CoachingExcellence

January 1, 2017
Dear Coach,

Welcome to my Blog. Here you'll find essays I've written about coaching. Some of the questions I'm exploring are (1) What makes coaching work? (2) What helps coaches do their work well? (3) How do coaches continue to be masters of their profession? and (4) What the heck are those ICF coaching competencies, anyway?

My passion is helping coaches to be their best, so they can bring the best of coaching to their clients.

There's something here for all coaches, at all levels of experience. I’ll bet you'll learn something new, find a new perspective to consider, or just encounter a new way to say what you already know from experience. It’s all good, and (probably) good for you, too! .
You're welcome to browse - I'm sure you'll find something that resonates with your experience. You can also search on Categories and Tags for specific topics.

If you find something that you enjoy, please share with your colleagues and friends, and copy the link so you can find it again. Leave a comment if you’d like. You just might spur a new essay about something I’ve learned from you!

It's my privilege to offer my thoughts on coaching.. Enjoy your reading!

Sue McLeod, PCC

Why Talk about Ethics in Coaching?

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Has someone asked you to break your confidentiality agreement with a client asking for information about what’s going on in a coaching relationship?

These situations are probably more common than we think. I’ve heard variations on this story when friends, peers, supervisors, HR staff, and other coaches ask for and expect the coach to share information about the client or the topics being discussed. It might be a casual “How’s that coaching going?” or a more formal invitation to provide insight like “Do you think the client is ready for that promotion?”. These requests are challenging because they create conflicts between the interests of the stakeholders in the coaching engagement. They can violate promises, expectations or agreements. And they put the coach in an uncomfortable position of not knowing what’s the right move to make.

Ethics in coaching is a topic that touches close to home for me. Making choices when there is a conflict between self-interest and “the right thing” has been a life-long challenge. From the petty shoplifting of a candy bar as a small child to falling in love with a client, my personal history is littered with examples where I had to make these tough choices. Many times I chose “right”, some times I did not.

As I’ve delved into Ethics in Coaching, I’ve come to appreciate it’s complexities and nuances. We make many decisions each day that are easily in line with our personal morals and professional ethics.  It’s the challenging situations that trip us up. My experience has taught me that coaches need to learn about, prepare for, and practice their responses to challenging ethical situations. It is also crucial to have a support system to help evaluate these challenging situations and make well-reasoned decisions about how to act.

Behaving ethically seems easy - in theory.

In theory, you dispassionately weigh the pros and cons, play out the possible scenarios and consequences, research what others have said and did, have rational conversations with the parties involved, and come to a well-reasoned and defensible decision on how to proceed.  But, let’s be honest, we’re never this logical, even for the easy decisions we make!

By their nature, situations that challenge us to act “ethically” are confusing, conflict-ridden, ambiguous, and risky. They can ask us to break promises or contractual agreements, or involve illegal and immoral behavior that can be embarrassing and shameful. The conflicts can attack the things we hold dear, like our reputation, important relationships, and self-image. They can put our livelihood at risk. They may hinge on something we did or said (or didn’t do or say) in the past that we wish we could erase but can’t. They can happen when we’re experiencing other pressures – like difficulties with our finances -- that make it harder to be impartial, objective, and rational.

In short, we’re dealing with situations that can hijack our rational thinking causing us to retreat into hiding, avoidance, rationalization and magical thinking. Without our rational minds to guide us, the “right thing to do” might seem unnecessary, at one extreme, or downright dangerous, at the other. 

There are many temptations in the coaching profession. We spend our time alone with clients in serious and personal conversations, in a trusting and intimate relationship. We work under an agreement of confidentiality, with little oversight or need to report to others. We are paid based on time spent with clients, and often get new business based on referrals and the “good word” of people we work with. We are often self-employed, with no “internal” support structure.  Personally, I was not prepared for the stresses of being self-employed with a young family in a new profession without a strong support group. I’m curious how prepared you feel for the life you lead as a coach.

I have no easy answer to questions that start with “how should I handle (insert your favorite ethical challenge)?”, because the answer depends on so many things. If you need immediate help, talk with someone you trust about the specifics. But now that I’ve got your attention, take this opportunity to be reflective and thoughtful about how to prepare for the future situations that will surely happen. Although you can’t predict what they will be, you can bolster your foundations to make tough choices. 

Find the ICF Code of Ethics and Professional Standards and read it through. Review the agreements you make with your clients and the contracts you sign with sponsors. Reflect on the challenges you’ve faced in the past, and the stories you’ve heard from your colleagues. Think about how you can be prepared and how you will respond to the common ethical challenges.

This is also an opportunity for self-reflection. What makes you vulnerable to being knocked off your ethical center? What are the triggers that take you out of your rational mind and how do they get activated? How can you prevent these and what support system do you need around you to keep you true to your ethics?

You have to DO Ethics, not just HAVE Ethics. Doing Ethics means making choices when there is no “right” and you might hurt yourself in the process. It’s harder than you think.

 

Two “out-of-the-box” references for exploring the complexity and nuances of Ethics.

In understanding how to handle ethical challenges, I think it’s important to understand human nature and motivations that drive our behavior. This means delving into the shadows where breaking rules, hiding information, taking risks, and doing damage seems to make sense.

If you’re curious to learn more, I have two recommendations:

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely, especially Chapters 6 “The Influence of Arousal” and 13 “The Context of Our Character, Part 1: Why We Are Dishonest and What We Can Do About It”.   Revised and expanded edition published in 2009 by HarperCollins, New York.

This book has some eye-opening experiments and results that remind us that our rational brain is not always in charge, especially when there are opportunities to be dishonest or take advantage of others.

Spreier, Scott, Mary Fontaine, and Ruth Malloy. 2006. “Leadership run amok: The destructive potential of overachievers”. Harvard Business Review 84, no. 6:72.
Available from https://hbr.org/2006/06/leadership-run-amok-the-destructive-potential-of-overachievers

This great article that explores how a motive for achievement, when overplayed in an environment without constraints, can be destructive to businesses and the people working in them. 

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Hey Coach, Where are you taking that client?

“Questions are the currency of coaching“ and asking questions is a fundamental skill of a coach. Our coaching artistry is expressed in the questions we ask, the questions we don’t ask. It is colored by how we ask and when we ask. It is shaped by the intention we bring to our questions and how we hold the responses our questions bring forth.

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When I was learning to coach, questions seemed awkward and unnatural. Now, when I’m coaching, the questions come easily and flow out of me, coming from the connection with my client. I ask questions that I don’t know the answer to and sit calmly, waiting to hear the response. Each question causes my client to pause, ponder, and discover something new. I am tuned in to her; questions arise from within me and, somehow, each is the perfect question to ask next. The session flies by, we are in perfect sync, new insights popping up at every turn. By the end of the session, my questions have caused profound transformation and my client is delighted.

WAIT!!!!  Oops - I’ve obviously wandered off into Coach Fantasy Land. Sorry about that!

To be honest, I’ve had my moments of coaching flow that feels like what I described above. Those are the moments we live for, aren’t they? The rest of the time, I can be artful in my questions with a calm and connected presence, in spite of what’

s going on inside my head and my own emotions.  It’s like meditation. The problem-solving and leading questions are in my stream of consciousness, but I let them float by without sharing them with my client.

By doing this, I stay in the flow of the conversation, making choices of where to allow the client to continue on her path and when to disrupt and shake things up.

The questions that disrupt the coaching flow are leading questions. When the coach asks a leading question, there’s a change in direction, a change in what the client thinks about. You can feel the energy shift. 

Because leading questions can have a big impact on the coaching conversation, they are important to understand.

What is a Leading Question?

A leading question is one that moves the client towards a specific answer or response. Here are some variations:

    • The question includes the desired response
      • “Would having an alarm ring every hour be a helpful reminder?”
    • The question suggests the desired response
      • “What would happen if you had an alarm ring every hour to remind you to pause?”
    • The question influences/manipulates the other to give the desired response
      • “I’ve heard that setting an alarm can be really helpful and it works for me. What do you think about trying that?”
    • The question eliminates a set of possible responses
      • “I see two options. Would it be helpful to use an alarm or to pause before you walk into a room ?”

These are simple examples and my assessment is that the coach is asking these questions as a disguise for advice she wants to give. I call these “faux questions” or “advice in the form of a question”.

The leading questions you ask might be a little more nuanced or cleverly worded. I invite you to reflect. Do you know what your leading questions sound like? Are you aware of the trigger that moves you to want to lead the client?

Isn’t Every Question a Leading Question?

When you get right down to it, all questions lead the client’s thinking in a particular direction. All questions are leading, to some extent.  

“What??”, you say. “Does Sue really mean that? What about all those beautiful “what” questions? Or the list of questions provided by Co-Active Coaching that Sue recommends so highly? How can they be considered leading questions?”

OK, maybe that’s a provocative statement. But consider the following:

The wonderful, open question “What do you want?” is asking the client to focus on the future, on themselves, on their desire - rather than on the past or present, on other people or the situation, or on what they don’t want or the story they are making up about the situation. 

“What are you noticing?” suggests they focus on their noticing, rather than somewhere else. 

Think about all of your favorite coaching questions. Might they be considered “leading” in some way?

The level of disruption our questions cause is related to the timing and our intention in asking the question. When you ask a disruptive or leading (but not a “faux”) question, consider the following: For what purpose are you leading the client in that direction? Is it aligned with the objective they set for the coaching session? Is it aligned with the larger coaching intention of creating awareness that supports the client’s development?  Are you leading them where they need to go? Are you taking the next step on the path, even if steering them to the right?  If you are in the flow, the question won’t feel “leading”.

If, on the other hand, the question abruptly change the direction of the conversation or is not in the flow, it will feel disruptive and leading. For example, if the client is revealing that what’s stopping them is a fear of betrayal and appearing weak, and your next question is “What do you think your boss wants from the meeting?”, your question is disrupting the flow.

Sometimes, this disruption is just what’s needed in the conversation. Sometimes, it’s not.

What are you choosing for the client when you ask a leading question that disrupts the flow of the conversation?

 

Interested in examining your coaching questions in a supportive community of learners?  Join my Coaching Master Class starting in May!  http://suemcleodcoaching.com/master-class.html

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Coaching Moves

You know I’m a big fan of the coaching competencies. I also know that there are 12 of them and many more PCC competency markers and it’s hard to keep them all in your head when you’re in a coaching conversation.

Each moment of a coaching conversation offers us a choice of what move to make next. Here are the basic moves we can make:

  • Ask a question
  • Offer an observation
  • Offer an assessment (observation + interpretation)
  • Paraphrase for clarity
  • Stay in silence

Any of these moves, when done in service to client and what they want from the coaching conversation, keep you firmly in the coach role.

(with gratitude to my fellow Georgetown Leadership Coaching faculty members who created this list)

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Make it a Habit

Make it a habit…

My friend and coaching buddy, Heidi Bellamente, and I have been working on our habits - We’re creating new ones, breaking old ones, and appreciating the ingrained habits that keeping us alive and on track. And we’ve learned a lot along the way.

Why focus on habits and what do they have to do with coaching?

First, the “why”.

My experiment in creating a new habit was my desire to be healthier and physically stronger. The beginning was simply saying “I need to start exercising!”. Simple to say, yes, but not easy to manifest. In fact, it turned out to be pretty complex. How does that simple statement transform into a gym membership, four completed 5Ks and a 5-mile trail race, a backpack filled with the right clothes and shoes, a personal trainer, a running app on my phone, and exercise being a part of my life, everyday?

By intentionally creating a new habit, I learned my own success formula. Working with Heidi, I learned that she’s not the same as me, and has her own unique ways of creating habits.

What does this have to do with coaching?

When our clients say “I need to…”, that is just the beginning of the journey. Sustained change, for individuals and groups, is more effective when the new behaviors become a habit. And we all have a unique success formula for creating habits.

So, what’s the coach’s role?

Here a hint - a couple of the PCC markers for the Designing Actions, Planning and Goal Setting, and Managing Progress and Accountability (D-P-M) competencies.

  • Coach assists the client to design what actions/thinking client will do after the session in order for the client to continue moving toward the client’s desired outcomes.

This seems simple enough on the face of it. But what if you knew that your client needed to put that action into the context of a big vision in order to be motivated?  Or, that your client gets freaked out by the big vision, and prefers to just map out a few next steps? Would your approach change if you knew that your client will do this new because you’re expecting them to, or might rebel unless it’s completely their own idea?

  • Coach invites or allows client to consider her/his path forward, including, as appropriate, support mechanisms, resources and potential barriers.

Hmm, this is a little more detailed than I would usually get. What, pray tell, needs to be considered in the “path forward”?  Think of all the things that get in the way of your good intentions. If you’re like me, it can be a long list! How will your client face and conquer what will get in their way? Again, it’s personal. Do they need to schedule it, be reminded, get the right equipment, track and measure progress, get feedback, find a community of support, expect resistance and plan a way through it, or something else?

  • Coach assists the client to design the best methods of accountability for her/himself.

Ahh yes, accountability. When I was a beginner coach, my coaching move was to ask the client if I could hold them accountable. It runs out, that wasn’t a good idea. I have trouble being accountable for my own stuff, never mind my client’s stuff, too! So, the better move is to know what kind of accountability works best for them. Do they like to keep things private, share with only trusted individuals, create a group and get hurrahs when they succeed? And what happens when they get stuck? Will they hide or boldly declare a breakdown? Who, or what, will call them back to their commitment?

So you see, there’s lots to talk about with clients after they say “I need to…”.

Oh - and here’s what it took for me to get exercise into my life:

  • Short-term, easy to accomplish goals (Run a 5K every month).
  • Accountability to my husband, my running partner and to Heidi.
  • Permission to hate exercise (which I do),
  • No permission to NOT exercise
  • The right clothes and shoes, in a backpack, ready to go, everyday
  • An expert to tell me exactly what I should do and when, so I don’t have to think about it.
  • Tracking what I do and when with an easy to use phone app.
  • Anticipating the change of seasons and proactively working out a new exercise plan

I’m curious if any of these strategies would work for you?  And what have you noticed about what works for your clients?

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Do you have an Ethics Lifeline?

Who do you reach out to when the waters get a little rough in your one-on-one with coaching clients?
 

I received a call from a former student and colleague the other day. She was facing a challenge with a coaching client and needed help thinking through how to handle it. The challenge had to do with Ethics - which is not unusual when I receive these types of calls.  I think she had a pretty good idea of what needed to be done, but it wasn’t straightforward and she felt that there were risks in all directions. It was ambiguous (maybe something was amiss, or maybe not), it involved her client and others in the organization, and the worst-case scenario was serious enough that ignoring it wasn’t an option. It was helpful for her to talk it through, and she came away with a plan and the conviction that taking action was the right thing to do.

In my Coaching Master Class, we talk about Ethics first, and spend more time on it than the other competencies. In my initial class design, I put Ethics at the beginning because I thought it was a topic that we would discuss without much pre-work, as a way to “warm up” before hitting our stride with real coaching topics.


After 10 cohorts, I now see that putting Ethics first was a great decision - it is a real coaching topic. 


In listening to the ethical situations the students bring to the class, I see that Ethics is an undercurrent in our relationships with our clients and their sponsoring organizations.  They can arise right at the beginning or at any time during the engagement. They impact the services we offer and how we build our businesses, especially if we offer more than coaching.  Whenever they come up, they can knock us off center and disrupt the coaching engagement.


Talking about Ethics proactively – that is, before we need to make some of those difficult choices - is important. Many of the Coaching Master Class students have been grateful for that opportunity and have made specific changes to their coaching agreements and initial conversations with clients and sponsors. They are ready to handle some common ethical challenges before they become a problem.


Through the conversations, students also realize the value of getting different perspectives and hearing the experiences of their peers. We talk about having a “lifeline” - someone to call to help when you're facing a challenge. Your lifeline won’t have the answer, but will listen, ask questions, notice emotions that might be getting in your way, challenge your assumptions, and refer you back to the Code of Ethics and your coaching agreements for guidance. Your lifeline is a coach, really, to help you do what needs to be done to stay aligned with your ethical code.


The coach who called me had been through those conversations in the Coaching Master Class and had done some research on ethics in coaching relationships. She had the advantage of that proactive thinking, and had the phone number of her lifeline ready.


From teaching the Coaching Master Class, I’ve learned that it’s important that we stop and talk about Ethics periodically, to check in on the ethical challenges that are cropping up in your real-world experiences. The conversations remind us of what’s expected when we face these challenges, and prepare us for when they do occur.


Who is your Ethics Lifeline?

 

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