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Virtual Coaching, Real Meaning (ITWS#6)

Leadership and development coaching are about being curious. It’s about developing trust, providing support, challenging thinking, and encouraging my clients towards purposeful change. All this in service of their agenda. It is also a partnership and as in any partnership there will be benefits for both parties. For me as coach I am often in awe about how much I gain from working with each and every one of my coachees. I benefit from enrichment, learning, and a shared sense of achievement to name just three and these often arising in a relationship where the coaching is virtual; we have never met in person.

Three instances come to mind from some recent virtual coaching sessions.

The first was all about the shared sense of achievement and a reminder of what a privilege it is to partner in with my coachee’s thinking. We were discussing the coaching journey do far and my coachee described the journey through each conversation as being one going from darkness to light before continuing ‘I have learned to trust myself again, to return to the person who I know myself to be and to the values that I hold dear’. In the moments that followed there was a sense of an unspoken appreciation of the huge achievement this represented. It was special to hear but so much more special to appreciate the meaning those words had for the one who had spoken them, who had the courage to do the thinking behind them, and the drive to see thinking through towards action.

In another session with a different coachee the phrase ‘reading the air’ came up, a phrase picked up during a period living in Japan. It’s a really evocative phrase I had not come across before. It has particular meaning in Japanese culture where so much communication is based on respect, yet its meaning is cross cultural too. It is that skill of reading body language, reading accurately ‘between the lines’, interpreting the truth when one convention or another prevents it from being said out loud. It occurred to me that coaching is in part about ‘reading the air’. Noticing what a coachee is not saying and inviting a different interpretation of what they are say can help them to ‘read their air’. For the coach they will have their own response to their coachee’s thinking and feeling. Accurate reading of this and appropriate sharing with the coachee is always a rich avenue of exploration. It’s a phrase that wraps around coaching practice in an elegant way and helps me to think about what I am doing in a slightly different way. Reading the air will stay with me as a descriptor of a skill that will challenge and excite me throughout my journey as a coach.

The last was a great prompt for my own good practice! Any coach who thinks that they do not have to pay attention to the basics is a coach who will let down his or her clients. One such basic is how to ask powerful questions. Entry level criteria are that they should avoid starting with ‘why’, must be short and encourage an open-ended answer. More sophisticated specifications are that they should reflect the client’s language and must encourage generative thinking. Then there is the use of prompts that are not questions. The noticing, the statement that encourages a response and, often the most underused, the silence.

Back to the basics though. I was talking with a coachee in a conversation that was ebbing and flowing yet always with a sense of direction and purpose. I was interested in a particular point that was raised and started on a question that just never seemed to reach the question mark! When eventually it did, I continued my steady gaze at the client in whose eyes, via the screen, it was easy to pick out the words ‘what did that mean?’ Good coaching question by the way! I smiled sheepishly and said something like ‘bit convoluted that question, eh?’ to which he replied, ‘Word Salad’. After a moment being a bit taken aback, which was obvious to see, I thought what a great description of a lousy question. We had a good laugh about it and moved on purposefully and had a great session.

The phrase is something I will keep in mind. It makes me smile, I am doing so as I write, and it is a great ‘alert’ to have in terms of my style of questioning. I have even developed it into a particular sort of salad. One in which the key ingredients are covered in a gloopy dressing before tossing to ensure that the original flavour is completely masked. Word Salad. Watch out for it! What a great reminder to me, some great learning.

So, gratitude to these and all my other coachees. While my focus is on your agenda it is great to learn from all our partnerships. It may be virtual coaching, yet it leads to real meaning, for coachee and coach.

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