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

What to do with those chatty clients

Most coaches I talk with are stymied by what I’ll call “chatty clients”. These are the clients who give long answers with lots of detail, dominate the conversation, don’t breath between sentences, ramble all over the place, and don’t stay focused on the topic at hand. If you let them, they will talk for the whole coaching session.

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Be provocative. Break the pattern. 

 

I first ran into this type of client when I was still in my coach training.

Like many of you, I had to submit recordings for evaluation and feedback. We were graded on a scale of 1 to 10 (low to high) based on our demonstration of coaching skills and use of the tools we were taught.

I was mortified to receive a score of “1” on my first recording! And, to be fair, my evaluator was being generous. You see, I had submitted a 30-minute recording in which the client did all of the talking. Yes, really!  OK, maybe I said “Hello” and “Same time next week?” but other than that the client talked, non-stop, for the whole session.

I knew I was struggling with this client. I couldn’t t get a word in edge-wise, wasn’t sure how to interrupt, when to interrupt, or what to do if I did interrupt. I felt completely helpless and didn’t know how to change this dynamic. 

Is that how it is for you?

To capture that helpless feeling, I’ve created a variant on my favorite coaching acronym (WAIT - Why Am I Talking) for coaches who listen too much - WAIL (Why Am I Listening)

With more experience and the gift of listening to other coaches doing their work, I’ve noticed some patterns. While it would be fun to consider how we can change the client to be less verbose, I’m more interested in the coach. What is the coach doing that allows or encourages the client to speak in excess? What could the coach do differently to create balance in the conversation between coach and client?

If you have a chatty client, record a coaching session and listen. Listen carefully to what you say.  Here are a few things I hear that encourage chatty clients to chat even more:

1. Ambiguous questions: While I love a question that is not only open but wide open (like What are you noticing? or What’s important to you today?), these types of questions are also ambiguous.  If you ask me what I’m noticing, I can share all kinds of things that I’m noticing - my thoughts about… well, just about anything, my emotions, my physical body, what I see you doing, the temperature of the room, the fact that the story I just told reminded me of another thing that is frustrating, etc. If I’m a chatty client, I could start down one of these paths and it could be awhile before you can get me to focus again.  

Try this instead: Ask more pointed and specific questions that create boundaries around what you are asking the client to talk about. For example “What are you noticing about the emotions you feel right now?” or  “Given the goals you have for the coaching, what challenge are you facing this week that you’d like to focus on?” or  “Would you like to start the session by sharing your successes for 5 minutes before we start coaching?”  Yes, these are more directive than the wide open questions. But, my guess is, the chatty client could use a little direction!

2. Restating what you hear the client say: Restating and reframing are great coaching tools. The client hears themselves in a new way when their coach repeats their words. However, I’ve noticed that chatty clients use these as a jumping off point to continue talking. After the coach interrupts and say “What I heard you say is….” the client immediately responds with “That’s right and…” continues the story.

Try this instead: Resist the urge to repeat what the client just said. I know, I know… it’s the easiest and safest way to interrupt a client who is talking a lot. I get that. But if it’s just encouraging them to talk more, why continue using that coaching move?  Ask a question or make an observation instead. Here’s the challenge though. Your question or observation has to take them out of the story. An information gathering question won’t do it. An observation about the story won’t do it. You have to shift their thinking to something else, and that might require you to be a little provocative.  “I hear you’re frustrated with your coworker and that’s causing you to act like a jerk. How does is it for you to be that frustrated?” or “I’ve been listening for a few minutes now and I’m completely lost in your story. What is it you really want me to know about this?”

I know these types of moves are hard to make, especially if you and your client have an established pattern of 'client gets to talk while coach gets to listen'. So first, listen to your coaching to see what is happening. If your hear ambiguous questions or restating that invites the client to talk more, take a risk and try something new.

Be provocative. Break the pattern. I have confidence that you’ll know what to do; I’ll be curious to hear how your client reacts.

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Creating Silence

 

What stops you in your tracks?

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The scene in the photo above literally stopped my in my tracks. I was hustling from Georgetown's building on Mass Ave. to meet a friend for dinner and passed this opening between the buildings. Stunned by the glowing purple sunset, I stopped and (of course!) had to capture it with my camera. There's nothing like a gorgeous sunset to take my breath away and create a pause in my thinking and my purpose.

Powerful questioning in a coaching conversation can do the same. They can be magical. When your questions are working, they seem simple and effortless. It's not just the words we use. It's the pace and timing, and the intention behind the words. It's not just one question, either. It's a group of questions that respond to the client, build on a theme, or shift their perspective in a new direction.

And, sometimes, it's what we don't say or don't do that creates what our client needs - silence.

I was reminded of this the last time I was in DC, staying with friends and teaching coaching.

I was playing “What’s That?” with the precious two-year old son of my friends. I had turned the tables on him. Instead of being on the receiving end of his incessant questions, I was questioning him. He quickly answered when I pointed to his socks, pants, shirt, hair, and nose, but was stumped when I touched his forehead. He paused, looked around, and there was an unusual silence. I resisted the temptation to tell him the answer or move on to his arms and fingers.

After a what seemed like an endless pause, he started to speak… “ffff…”. Another pause, then “fffooorrr…”.

More quiet and glances around the room. Suddenly he looked back at me and said “fore….head!” with a big smile.  I was delighted! And grateful I had allowed the silence for him to think and create a new connection between his forehead and its name.

The next day I was with a group of students, observing their coaching. One coach had the good fortune to ask a question that the client didn’t answer right away. To her credit, the coach endured the silence and waited. In our debrief discussion, the coach admitted that she was mortified, thinking that the client didn’t understand the question. The client countered that the question was a tough one. She needed the time to think.  It was the perfect opportunity to remind the students that clients will tell you, pretty quickly, if they don’t understand your question.

The questions that invoke silence have taken them to a place where there isn’t an easy answer.

When you have the good fortune to create that silence, take a deep breath, stay connected to your client, and wait. What’s happening in the silence is more valuable than anything you can say

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Creating Silence


The scene in the photo above literally stopped my in my tracks. I was hustling from Georgetown's building on Mass Ave. to meet a friend for dinner and passed this opening between the buildings. Stunned by the glowing purple sunset, I stopped and (of course!) had to capture it with my camera. There's nothing like a gorgeous sunset to take my breath away and create a pause in my thinking and my purpose.

Powerful questioning in a coaching conversation can do the same. They can be magical. When your questions are working, they seem simple and effortless. It's not just the words we use. It's the pace and timing, and the intention behind the words. It's not just one question, either. It's a group of questions that respond to the client, build on a theme, or shift their perspective in a new direction.

And, sometimes, it's what we don't say or don't do that creates what our client needs - silence.

I was reminded of this the last time I was in DC, staying with friends and teaching coaching.

I was playing “What’s That?” with the precious two-year old son of my friends. I had turned the tables on him. Instead of being on the receiving end of his incessant questions, I was questioning him. He quickly answered when I pointed to his socks, pants, shirt, hair, and nose, but was stumped when I touched his forehead. He paused, looked around, and there was an unusual silence. I resisted the temptation to tell him the answer or move on to his arms and fingers.

After a what seemed like an endless pause, he started to speak… “ffff…”. Another pause, then “fffooorrr…”.

More quiet and glances around the room. Suddenly he looked back at me and said “fore….head!” with a big smile.  I was delighted! And grateful I had allowed the silence for him to think and create a new connection between his forehead and its name.

The next day I was with a group of students, observing their coaching. One coach had the good fortune to ask a question that the client didn’t answer right away. To her credit, the coach endured the silence and waited. In our debrief discussion, the coach admitted that she was mortified, thinking that the client didn’t understand the question. The client countered that the question was a tough one. She needed the time to think.  It was the perfect opportunity to remind the students that clients will tell you, pretty quickly, if they don’t understand your question.

The questions that invoke silence have taken them to a place where there isn’t an easy answer.

When you have the good fortune to create that silence, take a deep breath, stay connected to your client, and wait. What’s happening in the silence is more valuable than anything you can say.

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Swimming Upstream - From Giving Advice To Asking Powerful Questions

 Swimming Upstream - From Giving Advice to  Asking Powerful Questions

 

Alewives are fish who spawn in fresh water and live their lives in the ocean (like salmon and other anadromous fish).  Each year they make the journey from the ocean, up rivers and streams to their spawning grounds. Fish ladders, like the one in the photo, provide a pathway around man-made obstacles like dams and roads. It is amazing to watch these small fish swim up this ladder and fight against the strong current of the rushing water.

I sometimes feel that learning to be a coach is a similar journey going against much that has made us successful in other work that we do.

I was reminded of one of the struggles in my journey to become a coach, just last week.

I’m on the phone with a client, listening to her and doing my coaching thing. At the same time, I’m aware of what’s going on in my head. You would think that after 15 years of coaching my problem-solving brain would know when to take a break! But no, it’s chattering away today with brilliant solutions and insisting that I share these with my client. It’s confident that one of these will be the magic key to unlock what’s holding her back.

It’s hard some days to suppress my years of math, computer programming and consulting when finding THE answer was the objective. Hmmm… Could the Sudoku puzzles I work on everyday also be reinforcing this preference?

I’m also aware that I’ve defined my value in relationships by what information, ideas or solutions I can offer to others.  Even the cards and gifts I give have to be “just the right thing”. Moving away from problem-solving was the biggest transformation for me when I became a coach. And the chatter in my head tells me it hasn’t disappeared. It is just held at bay when I’m intentional about my role in the conversation.

I’m not alone in this. Many of my students come from problem-solving professions and struggle to understand the coach’s role. I’ve come to believe that learning to coach requires un-learning how we relate to others and redefining the value we bring to the relationship.  In order to truly step into a coaching mindset, we must shift from being the one to find that magic key and become the one creating the opportunity for the client to find that key for themselves.

I’m noticing that just writing this is bringing up some anxious thoughts: “But that’s no fun! It’s too passive, too much in the background!”; “What about all the stuff I know that would be so helpful for my client to know, too?”; “Who am I if I don’t share a few brilliant solutions for my client?” It’s interesting to listen to these thoughts and notice what’s important to my ego!

I’m curious about what you learn about yourself when you listen to your anxiety about giving advice.

I like to think that I’m good at managing my inner problem-solver while coaching. I’ve learned to hear the chatter as input to my coaching, rather than as something to say out loud. To do that I need to stay centered and connected to my client. I need to tap into my curiosity. I need to shift my listening.

It might go something like this.

My client is taking about how she’s not being consistent in the pause practice she agreed to last time.  My problem-solving brain has ideas about how she could set an alarm, pair it with an existing habit, and a few other brilliant ideas for helping her to do this.

I take a deep breath and ask “What have you been noticing?”. I use this curious, open question to buy a little time and space for me to shift my listening.

Breath again. Shift my body to an open and curious stance.

“Maybe some structure would be helpful to her”, I think, as she continues describing her struggles. I’m pulling away from my specific solutions to consider the theme of what my problem-solving brain is saying.

Breath… listen…be curious.

Now I notice something new emerging in what my client is saying.

I tune in even more and stay curious. I keep breathing and wonder what does the client know already? Where is she now in her journey?

I hear judgment about how pausing is a waste of time, it’s a good idea but it feels weird to do. She’s doing it sometimes, but not sure she can do it when it matters. Hmmm, this isn’t about alarms to remind her, it’s about something deeper.

Here’s the place to put aside my brilliant ideas, and start asking questions.

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Are You Asking Enough Questions In Your Coaching?

Coach, Are you asking enough questions?

Not that there’s a quota or anything, but I’m curious about how many questions you’re asking in your coaching. I ask, you see, because I’ve recently listened to some coaching and noticed that there were lots of statements and just a few questions.  If coaching is an inquiry approach, what’s happened to all of your questions?

What am I hearing in place of questions?  

One thing that I hear is restating what the client said, without adding much to it.  This is often introduced with “Client, what I heard you say is …” followed by the same words that the client used. Often, the client responds with “Yes, that’s right.” and then continues their story.

You might think that this is a demonstration of “active listening”, and it’s true that the definition of the ICF Active Listening competency includes restating. But this competency asks you to do more than just restate what you hear, including

  • Sharing what you hear about the client’s goals, concerns, values and beliefs, which are often not expressed directly in their word
  • Sharing the essence or “bottom lining” the client’s communication that breaks them out of their long, descriptive story

The PCC Markers go a step further and ask you to “notice and inquire about” the client’s language, emotions, behaviors, and the clues that hide in their voice such as changes in tone, inflection or pace. 

This might sound like “Client, I heard you start talking more passionately and stridently as you described that situation. What emotion are you noticing are you tell that story?” or “Client, I heard you use the words “she’s driving me crazy”. What does that that mean for you in this situation?”

If restating, word for word, what you hear the client say is taking up time and space that could be used for questioning, you might be missing out on opportunities to create new awareness that comes from inquiring about and exploring what your client is saying, not just listening to them speak.

I invite you to notice how many questions you’re asking, and challenge you to shift the balance to more questions and fewer declarative statements.

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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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What do you notice about your questions?

"Care is asking the right questions."  See what they mean in this What? How? (Whirlpool Washer/Dryer commercial).


I'm not endorsing the company, just acknowledging their clever use of Questions in this ad ;-)


What do you notice about your questions?


It’s a simple question, really. We ask the students in the Georgetown Leadership Coaching Program to observe their questions and reflect on what they notice.

Hundreds of student coaches have written this paper over the years. I read through another batch just this morning, and was – again – delighted and inspired by what the students learn. 

We assign this paper because it’s important for coaches to be aware of the questions they ask, the questions they avoid, and how the context impacts their questioning.  This awareness is a foundation for moving into being thoughtful and artful in using questions in coaching conversations.

But the real learning is much deeper, varied, nuanced, and personal.  This learning often comes as a surprise. The student becomes aware that how he/she asks questions is a reflection of how he/she sees the world and his/her place in it. And the “world” is their relationships, their role in workplace power dynamics, or their own master self-assessments, fundamental fears, deep passions. Their patterns of asking questions grow out of a lifetime of past experiences, culture and family relationships, and years of professional training.

To move into coaching is to leave behind one view of the world and embody another, in which you are someone who loves questions; who is confident asking questions that feel too probing and too personal; who can draw out deeper insight and meaning with just a question. 

What are you noticing about your questions?

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