and can then move forward with purpose.

Here are a couple of exercises to get you started on the path to being a better decision maker:

1. Useful techniques

In their book Decisive, one of the best books on decision making in recent years, Chip and Dan Heath identify four ‘villains’ of decision making and suggest approaches to overcome them.

(a) Widen your options. We’re prone to ‘narrow framing’, shrinking the choices available to us. But by seeking alternatives we can open up better outcomes.

(b) Reality-test your assumptions. We tend to be slaves to confirmation bias, seeking out evidence that validates what we already believe. To overcome this, we can adopt an experimental mindset, identifying hypotheses that we can look to prove or disprove.

(c) Attain distance before deciding. We’re emotional beings and often short-term emotions play a stronger role in decision making than our rational minds might want to admit. It’s very useful to shift perspective and move away from in-the-moment feelings.

(d) Prepare to be wrong. We’re so over-confident in our predictions about the future. But it’s more useful for us to prepare for unexpected outcomes.

2. A decision inventory

It can be very useful to give yourself some time and a blank page to ‘dump’ from your mind all of the decisions that are relevant for you now. Use these questions to get started:  What decisions do I need to take? What am I putting off? Do I really need someone else’s input or am I just avoiding action? What’s coming up that I need to prepare for? What needs to change in my immediate environment?

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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: C – Compassion

Given the choice of picking a word beginning with ‘c’, most coaches wouldn’t pick compassion.

More conventional choices would include change, or confidence, or competencies. For the same reason that many leaders adjust their facial expression when they talk about ’soft skills’, compassion is still seen as unsafe ground where the messiness of feelings could derail the project plan.

From my professional experience, I’ve discovered compassion to be a foundational element in coaching. And it’s likely to become more easily understood as coaching continues its evolution from an industrial to a humanistic paradigm.

Much of our coaching work is focused on improvement. And that often means getting clearer on things that could be better in some way. If the work isn’t grounded in compassion then there’s a risk of developing a harshness of tone, or of weaponising self-criticism as a means to make progress.

Finding fault with what you’re doing or ‘beating yourself up’ is exhausting. If it gives a sense of reward in the moment, that utility is fleeting. Coaching without compassion is unsustainable.

When we allow ourselves to work on improving our situation, we’re revealing that we truly care about ourselves and the world immediately around us. As we do so, we also learn that when it comes to caring it’s better when we go ‘all in’ and open ourselves to a mindset of compassion.

My favourite quotation on this topic comes from the meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein.

Compassion is the motivation to alleviate suffering, to alleviate harm.

When it’s developed, it opens us to whatever suffering is in front of us and it overcomes the arising of indifference and inaction.

Joseph helps us realise that compassion is an antidote to avoidance, a very common starting point for much of our professional struggle. Developing our ability to be compassionate allows us to sit more easily with our reality, allowing us to gain the kind of clarity that enables us to act more appropriately.

Rather than being the opposite of being ‘a tough guy’, being compassionate requires courage. And sometimes that is uncomfortable.

Compassion is worth practicing, and here are a couple of useful exercises to apply to yourself.

1. To whom are you speaking?

I sometimes ask my coaching clients how they would speak to their best friend, a beloved sibling or even their own child if they found themselves in the same situation. This often leads to an emotional moment. Why wouldn’t you speak to yourself in the same way?

2. Improving your inner dialogue

If you’ve realised that your self-talk tends to be negative and likely interfering with your ability to perform, how do you address that? Two phases: initially, work on just noticing. Catch yourself using particular words or concepts. Develop a radar-like scanning ability. Once your awareness is raised, then experiment with adjusting your language. Try flipping some of the ‘shoulds’ into ‘I get to…’ or reframe some criticism into “Ok, that’s useful, now I can…..”. All while developing your self-compassion.

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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: B – Beliefs

There’s a prevailing school of thought in the world that beliefs are a source of strength and comfort. “I have my beliefs!”, someone will declare with some defiance and assuredness.

That may work well for some but based on my professional experience, beliefs are more often the cause of underperformance, even leading to unnecessary suffering and stress.

Let’s explore why.

One of my favourite stories from the world of sports psychology is a suggestion that Jack Nicklaus once proffered that it was easier for him to win a major tournament than a regular tour event. On the surface, that makes no sense. The world’s top players assemble for the majors. You have to be the best golfer in the world that week.

Jack’s reasoning, though, was revealing. He had observed over the years that on regular tour events, a large number of players teed up believing they had a chance of winning. When it came to the majors though, only a fraction of that number had that belief. So from Jack’s perspective, he had less competition on the biggest stage.

Jack knew he could win. That was based on experience, and confidence built over a stellar career. And he had learned that the game wasn’t just about the technicalities of the swing, or the accuracy of the putts. The mental component was significant and his capability to master that was one of the reasons why no one has won more.

Ultimately, Jack’s story is about self-limiting beliefs. The players who arrived telling themselves stories that the majors are the ultimate test or that’s it going to take something unprecedented from them to compete, they are limiting their sense of possibility before a single ball is hit.

We have many beliefs about ourselves. Most of these are relevant to our professional performance. Some of these beliefs can be useful, or even helpful in a given moment. Others, though, are self-limiting.

It’s part of our job as a professional to know the difference.

There is a lot to be gained from interrogating our beliefs. We typically underestimate the impact of our beliefs on how we perform. By raising our awareness (much of our beliefs are usually below our level of conscious awareness), we can go deeper and ask some insight-generating questions: Is this belief evidence-based? How well does this belief serve me? From where did I pick up this belief?

Here are a couple of exercises that will help you make progress:

1. Monitor your shoulds

When we use the word ‘should’, we’re typically building upon an existing belief. The basic construct is, “I should do this because I believe something needs to be different”. So raising your awareness of the use of ‘should’ in thought or speech will help you gain visibility to your most active beliefs. Initially, just catch yourself using ‘should’. Develop the habit of noticing and over time, you’ll begin to spot trends and gain a deeper understanding of where the compulsion is coming from.

2. Make your beliefs visible

Capture as many beliefs as you can and make them visible. The simplest way to do this is to fill a page with beliefs, without filtering too much and then later transfer each belief to a sticky note. Examples might be, “I work best alone”, “I’m not good at sales”, “I don’t have the experience for that” etc. An exercise like this can be surprisingly emotional, so give yourself the space and time to do it properly.

Once you have plenty of sticky notes, you can then begin to sort them along specific spectra such as Useful <—> Not Useful or Evidence-based <—> Not evidence-based. The practice of doing this will help reveal a lot about the motivation behind much of your behaviour. It’s perfectly ok to crumple up a sticky note and throw it in the recycling bin if you’re ready to leave any belief behind. That choice is always there for us.

Working with your beliefs will inevitably improve your professional performance, unless of course you believe it won’t. 😀

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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: A – Awareness

A – AWARENESS

I’m not sure if I adopted the phrase from a teacher, nor am I sure about the accuracy of the estimated quantity but I often find myself saying to a client, “Raising awareness is half the battle”.

Raising, or expanding, our awareness is an essential component of coaching work. 

At any given time, we have a limited awareness of what’s happening in the world around us. It is impossible to be fully aware or to be up to speed on everything that’s going on – even though we often pursue the fantasy that it is, or should be, achievable.

Awareness is a key element of wisdom. If wisdom is the ability to cope, with effectiveness and ease, with the demands of the world, then awareness allows us to respond more appropriately and to apply our innate wisdom.

Jon Kabat-Zinn talks about how accessing that innate wisdom “rests on our capacity for embodied awareness and on our ability to cultivate our relationship to that awareness”. How do we do that? You may notice the essential elements of mindfulness in the answer: by paying attention in a particular way, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.

We can raise our awareness of our ‘self’, of our thoughts, tendencies and behaviours. We can raise our awareness of our circumstances, the relationships we have with others, and the commitments and responsibilities we have in the world.

We can also raise our awareness of our belief system and that of others, of the ‘programming’ that drives much of our observable behaviour, of our attachment to stories and fictions that guide us in decision-making and value judgments.

The fact that we can raise our awareness should fill you with hope. 

The expansion of awareness is a skill and can be practiced and developed. In fact, it’s very much in our interest to make it a practice, both formally and informally.

When our awareness is low we’re prone to ‘tunnel vision’ missing out on a lot of what’s happening around us. With low awareness, we’re prone to getting stuck more easily. We’re vulnerable to believing in narrow versions of reality which limit our potential contribution and create fantastical heroes and villains in narratives that rarely serve us or others well.

Steven Hayes talks about awareness providing “a foundation to experience life in a more open way”. And that requires a certain amount of courage. Sometimes, in a difficult moment, it feels easier to remain closed to alternatives, even if it prolongs a suffering that feels, at the very least, somewhat comfortable.

Raising our awareness and opening to life more substantially also brings more responsibility as we are faced with new choices. Knowing what we now know today raises the question of whether we should repeat what we did yesterday. Those choices are now for us to make.

Here are three things you can do now to build awareness:

1. Commit to developing and maintaining a mindfulness practice. Most of us are familiar with mindfulness, as referenced above, but yet too many of us haven’t bridged the knowing-doing gap. It’s ok, in fact preferable, to start small and build gradually. Robes and incense are not obligatory! A minute outside with a focus on the breath can go a long way.

2. Accumulate and apply exercises that nudge you out of low awareness patterns. By exposing yourself to challenge, you can help yourself to see a broader picture and a revised perspective of your role in it. Ask disconfirming questions i.e. seek to poke holes in your present perceptions. (If you’d like examples of exercises I use in my coaching work, just reply to this and I’ll gladly share some with you).

3. Open your situation to review by external eyes. We all have biases and blind spots. It helps to have alternative perspectives which stretch us beyond our present ‘limits’ of thinking. This may involve working with a coach, or a peer group, or informally with trusted advisors and friends. This also requires courage and the willingness to invest in yourself, something we are surprisingly reluctant to do.

It all starts with a single breath and a single step forward.

(This is the first in a series of concise articles exploring the discipline of coaching, using the alphabet as a prompt for some key concepts and lesser-known curiosities within the field. Each piece is designed to be helpful in its own right, posing some useful questions that can be applied to everyday challenges).

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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.