‘Without autonomy, you leave your brain at home’, Dr Kulvarn Atwal told me at his school in 2019, when explaining how all staff have a coach and use the process to improve their sense of autonomy, and to be solution-focused in the way they approach challenges at work. That sounded powerful. But coaching… isn’t that just being a mentor? I am ashamed to say that the conflation of these terms does indeed exist, and contributes to my late discovery of what feels like a turning point in the way I work and lead.
We lead busy lives at work and at home, when in lockdown or normal times. Barriers to success occur, or many opportunities present themselves at once, and inevitably, we have to do some thinking. And yet, making time to reflect can be the easiest thing to strike from our to-do list. Other tasks become more urgent, perhaps because they have a deadline or we are accountable to someone else, leaving our mind restless while we attend to other things.
But what happens when we do reflect on our thoughts? It can be empowering and refreshing to cast technology or tasks aside and consider what’s ahead. But is doing this by ourselves the most efficient way of moving towards our goals?
In his book Chatter, Psychologist and Neuroscientist Ethan Kross (2021) discusses how introspection can actually be counterproductive, as our inner voice often ruminates and dwells on problems and creates a harmful, negative cycle; likewise, using others to vent can be problematic as it pushes them away, or invites them to collude in our negativity rather than helping us through the issue. The book is much more nuanced than those examples alone, but I’m certainly more aware of the possible pitfalls of my inner ‘chatter’.
Enter coaching. If, like I was for years, you are unaware of what coaching is defined as, Sir John Whitmore (2017) says skilled coaching involves ‘unlocking people’s potential to maximize their own performance’. Coaches listen, ask deliberate and purposeful questions, and usually lead the conversation with a coaching model, such as the GROW method (goals, reality, opportunities, what will you do). Coaching sessions prompt the coachee to think through their ideas, challenges or views, with the questions from their coach helping them to find a new perspective, always focused on solutions.
Sometimes, our best thinking happens out loud, when we articulate beyond our internal machinations. Once spoken, the thought becomes more real, more tangible. More actionable, perhaps. We can then reshape it with other words. And then think it through again. Everyone is different, but I have seen in myself, and others, how the process of coaching, and verbally articulating your thought process, begins to unlock doors in your mind. When you combine that with a skilled, disciplined coach who asks open questions without attempting to influence, you have the potential to do great things.
Christian van Nieuwerburgh (2016), coaching expert and author, cites several studies that identify benefits of coaching: increased self-awareness and emotional intelligence, improved interpersonal skills leading to better relationships, increased self-confidence, improved leadership skills, increased loyalty to the organisation, renewed passion to support the development of others, and better work-life balance. In short, there is a large body of research that advocates coaching as a process to develop and empower both coach and coachee.
I will write future blog posts about the practicalities of setting up coaching in schools, both the form of coaching I have outlined so far, and instructional coaching, and some of the research base behind the approaches. In fact, as I planned this post, I spent a few evenings re-reading books, academic papers and web articles to look at a wide-range of evidence about the pros and cons of coaching, and the references are awaiting my attention in a word document.
But, what I realised is that coaching, thus far, brings me learning, enjoyment and empowerment, and that’s what I want to impart in today’s takeaways… The joy of coaching, and how words create worlds:
‘Oh, you know what…’
I love this phrase, or variations of it. This is the moment where your coachee thought they might be at a dead end, before discovering another avenue to explore. Or perhaps their thinking or perspective shifted during the conversation. The analogy I am drawn to, here, is being in a dark room and only being able to see one door. The door isn’t the ideal option for the intended outcome. The coaching conversation, though, can shine a light on other doors that were always there, always possible, but not illuminated before – allowing your coachee the time and space to think this through can create those wonderful ‘oh, you know what…’ moments.
‘I came to talk about this, but actually…’
As Andy Buck (2020) says in his book BASIC Coaching, it’s possible to get hung up on something, and in our minds it becomes the main thing. But what if it isn’t? Coaching conversations often establish how we really feel about an issue; after some deliberation and discussion, it can become apparent that the background to a challenge might not have been the root cause, and the intended course of the conversation needs to change. It’s vital that, before setting goals, the coachee has really considered what is going on, and what the main thing actually is.
‘And what else?’
It’s important as a coach not to lead your coachee to certain realisations or judgements that you want them to make. You don’t know as much as you think! Questions such as ‘and what else?’ are a fantastic tool. They prompt further thinking, without judgment, bias or agenda. Sure, you might have to endure a bit of silence, but the space allows independent thought and the cogs really start to turn. It’s wonderful to observe and be part of.
Teamwork and trust
The bedrock of a coaching relationship is trust and rapport. The coachee must feel completely at ease during a conversation in which they put themselves in a position of vulnerability, as they evaluate options and discuss their feelings towards an array of issues. The coach must maintain discipline and rigor with their methods as the relationship flourishes, but it can become a truly special partnership.
Don’t leave your brain at home
We’ve all gained satisfaction from mentoring someone: giving them advice and offering our wisdom or experience. It’s the right model for some relationships, for example with an inexperienced staff member, but also can be used effectively in other contexts, as I outlined in a previous post. But the aim of coaching is for the coachee to find their solution. When I watch a coachee experience their epiphany moments, that flash of realisation that they have hit on something previously unconsidered, the sense of empowerment is palpable. You may have guided them, in a sense, with your questions and by replaying their thoughts back to them, but they did the heavy lifting. This was their win, their sense of pride, and their autonomy. You facilitated their innate brilliance. That’s what really brings me joy in a coaching relationship.
It’s easy to assume that the coach is the guru and that the relationship is one-sided in terms of its outcomes and uses. I would disagree. The coachee may feel indebted to the coach, but so far I’ve found the coach to be a huge beneficiary of the relationship; watching someone find their way to solutions and new ideas gives me the confidence and inspiration to do it myself. Coachees inspire coaches! Both parties will learn something from the process.
If you are reading this and aren’t yet a coach, or haven’t been coached, I hope my moments of joy and inspiration have nudged you in its direction. I am a year into my coaching journey, and have so much to learn and more experience to gain; I’m starting an accredited course with Growth Coaching International, and also looking to take on more coachees via Zoom (free of charge, contact me if you’re interested!). I believe wholeheartedly in coaching as a form of development and empowerment for both coach and coachee, and am thrilled that it is taking root in more schools across the country. The challenge now is to ensure that the proper time and expertise is dedicated to the initial and ongoing training of coaches, in addition to the right environment for coaching to thrive on a whole-school or organisational level.
But, for those ‘oh, you know what…’ moments, creating a coaching culture could be one of the best things you do for your workplace.
Buck, A (2020) The Basic Coaching Method. Cadogan Press.
Kross, E (2021) Chatter: The Voice in Our Head and How to Harness It. Ebury.
Van Nieuwerburgh, C (2016) Coaching in Professional Contexts. Sage
Whitmore, J (2017) Coaching for Performance, 5th edition. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.