Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Role of Drama in Coaching

Thinking about drama ... let me explain a bit.

The 4-D Systems 360 that I use for my work with the wonderful people of NASA opens up 8 key behaviors that mark and define one's leadership effectiveness. The use of an evaluative or development tool is not unfamiliar to most coaches. I find this particular system elegantly simple and effective. And we have voluminous metrics to back it up ... talking about that is for another time.

After working with 4-D for quite a long time I find myself having a good laugh over this phrase: "I lead a soap opera life." Who said that? I did, often and over many years.

What does leading a life of drama or even getting involved in a drama at work or in family mean? To define what I mean by 'drama' requires nothing more than to look at movies and television. The heart and soul of drama is that it is exaggerated, greater than the facts and ... in my experience ... damaging. Whoa!

My blogs to date have concerned "listening" with a foray into "being present" ... so now can you see why now? When immersed in a situation that has slipped from being a situation into a full blown drama, a coach (or anyone for that matter) has a barrier to being with his/her client. I call it being "in your head" ... self concerned, looking for the right question to ask, failing to hear a client completely, having opinions, directing the conversation and ... aw, having the solution instead of letting the client discover it.

It's not you? Hmmm. Why do I hear this kind of coaching so often? I'm sure the coach means well and is "trying" to apply good coaching skills. I'll be addressing this as we move forward.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

About the Train Ride...

About yesterday. I found quite quickly on my way to the train that I wasn't as "present" as I needed to be. I actually experienced "knowing" how to do something (I've done many times previously) and going ahead and not doing what I knew to do. My take on all of this is that I simply wasn't present to the task (simply boarding a train in the correct car). Once on the train I was grateful all turned out okay to that point and proceeded to take advantage of the 3-hour ride.

So (a favorite coaching term but a valid one), I enjoyed my breakfast on the train, popped on my iPod and listened to Enya and other gentle, lovely music. I do know how to decompress and clear my head ... do it all the time. This time I was intentional about "being present" to my practices that I always thought (or assumed) worked well ... but now I know they do.

Did I arrive at my destination with a clearer head and less drama? Uh huh. It showed in the quality of thinking and visualizing that I was asked to do ... one of my tasks for the 4 hours I would be working on the future. I noticed this also: I become almost fearless when free of the drama that accompanies frustration, anger, and even some positive emotions. I have freedom to create, opine, become engaged, .... Nice, eh?

This brings to mind that "drama" plays a part in the act of being or not being present ... I shall think upon that and see what shows up. I had not thought much about this until now.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Practicing Coaching Presence

Time to embark on that essential and yet enigmatic coaching competency: Coaching Presence. The test will come today as I do the following: get over being angry over some bureaucratic insanity, traverse snow and ice carefully, happily board a train (love trains) and spend 3 hours with my iPod and laptop, lovely food and great service, finally arriving at my destination to work with super terrific people. Got it? So what does this have to do with being present? ... well, everything.

My job for the next two hours is to come to terms with the bureaucratic mess, toss it aside and practice what I do everyday, all day ... be present to my clients. So today, I will put myself to the test and clear my mind of judgment, anger and frustration. There's another time to deal with that situation.

Coaching Presence asks some pretty basic behaviors of ourselves: be flexible, be present in the moment, listen without judgment, be confident and care for the people/person on the other side of the relationship (be it business or personal). Well, it's not so simple and it does take practice.

Practice is the place where you and I spend just about all of our time, isn't it? Ask George Leonard ("Mastery") who reminds us of this: love the practice because it's most of life. So today I will practice yet again what I've been practicing consciously for the past 17 years: be consciously present, as if it were a new practice. 'Presence' then has a chance to show up and be the coolest behavior of all. It's a win for everyone, including clear thinking.

Enjoy your practice session. It's called 'life.'

Friday, December 25, 2009

Coaches and Communication

Communication models all show the critical nature of listening as key to completing the cycle. It's like this: we speak (with an intention to be heard, usually), our message goes through filters (language, bias, past experiences, motivation, etc.) and hopefully reaches someone (or something) who receives it. Of course it's obvious just having it received (a telephone or email can do that) is not exactly sufficient, but we do want the message ultimately delivered and heard.

There's a lot of noise that keeps this cycle from being ideal but it's how communication works (in a rather abbreviated nutshell, but you get the message). For those of us who practice the art of listening, this level of understanding is rather important. For a professional coach, it's the essential technique of our work ... as I have blogged previously.

The holiday season reminds me ever more loudly how I must not confine my listening to my professional life but must transfer that skill to every aspect of my life ... every corner, every person, every idea, every message. Wow, that sounds burdensome ... perhaps to some but it's not burdensome in reality. My next set of blogs will begin to describe how a coach can listen, hear, filter the noise and use the clues without being burdened at all.

For those who argue that I've only described one kind of communication, rest assured you are correct. There's a lot to talk about ultimately.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Listening Through Enjoyment and Appreciation

There's always something to say about listening ... it's rather important for everyone, not just for coaches.

Listening through the filter of enjoyment and appreciation can work wonders for not only the coach but also for the client. When a client has a seriously great sense of humor, seriously serious coaching doesn't make for an enjoyable conversation. That's precisely why sharing stories is so darn powerful. A first-hand account of something dumb (per my client's description) can effectively diffuse the situation and the drama that could follow.

Let's face it, we humans are rather amusing. Thinking of all the dumb things I've done and survived always provides me with laughter and a few great stories. Of course, one can't fake this ... ever ... but deveoping a good sense of humor is possible and a great idea.

So, my client told me a story about something he was "trying" to accomplish by doing the kind of administrivia he simply dislikes doing (gosh, haven't heard of that, have you?). I smiled on the other end of the phone while he went on and on about it all. My smile was internal given these were the same kinds of tasks I dislike as well. So I said "Nice job." and he replied "I didn't like it at all." "What didn't you like?" "Uh, well it wasn't that." "And it was...?" "It was really okay. The results were wonderful and everyone felt appreciated." We laughed big time. He had backed himself out of a story that had nowhere to go because a much better one intruded. Cool stuff, eh?

Our lives are important. What we do is important. How do I know? I know because I say it is."

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Using the Arts to Learn How to Listen

You will find many ways to practice listening and hearing what is being communicated.

For me, listening to music evokes something in me that’s greater than just the music itself. Like all art, there’s the composer and performer that "speak" to us. What a perfect opportunity to listen to what each wants us to hear. For example, Jean Sibelius' 2nd Symphony speaks to me of not only exquisite beauty through the sounds alone, but even more of the lush country called Finland that he said he wanted to "paint" with his music.

Perhaps you can listen to the visual or tactile arts. How might you do that? Well, as I see it, your rapt attention to the work of art is a way you listen to your own experience from within yourself. What an ideal way to pratice listening without judgment! If you find yourself becoming a critic of the art, stop and contemplate what it might be like to "listen" to the artist without judgment.

When all is said and done, the pleasure and delight in all of art is that the beholder/listener decides in some mysterious way what is pleasurable and delightful. For those who listen without judgment (is it good art or do I like it), whatever is present may have a chance to come through to you, to me, to anyone. It takes practice.

Listening without judgment or your own mental model of what should be, takes conscious thought and deliberate practice, just as does anything worth learning to do well.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Take the Filters Off

Today I experienced listening to a coach who was not listening to the client. Somewhere in all the angst of an exam, the coach began to assume what the client was asking to work on rather than finding out ... or better yet, hearing the client's explicit wish.

I know this coach is much better at the skill of listening than this conversation revealed. However, it brought to mind that if a highly trained "listener" can miss the point, how easy it is for a lay person to struggle with basic communication.

Listening is an action, hearing is the result of listening. When I want to be heard, I am asking you to listen carefully, keenly, actively. I have something to communicate to you. So it is with our coaching clients. Let's put it this way, when I am listening to my own inner dialogue, how in the world can I also be listening to you? When a coach listens to either their own issues (often via the issue of the client) or has a mental model of how things should be, the client is not being heard, no matter how plaintiff the request. It was that way today.

Think about how you listen. Are you open completely? Did you take off the filters of judgment, opinion and knowledge? This is key as listening is the technique cornerstone of coaching.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


From my 4-D Systems project with NASA, I work with a concept called “storylines” … not unique actually but highly effective for making changes because changing them is not very difficult. It has to do with listening. I’m going to say boldly and without reservation that when we speak we listen to what we say … mostly. If that is so, then our brains react to what we say. Here are examples:

I dread Mondays.
Teenagers are always trouble.
I love my work.
No one understands me.
I don’t think I’ll ever be good at managing people.
My boss doesn’t like me.
It’s a beautiful day today.
I don’t like people with different accents.
Travel broadens my perspective.
I’ll never make enough money.

Take a look at each statement. Which ones will limit you in some way? Which ones will encourage or inspire you in some way?

Now take those that limit you and change each to be a statement that encourages or inspires you. Here’s an example:

“I dread Mondays” is seriously limiting to your possible productivity or enjoyment of the entire coming week (at the least). Trust me it is. It’s a script destined for your perpetual unhappiness. Listen to it. Say it again. Listen to it. Now take it and change it to a storyline that will encourage or inspire you. “It’s Monday and it’s going to be a great week.” That’s one version. You could say to your self “I like Mondays” as a first step. At least you’ll get yourself to neutral and begin the change what you listen to.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Being Impatient

How do we listen during times of added excitement, stress, distraction?

For one thing, I tend to become impatient during these times ... indicating I'm listening to myself and not to you or my client. Impatience is an interesting behavior of mine ... sort of a reinforcing "I know , I know" so get on with it 'cause I don't have the time to listen to anyone else. I think of times when my impatience is an outward indicator of my inward bad mood. Since I don't often think I'm in a bad mood, where does this all come together? Perhaps as I get older I find myself less and less impatient with others; I hope this is true.

What does impatience look like to you? Is this one of your behaviors? And what does it have to do with coaching?

Well, it has plenty to do with coaching. For one thing, being impatient takes away from being present to another person, to the conversation itself. When I'm listening to myself and not to my client I can scarcely be an effective coach.

How do we listen when we're learning a new set of skills, such as coaching?

Being impatient has an effect on a person's ability to listen completely. What I mean by that is what I hear far too often in coaching exams and mentoring: the coach steps over what client is saying in order to perhaps move the conversation along, to think of the next question to ask, or to prejudge what the client is trying to say. Impatience is the best possible example of a coach who hasn't quite yet aquired a decent level of coaching skill. Early in my coaching career I was often impatient, being a "know it all."

'Impatience' it not one of the words I've contemplated previously in connection with coaching. However, it is the behavior that underlies what I would call early-level coaching when uncertainty and "trying to do it right" are the markers. What suffers is the essential coaching competency called "Active Listening."

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Many Reasons to Listen

To whom shall we listen? I just completed the account of Barack Obama's winning Presidential campaign. When I read I look for the underlying principles of that activity or situation. This approach applies to mysteries, novels, non-fiction ... everything: to what shall I "listen" and what is there to learn?

It occurs to me that I listen powerfully only after I know why and what I'm listening for ... that includes what I'm interested in, want to know about, or even to discover something entirely new. For a coach, listening is the key coaching technique ... how else can we have the conversation and explore what the client wishes.

Back to the campaign account ... there's a lot to learn or re-learn in this well-written book: The Audacity to Win. David Plouffe clearly articulates how the core management team (along with the candidate) created a strategy, tested it in Iowa (for a win nobody predicted), and stayed with the strategy even in the face of naysayers. I don't mean to laud being stubborn ... not at all. Events demanded decisions and some re-direction but the original strategy was never changed.

What does that mean for you and me? We coaches seem to gravitate to marketing solutions of every kind and promise ... to a fault, actually. The best strategy is to pick one and go for it with a realistic optimism and hard work. That's all that works ... there's no magic to building a successful coaching practice. Wishing won't make it so.

I started this blog with the concept of listening. The result of listening powerfully is to make smart decisions (for our own practices) and to really hear what the client wants all the while picking up the clues that reveal the client's underlying limits.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Listening to the Past

My work now is to listen keenly and listen for what is said or not said. It wasn’t always that way, of course. (I’m talking about coaching and the listening skills required.)

I went back to my HS reunion recently and brought with me my acquired skills since those days eons ago. I felt an amazing sense of appreciation for those I met and spoke with … actually it’s clear I was listening to people. With 300 out of 800 in our class, sitting down to dinner with three women I knew from the second grade on was thoroughly delightful.

What was it about my school days that might be valuable now? Well truthfully, and the truth is at best interesting, I wasn’t listening to anyone other than myself during that time in my life. I was consumed by what others would think about me. My parents made less and less sense as I grew into my teen years. I didn't listen to them either.

I learned this a while ago and experienced it yet again: We keep people in place as we last “listened to our own opinions about them.” My reunion was more interesting because I knew this about how we remember: we remember how we listened (once upon a time). My surprises were that people who hadn’t seen or heard of me in 50 years remembered (almost to a person) that I was “shy, smart and headed for success.” I remembered myself as “not quite good enough, a failure then.” My script therefore was how I listened to myself and never how anyone else listened to me. Clearly, for the earliest days of my life, no matter what the facts (I was a straight-A student), all I heard in my VOJ (voice of judgment) was that I didn’t succeed and wasn’t going to make it unless I worked really hard (at what I did not know then).

More on listening next time ...

Time to Speak

It has been way too long since I wrote on my own blog.

There are issues in professional coaching that have been on my plate for the past several months. To be heard on the subject I began communicating on LinkedIn regarding the ICF credentialing challenge.

What I want to do is renew writing on my blog.

In the interim I've also been on Twitter with over 1,000 Tweets. This is fun but it keeps me off balance. Nonetheless it is the most informative source I've ever known. I keep up with politics and science especially. So, Twitter and LinkedIn plus the daily news sources will remain in my world but not as the only communication I enjoy.

Time for completing the communication process. Time to speak.