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Alison Payne

Coaching conversations: Language

By | Coaching and Mentoring, Sports coaching | No Comments

I had the good fortune to be pointed in the direction of the UK Coaching Connected Coaches site and today we had a healthy conversation about language.

During lockdown, most of us outdoor coaches are really feeling the lack of contact as well as the lack of fresh air and our chosen sport (or sports).  In true positive fashion though, we are starting to look at how we can work effectively in a virtual social space and to explore the slightly elusive positives of this time.

It is great to be included with people from such a cross-section of sport and for me, it’s also fascinating to see the cross-over with the work that I do as a coach in education and business organisations.

I wasn’t alone in thinking that it might be a time for supporting our clients (sports people or other coaches) in really thinking carefully about what we do, and an esteemed colleague from athletics suggested that one thing that we could work on was being much more careful and specific in the language that we use.

Reflecting on our online conversation I am reminded of the number of times that I’ve gone down the line of ‘why?’.  Now,  Root Cause Analysis or ‘The 5 Whys’ are well known tools in leadership but neither of these quite get to what I am seeking to achieve in coaching.  Nonetheless I believe that they have a part in helping us to understand the value in delving deep into things that we might be just taking at face value, so as  little aside, let’s have a very quick look.

Root Cause Analysis does what it says on the tin and is valuable in itself because it heads for resolution of cause, not just overt symptoms, and is therefore often useful in an organisational environment as it considers:

  • What happened
  • How it happened
  • Why it happened and then
  • Actions for preventing reoccurrence

‘The 5 Whys’ tool is another from that massive Toyota Toolbox which also brought us ‘nemawashi’ – the idea that we need to walk the shop floor to fully understand what is happening (before we can then understand why).  It can get right into the possible causes of single or multiple problems by gaining an understanding of events at different levels in a chain of events or sections of a business process.

As a tool for coaching, I adapt it to vary the process, using carefully chosen open or closed questions to filter and define what is really happening, either in a physical process or in someone’s understanding of that process.  Quite often the initial answer that we get from a question is quick-fire.   For example, “How did that feel?” might well elicit the reply, “Good”.  Unfortunately this a) doesn’t give us any specific information on what was happening and b) hasn’t encouraged real reflection on the process.

It is in the further questioning that we really start to get to the bones of it all.  And this is, perhaps, where we can use the time and space (which sounds a bit sci-fi!) that we currently have to explore these things in the detail that they deserve, leading us to yet better results.  One element is the use of silence which is a well-accepted tool in the box of coaches, but it’s a tricky one to use well – especially in a possibly fast-moving physical environment.  (Time and space, time and space!!) Let’s use it now.

So, perhaps an example would help. (I’m sure all coaches could translate the following conversation into their chosen field – I’d love to know how your conversations go!)

I’m helping someone to ride the perfect (haha!) 20m trot circle.  I will give them some basic rules (handrails, if you like) and send them away to explore.  Let’s suppose that things are going well, so after a few minutes we’ll regroup and discuss what is going on, it might go something like this:

Me: ‘Tell me about that” (I am deliberately keeping this broad and creating an opportunity for any kind of answer).

Client: “Well, it was pretty good” (So, this is my opening for exploring what good really was.  I’m also doing a little internal dance because they haven’t said, ‘ugh, it was awful’!)

Me: “In what way was it good?” (Open question, which may well generate a moment’s silence and thought)

Client: “The rhythm was good, but it wasn’t quite a circle” (We need to keep our clients focussing on the good things, but we’ll return to dealing with the rest later)

Me: “What was good about the rhythm?”

Client: “It stayed the same”. (I’m pleased with this because it’s what we are after, however, I want my client to be able to go away and replicate it so that they can ‘self-coach’ when they away from their coaching session).

Me: “How did you know the rhythm was good?” (And it is at this point that I start to get rather blank looks, because they have given me a good answer – what else could I possibly expect??)

Client: “The hoofbeats were even one-two, one-two, all around the circle”.

Me: “Great. It looked like a super rhythm to me too. As well as hearing the hoofbeats, what could you feel that helped you to tell that the rhythm was good”.

Client: “Boris, ” (lets just call the horse Boris for now shall we?)…”didn’t rush off”.  (This is good too, because it means that Boris is finding some balance.  This gives me a clue, as coach, that there might be something else which will be significant).

Me: “That’s a good feeling then and it’ll make things easier, won’t it? What difference was there in the feel through the reins?

Client: “I didn’t feel him taking so much weight in my left hand”.

Me: “Brilliant. So when you are working on your own, how will you know what good is with reference to the rhythm?”

Client: “From the sound and feel of the hoofbeats and whether I’m taking a different contact through the reins”

So, we move from a simple word, to a definition of that word which is specific to that rider, in her context when she rides a 20m circle on Boris.  She has described it in her own words, so it should be meaningful and easily remembered.

In other coaching, it works well too and helping clients to consider the real meaning of words means that they can celebrate small things, or succeed in keeping things in perspective by understanding exactly what ‘happy’, or ‘good’ or ‘difficult’ really mean for them.

Language – let’s celebrate it and use it.

 

 

 

 

 

Little celebrations

By | Coaching and Mentoring, Personal Development | No Comments

Being locked down gives us all far too much time to think, so I’m not going to philosophise ad infinitum, but I would like to share a couple of very small things which brought me an involuntary smile this morning.

I’m always encouraging people to celebrate their small wins, so here are some small things that I am celebrating.

Spring Joy

I just love daffodils.  They are my heralds of Spring and bring early brightness to unleafy hedgerows.

They are great in the sunshine as their colour is heightened, but in dull weather they bring light into a grey morning.

In the wind, they bend and sway, but stand up again when the breeze lessens.

 

Cosy chickens

I love my chickens.  They are all rescues and I’m happy just to see them in a good place.  They can free range, and are cheerful in their scratching around the field or the barn – looking for tiny specks of food that I don’t even see. After a horrid fox attack on the outdoor coop, we bought them a garden shed which lives inside the barn now. We put nest boxes and a stepped set of perches in and I get real pleasure from seeing them happy in their little home.  They chatter away while I work down there and get under my feet in the most unannoying fashion.

 

Egg in the nest

Another of the joys of having chickens as pets is that they lay eggs.  Even after years of keeping hens, I still smile when I find an egg. If it feels warm I love to feel it against my cheek.  A new gift from our feathery girls (and some had no feathers when they came to us) is always valuable.  They have perfect nest boxes on their ‘shed-home’, but far prefer to wander around the barn and find a cosy, dark place with soft hay.  They’ll sit there and throws bits of nest material over their backs and cosy up into their nest to lay.  The challenge for me is finding the latest nest.  (The queue of chickens can be a give away – they seem to like to sit in well-used nests!).

 

 

Early lettuce seedlings

A further thing that made me smile today was the sight of my lettuce seedlings just pushing up through the compost.  Yes, I expected them to grow, but the promise of homegrown salad again is a wonderful feeling: especially when it is still cold outside (even in the greenhouse).  These are brave little seedlings, daring to push out into a currently chilly place.

Small things, but lovely things.

Redefining ‘Coaching’

By | Coaching and Mentoring, Education, Leadership Toolbox, Personal Development | No Comments

Do you think of any of these if I say ‘coach’?

Understanding different perspectives
Most people have a clear idea of what a coach is, maybe even what a coach does. The difficulty is matching it with what we, as coaches think we are, and with what we actually do.  OK, so my pictures are a slightly extreme set of examples, but I have been wondering if it’s about time for a total re-brand.  The idea of ‘coach’ seems to be so ingrained in people’s minds, that it proves tricky to get people to fully understand what coaching is and what it can do for them.  What keeps me going, standing on my soapbox, is that people who have had (high quality) coaching are generally sold on the idea.  It’s just those who havent experienced it that we struggle to convince.

In some ways the challenge that needs unravelling is all about detail, semantics even, and being rather pedantic in our own use of the term.  I spent many hours discussing and writing assignments for my coaching qualifications on the subject of coaching versus mentoring. I’ve had similar conversations with my sporting colleagues – they used to be ‘instructors’, then ‘trainers’, and now… ‘coaches’.  The real problem is that people – and often our potential clients -no longer know what to expect.

Should we define coaching?

Maybe it is pointless to get hung up on the niceties of the language, because the key thing is to be able to communicate with people around us in a language that is meaningful to them.  If any of you have done battle with research papers and ended up almost screaming for clear, plain English, you might know what I mean.  Another common frustration might be the use of jargon (and most professions have it), which isn’t helpful when relaying information to a lay audience: it needs to be readable.  I have a friend who is a great research scholar, but she spends a significant amount of time re-writing her work for blogs so that they are accessible to people outside academe.  It isn’t dumbing down, it isn’t damaging our language, it is about communicating appropriately for our audience. So, for these reasons, we need to know what our potential clients think coaching is, rather than insisting on what we believe it to be.

Selling the idea

It really isn’t new – we need to provide what our clients need (if we can’t then they need signposting elsewhere).  Marketing our services isn’t about what we can do, it is about matching what our clients want with the strengths, skills or experience that we have.  If we turn the marketing equation around like this, it immediately makes more sense to look at the possible outcomes of coaching, rather than offering ‘coaching’.  Working in this direction also means that listening to what our clients want becomes central to the conversation and the plan.  It sounds obvious, but these basic tenets of business so often get lost in the moment.

So, what might coaching be?

I had a eureka moment last Spring whilst working with senior leaders in schools.  In education, there are clear set-ups for coaching which are roles that are supportive, informative, guiding and training.  In some words, then, closer to mentoring in my book.  This means that, mostly, if you are taking to educators about coaching, they will have this idea.  If you talk to someone in the caring professions, they may well jump to the other end of the continuum and start by imagining counselling (and that really isn’t coaching).

One day the Head Teacher was talking about a ‘coaching’ session that she had attended which had really got her thinking becasue it was novel. Her coach had used some great tools and practical exercises to create analogies for where she was and where her team were, what the barriers were and where they wanted to get to.  It was a new approach and challenged her view of coaching.  It helped clarify the terms for me, highlighting how differently people view coaching.

Describing coaching

In truth, coaching is made up of myriad elements and it is this that probably makes it so difficult to describe accurately. We might look at the way that a coach reaches their objectives, very often they’ll describe themselves through the tools that they use,  for example’I’m an NLP practitioner’, or, ‘I’m a mindfulness coach’. Alternatively they might look at the specific challenges that they’re going to address, ‘I’m a career coach’, ‘I’m a transition coach’, ‘I’m a performance coach’.

I’m making no value judgement here, but here is the question: how can we separate all these elements when home, health, career, lifestyle are all entwined in each of us? How can we know that a particular coaching tool will be a panacea?  Don’t we need to understand exactly what each of our coaches will need?

 

Talent

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TALENT

Let’s think about ‘Talent’.  Just what is talent?  It is a widely used word, but in sport coaching we are careful how we apply it and this got me thinking…

We might say that someone has a talent for sport or a talent for leading people or a creative talent.  Current thinking is that it is about the hours that we put in to make things work.  It is about the effort and commitment that we make which leads to successful outcomes. Do I hear you say ‘no, I could never do this/that/the other, of course there is such a thing as talent’?

One of the things that I love about my work as a coach is the transferability of coaching principles.

Let’s think about that.  If we start with sport, it helps to illustrate the point. Consider a Ladies netball team. Do they have physical attributes in common? How about great bowlers – do our best cricketers have anything in common? How about Gymnasts? Sport climbers who almost run up impossible-looking rock faces? Rowers?  Ask yourself, are they tall? Short? Well-built? Wiry?  Can you see a rugby prop doing gymnastics? For sure, we can all make a difference to our body shapes, but only to a degree.  We wouldn’t expect the best sport climbers to be powerful rowers. We wouldn’t expect our netball players to be gymnasts or ballerinas.  There is no judgement in this, it’s just the way we are.  We build on our physical attributes and learn the motor skills for our sport.  We develop patterns and neural pathways which mean we don’t have to think everything through from scratch.  

Although there may not be a direct comparison, it isn’t a huge leap to accept that we are born with a certain nature and then, as life goes on, we build on early interactions to develop ourselves into who we are today.  It means we are all different, we all have strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes.  We may have great ‘emotional intelligence’, we might have excellent practical skills, we might be very creative, we might love a challenge.  This is the fascination with people: we are not the same. And this is where the challenge comes in when we have to work with those different people….

I think that talent is maybe something rather more subtle than we first thought.  It is the intrinsic ‘wiring’ of our brain, or the shape of our body plus commitment and practice in what we want to do.  

It is all a question of degree, of our expectations.  Somehow we need to identify realistic expectations.  If we’re not built to be jockeys, then we must look to what we can do: if not flat race, then maybe a steeplechase jockey who can be taller.  If we are too broad to be a sport climber, then maybe a mountaineer.  For World Class athletes or for leaders of the World’s biggest companies, then we are likely to need a very specific body type or set of brain functions, but if we want to do well at a different level, then maybe there is nothing stopping us.  Just because we can’t run a country, we shouldn’t give up on helping at a community level.  Just because we aren’t brilliant with numbers, it doesn’t mean we can’t run a business.  If we are great with people, then perhaps we should look at jobs that need those skills, if we are practical and logical and risk averse, perhaps we should look at jobs that need that.  If we love numbers, then there are jobs that need those skills. We don’t all have to climb the same career tree, there are people in diverse roles who can all reach the top.  We can compete at a high level in sport or sports – there is no shortage of people succeeding in second sports because, given the right build, a huge part of success is mental.  It is the determination and single-mindedness to focus on a vey specific goal – at the highest level this is usually to the exclusion of just about everything else.  We need to pick our level, decide on the balance we want and then be sure that our expectations are realistic for the person that we are. 

Finally, then, next time you wonder what’s stopping you from reaching the top of your tree, perhaps the first question is, ‘Am I climbing the right tree?”

Responsiblity…What is it really?

By | Coaching and Mentoring, Leadership Toolbox | 2 Comments

I am just in the process of developing a workshop for a client who is hoping to help her team to become more proactive, leaving her to cover more strategic challenges.  One of my start points is to consider accountability and responsibility. Well – don’t ever type THAT into Google! No only are there myriad references, but also lots of differing opinions.  Ultimately, like all else, we need to make our own decisions on what we believe is right for our context and what is well-evidenced.  Anyway, accountability is one for another day because I found this neat little video (Thank you Active Nation) which describes responsibility pretty succinctly.

I hope you like it too.

Getting ‘STUFF’ done

By | Education, Leadership Toolbox | No Comments

There are a few recurring themes when I’m coaching people.  One of those is about ‘Time Management’.  We could get into discussions on the practicalities (lists, urgent vs important).  We could argue that time is not something that can be actively managed – it has to be about what we do within the confines of that dimension. We could get into philosophical conversations about the meaning of life, work and ultimate purpose.  Lets leave all that for another day.

I have been reading a neat little book by Andy Buck about leadership in education and he made mention of this video.  It’s only about 5 minutes, (so it is a good investment in time, and allows us one last shot at procrastinating!)

Enjoy it…

SPACE – Definitely not the final frontier for learning

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Space – (Definitely NOT the final frontier for learning!)

 

Yesterday I attended an interesting conference on Critical Leadership.  In just a short space of time we touched on many topics which challenge us as leaders.  One of the themes centred on how we keep formal learning going in our day-to-day jobs once we return from the buzz of workshops.  This is a topic very close to my heart.

Four points stick in my mind as crucial for continued learning:

–        We need to open spaces for conversation

–        We need to listen and empower

–        We need to foster constant curiosity

–        We need to enable conversations

If I could have created a word cloud from the speakers yesterday morning, I think that SPACE would have featured in the centre in huge letters.  It’s something that we just don’t really have in our busy lives, busy jobs and busy careers.  Yet how can we see what is happening if we don’t make a space to understand what is around us?  How can we start to get these four points into action if we don’t have ‘space’?

Another phrase which would have being pretty obvious in the word cloud would have been CRITICAL FRIEND. (And underneath that I would have posted ‘constructive challenge).

This is all great metaphorical chat, but what do I mean in practical terms?  OK, please stay with me on this…..

Creating a SPACE, means we can give valuable time to reflection.

Reflection is an increasingly well accepted and understood ‘tool’ for deep learning. Taking the time to really think about our experiences means that we can gain new and useful perspectives.  When we reflect, we can create some structure for our thought processes, use positive questioning to get deeper understanding and see the small but powerful changes that accumulate to lead to our success.

How often do you get to the end of a working day and feel that you have achieved nothing?  I think most of us have been there at some time, but even on those days, if you took just ten minutes out (sitting in the car before you drive home, walking the dog, cleaning the goldfish bowl – whatever…..) and identified the smallest thing, the tiniest positive achievement for the day, I am sure there would be something.  It might not be something that you would see as directly relevant to your role, but think again.  When you showed someone a quick move on the computer (that you do without even thinking about it) – that could have a lasting benefit.  When you made that difficult call, but still didn’t reach the right person – at least you have started climbing that fearsome rockface.  When you answered the door for someone, even if they should have done it, it gave you a moment to let the blood back into your legs after sitting for hours at the computer.  If you set up the template for a new spreadsheet, but didn’t enter any data – well, it’s one thing less for tomorrow.  In those mundane examples we’ve covered well-being, support and encouragement shared learning, and action just for a start!  Don’t dismiss the small stuff, it just might be valuable.

So, when I sit down with you as your coach (for want of a better label!), we create SPACE.

First we set some ground rules.  One of these is that we recognise that this time is your time to do with as you choose.  It will not be interrupted, cancelled, driven by me, scripted, or disrespected. It is golden time, a rare oasis away from hustle and bustle. I will guide our conversation and challenge your thinking when necessary. I will hold you to account for your planned actions but most important of all, I will be facilitating your reflection and helping you to embed esoteric learning into practical actions and tools.

Go on – find your SPACE.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am your coach..

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Remember this: as your coach I am there to help you. If it’s a technical question, I will answer it, so you don’t have to post on social media or spend time searching.  If I don’t know the answer – I’ll find a way of getting it.  (I won’t guess! I’m a scientist by trade, so I like a good evidence-base).  If it’s something more human or intangible, that’s fine, I’m there to support you.

It might sound odd, but you could think of me as a kind of ‘Professional Friend’. I might not be the person who knows your inner secrets and gives you a hug when things go wrong, but I am the person who is keen to see you on your feet again.  I’ll be helping you to see clearly (again), helping you to recognise and define your goals and seeing you head off onto a path where you can feel confident, get your mojo back and achieve the things that you so want to do.

I am your coach, but this doesn’t end when our meetings finish.  I am there – on the phone, at my keyboard and I’m always happy to help you via any (reasonable!) medium. Instant messages, texts, phone calls, skype, e mail. Oh, and let’s not forget – I love a good cup of coffee, so meeting up is always a winner.

But, you know what?  You don’t even need to have a problem. You don’t need to feel down to get in touch – you might have something exciting to tell me: I won a new contract, the new job’s going really well, I won a rosette at the horse show last weekend.  Being a coach means that I can take vicarious pleasure: seeing the success of others is great.

You Are Amazing!!

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You are amazing.                       You are unique.                         You are you.

So, I sometimes start off workshops or coaching groups by asking people to consider why they are amazing.  I don’t ask them if they are amazing, because I know that they are.

It’s a difficult question for most people because we grow up looking at role models and seeing what people around us do – and frequently it leaves us feeling that there is still more to do for us to emulate them.

That might be true, but what we forget is that we have our own personal bits of amazing-ness that they don’t have.  We rarely see the people who look to us a role models because nobody ever says ‘Hi there, you are my role model’.  It would probably feel rather creepy (for us) and maybe embarrassing for them. So, here is a story for you; if you’ve met me, you will almost certainly have heard me mention my Mother.  She is amazing.  Not just now (as I am old enough to appreciate it), but when we were younger too.  She is strong and determined but unconditionally loving. She is compassionate and gives her time freely to many causes. She is busy. She takes care of herself.  When family focus was on me and my brother, she made her own clothes with designer labels so that she could have the best clothes even if they weren’t from a shop. She worked hard in a hospital and worked hard for the family. She found time, even then to do things for other groups as a volunteer. If I can add to peoples lives like she has and if I can grow older gracefully, elegantly and by keeping busy like her, I shall be proud. She is my role model. Yet it was only last week that I told her.

So, what makes you amazing? It might not be something really obvious, maybe it was something you did for someone years ago that made a difference for them though it was just part of your nature.  Maybe you are brilliant with spreadsheets; able to run fast; fab at fixing stuff; good at getting things done.  Did you visit an unusual place that left you in awe and wanting to tell other people? Did you complete a plan in difficult circumstances? Have you overcome a tough time and come out the other side smiling again? Did you do something that you thought you could never do?  Have you kept an unusual pet?  Did you make someone laugh this week? The list goes on, but you get the idea? What makes you amazing might be something quite small, but which makes you unique.

What’s the point of this? Well, a common request in my coaching conversations is to help improve self-belief. As in so many instances, it is really about searching to find those things that you know about yourself but which have got forgotten, lost or hidden under other things. Once we start to delve, you’ll find those bits of amazing-ness for yourself and the only challenge then is to say them aloud and recognise them for what they really are.

Go on, try it.  Think of something amazing about yourself and just tell the cat/dog/goldfish/houseplant. Simply saying it out loud is a great first step and might just give you that initial, positive step towards realising who you really are.

The Praise Sandwich

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We’ve all heard about this: how to give feedback.

I was always brought up to avoid food fights, (though school raspberry jelly was good for not much else), and recently I was the victim of just such a sandwich flung unceremoniously in my direction.

I wasn’t sure if this was feedback badly done, or whether I really was a complete disaster in the work I’d just completed.  In the cold light of a new day, and with my rational hat more firmly on my head, I am fairly sure that it was the former.  After all, I know that I can do my job, even if not always perfectly.

So, this got me thinking…..

Just why was I so aggravated by this horrible sandwich?  I think it comes down to something really simple: honesty.

We all know that trust and honesty are foundation stones in any relationship and tinkering with these building blocks is going to weaken the whole structure.  Don’t get me wrong – we should not be brutal, discourteous, thoughtless or undiplomatic in what we say, but there are ways of getting a message over and there are ways that messages really shouldn’t be delivered.

So, what is wrong with the ‘Praise Sandwich’?

First, the negative feedback, (criticism, or suggestion for change) can get lost in the crusts of the sandwich.  When the praise is too much, too gushing or focussing on major parts of a job or role, then this is what we will hear. The critical feedback will be a thin layer of sour jam that gets lost.  This is completely pointless and would certainly leave me wondering why I’m suddenly getting all this praise.  A bit is lovely, but lots of it?  Things that happen anyway, part of the job – why are they suddenly getting a mention?  I’m suspicious, confused. Was the criticism the important bit, or the praise? I’m wondering what the hidden agenda holds.  Oh, and by the way, was there something you wanted me to do differently?  Happy to try but I’m not really sure if it was OK or not….

Second; if the praise is thin, it will not be authentic. Any of us will see through that and head straight for the filling. There’s a double whammy here because not only am I going to be fed up that the job wasn’t right, but the giver of my feedback isn’t being honest.  They want to give me criticism but they are hiding it in something meaningless.  Why are they doing this? It will make little difference by now if the criticism is constructive or not; the damage to trust has already been done.

We don’t want to write our first novel and be praised for our handwriting on the cover letter. We don’t want to design an amazing new machine to be told it’s a nice colour. Get the idea?

So, next time you are giving feedback, think about this.  Identify the elements that really matter and allow for small differences. Respect the person getting the feedback, be kind but be clear. Be honest but positive.