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Virtual coaching and a two day journey around Europe (ITWS#8)

A few weeks back I had a brilliant experience of how virtual coaching can extend the reach of the benefits of coaching. The memory of those days has stayed vivid. My visual and audio recall remains remarkably intact and comes associated with an emotional response that lies somewhere between contentment and fulfilment. The behaviour arising is that I find myself smiling as I think about it. What is it that I am remembering?!

A while ago I was asked to coach some PhD students who were in their final year of their research projects. The researchers originated from countries all around the world and were conducting their research at several Universities across Europe. The brief was to offer them some coaching support in thinking about their transition from their PhD to their next career destination. This to be achieved in one short coaching session.

I had some concern about the one short session format given how important the quality of relationship between coach and coachee is. Looking back my concern was based on an assumption that the quality of a relationship depends on time. In fact, it is more sensible to think of it being deepened over time having been established fairly quickly on the basis of those first impressions that we are all so highly, and often unconsciously, attuned to.

Anyway, after an appropriate exchange of views with the organisational client we established that the benefits outweighed the risks and I found myself with more than 10 coaching sessions, each with a different person, over a period of two days. There was another moment’s hesitation here – was this a level of intensity that would mean I might not be serving my client’s interests effectively as each day progressed? I decided to back my experience and ability (along with commitment to a good night’s sleep in advance!) while resolving to be vigilant on the day.

It turned out to be an amazing experience for a number of reasons. I met a dozen very talented people who had each committed to the intensity of their research programme. Their researcher skills-set was their common ground. In each coachee this was overlaid by their personality and underpinned by their unique character, built on different national and cultural backgrounds.

Each one of them came along to the sessions with the same open mindedness that I expect to have as a coach. None of us knew quite what to expect but all of us were willing and open to give it our best, we were all curious about where the conversations would go. The key thing is that in each case they did go somewhere meaningful. In some conversations there was a directionality set and maintained by the coachee. In others, the final direction came out of something that was a surprise to them, prompting a change in their direction. I was confident at the end of each conversation that each of the coachees had benefited from hearing their own thinking and had an opportunity to build on it beyond the conclusion of our short interaction

I came away from each conversation energised and with my own reflection, prompted by the words of one of the coachees. At the end of his 30 minutes he expressed genuine surprise at the extent of the territory his thinking had covered. There was a sense that he had anticipated skipping along the surface of this thinking about his next steps in our time together. Instead, he arrived at a rather deeper understanding of his own responsibilities, ones he would have to see through on if he is to achieve what he wanted to achieve. I think I must have made a comment that he had indeed covered a lot of ground in the 30 minutes. He reflected that he had expected to need longer to do get something productive from our coaching partnership but then thought out loud ‘Perhaps coaching is just the same as a gas? It will expand to fill whatever space you give it to fill!’.

Given my background as a chemist I inevitably liked his metaphor. Yet it also caused me to think a little about the length of coaching sessions in general. The other part of my coachee’s gas metaphor which is significant is that as a gas expands into a bigger space its pressure reduces. What is the right balance in the length of a coaching session and the pressure a coachee might feel under while they are thinking? I don’t have an easy answer to that question but my own experience is that a short intense session can work very well provided that expectations are set properly in advance. The same applies to the benefits of a single session.

What is unquestionable true is that the virtual connection made these coaching experiences possible. In doing so it spread the benefits of a coaching experience more widely than would have been possible if face to face coaching had been deemed the only option. For that I am grateful to the organisational client for be willing to experiment. To the coachees, I am grateful for their willingness to think and feel out loud and for the feedback that the coaching was a great experience and could they have some more please?!

For me, I have some valuable learning and I have a memory that makes me smile. Not a bad outcome from a two day journey around Europe bought to life through the conversations with each of the people I met in our shared virtual space.