So does the coach need to know anything? Do you need to understand anything as a coach? Or does mainly the client need to know and develop understanding and forward movement?
In one of the last emails I talked about keeping our questions on the first floor of the coaching house: we want to be asking questions about the positive past and the positive future to open a search space for the client. We invite our clients to think in potentially helpful directions (but only the client can tell) and we don’t ask so that we ask coaches can understand anything.
My friend Søren, himself a masterful coach, replied to the email with an interesting thought: “Are we not forgetting talk about the present?” Of course, he mentioned, there isn’t really a present and maybe any talk about “the present” is actually talk about the recent past, but that’s a bit of a fine philosophical point that we can neglect for now. Søren also mentioned that talking about the present, the details of life as it is in the moment is often not what helps clients to advance.
All of this made me think about the good or not so good reasons a coach might have for inquiring about what life is like for the client at the moment:
Here are some not so good reasons (and please don’t get me wrong — we have all been there and we have all done this 😊)
We don’t know how to move on in the session. While our coaches demeanor is quiet as a swan on the lake, our thoughts are paddeling underwater like crazy. We might be saying to ourselves: “What is best now? What do I ask? I have no idea!!!”. So in order to buy time, we ask a question about a detail in the client’s story for example: “So how long have you been working in this company?” In this case, it probably would be better to simply lean back and listen to the client and wait for inspiration for a question. And even if the inspiration never comes we can always ask the client what he or she would like to be asked next.
Wanting to understand the problem:
The client is telling us what’s not working and the coach wants to show empathy or might even feel that he or she cannot move on in the conversation without a full understanding what the problem entails. He or she may ask: “Since when have you had this problem?” Or “What exactly is bothering you about this?” And unwittingly, we are focusing on details of the unwanted situation. In Solution Focused Coaching we assume that it is not so useful to inquire about what went wrong and why and what clients fear for the future – not that we don’t listen when the clients want to talk about it, after all we are not problem phobic just Solution Focused. We simply think that questions about the successful past and desired future are more helpful for clients to gain confidence. They are invited to focus on what they already know and what they have already learned in the past and on their hopes and dreams. They may become more confident that they can get there.
Being generally nosy :-):
Coaches are people, too (last time I looked). Sometimes I get really interested in what the client is sharing because, well, it is interesting. I then am in danger of asking too much about what is essentially my agenda, my interest and forget to ask the client. That’s where checking in with the client whether the session is on track comes in.
Some good reasons:
Asking for details to curate better questions:
I ask for the names of my client’s important people: their children, co-workers etc. It makes asking about “what will people notice” when the client is starting to move in the direction they want to be moving in much easier and more concrete.
Asking for details of what is going well:
There are many names for this conversation: “problem free talk”, “socializing”, “checking in”, “small talk”, “joining” — the conversation that happens when two people are “warming up” to each other. Replacing “venting” or “complaining” at the start of a session with talk about the positive present serves as a more fruitful “icebreaker” (unless the client really wants to talk about what is going wrong — as I said, Solution Focused not problem phobic).
If you have any observations around “the present” in coaching conversations, I’d be really glad to hear / read them. Maybe one idea would be to join one of our regular “Coaching Meetup and Exchanges” to discuss: