The Universal Coaching A-ha
I am in a large presentation room in a hotel in Zambia Africa, speaking carefully to a group of leaders in the Ministry of Education and at high levels in the Zambian University and College system. I am aware that my accent and vocabulary is peculiar to America (and tinged with the occasional sound of Chicago) and may be difficult for my Zambian audience to understand. The topic is Renewal Coaching. Keenly aware of best methods for supporting adult learning, my workshop contains a combination of interactive mini-presentations interspersed with exercises that invites leaders to work with each other, apply ideas and bring the content to life. I have done this sort of work countless times over the past eleven years; rarely do I feel this level of trepidation. I wonder, here in Zambia, do I have the ability to successfully convey the true power of coaching? Or will I fail to find the right words and lose this opportunity to ignite a passion for coaching in this gathering of key leaders who could use it to transform education in their nation?
The first skill lab in this workshop is called “Listen, just listen.” The Zambian leaders in the room gamely listen to the directions. This lab requires partners to take turns as coach, listening as the other talks about a project that matters to them and that would be good for education in Zambia too. In the States, I get the occasional eye roll at this point as at least one person in the audience wonders if this is one of those “touchy-feely” staff development tangents. No one in the Zambian audience looks askance, so I continue. I tell them I will time the exercise: the “coachee” is to speak for five minutes about their project and for those five minutes, the “coach” must only listen. These are specific directions, and my Zambian colleagues somberly seek clarification. Do you mean we cannot ask a single question? Can’t we give encouragement or show approval? Can’t we offer our advice? The answers are yes that is what I mean, and no, and no. These guidelines are so counter-intuitive to what people naturally do in a typical conversation, they seem preposterous. Ordinarily, even people who consider themselves “good listeners” ask questions, interrupt, tell the stories they are reminded of, and give advice. I assure my Zambian colleagues, that yes, it is true: during this particular five-minute lab, which simulates the first part of every coaching conversation, coaches listen, just listen.
Facing their dubious stares, I promise them that coaches will have a chance to talk later in the process. But for now, in this stage of coaching, it is important to listen, just listen. I urge them to trust me and the process as given.
After both partners have the chance to experience what it is like to be listened to and to listen in this remarkable way, we debrief the experience in the full group. I brace myself and take a breath. Usually the “listen, just listen” exercise evokes strong responses in participants, including the stunning realization that this was the first time in days, months, or even years, that someone has listened to them for that long, without interruption, questions, or judging. Usually, participants discover that through listening, coachees actually begin to see their dilemmas more clearly. They begin to feel hopeful. They begin to visualize solutions. I had to wonder, in spite of my American accent and earnest processes, did the power of coaching come through during this simple exercise? To fail at conveying these insights early in the four full-day workshops I am scheduled to lead in Zambia would be disastrous.
At the end of the five minutes, I ask the group: What did it feel like to listen and to be listened to in this extraordinary way? I fall to silence and wait. Responses start to come from all sections of the conference hall. “It felt like for once, I was able to hear myself think.” “It felt like if I could keep talking, I would figure the whole thing out.” “It felt like my coach really cared about me and what I was facing.” “I realized that what I first thought was the issue really wasn’t it at all.” “I heard myself explain the problem I’m facing with greater clarity.” “It felt like someone trusted me to know what to do.” “It felt funny, but knowing I wasn’t going to be interrupted, I was able to be more thoughtful about what I said.”
I take a breath, sigh, and smile. I’m happy and relieved to know that my Chicago-American accent and associated vocabulary did not undermine this crucial first exercise that universally begins to reveal the power of coaching. Sure, we had just scratched the surface, but what was already becoming clear to the leaders in the room is that this thing called “coaching” could change the way people support, encourage, and inspire the best work of individuals and organizations.