Thursday, 6 November 2014

What else? - a great coaching question but what else?

Julie Johnson, a business associate of mine, posted this piece on her blog about the 'What else?' question in a coaching conversation:

Imagine that you are coaching someone, and you both agree that it is time to focus on generating possible solutions to the challenge at hand. So you ask your coachee: “How can you achieve this goal?”  Without any hesitation, you receive an answer. What do you do next?

Let’s take a case in point. A few years ago I was coaching someone who wanted to get better at giving strategic presentations, especially to senior management. We had already explored what had gone well and less well in the past, conditions that have an impact on performance, the advantages to achieving the goal and the disadvantages of not achieving it. By this point, his motivation was solidly in place. With both of us keen to get to solutions, the conversation went something like this: 

I asked, “What can you do to improve your presentations skills when presenting to senior management?” My coachee quickly replied, “I can take a course.” 

Tempted to explore possible courses, and whether there was a budget for a course available, etc. etc., I simply made note and asked, “What else?”  He quickly replied, “I can get a presentation coach.” 

I thought about exploring the qualities of the ideal presentation coach, but didn’t.  Instead I inquired, “And what else can you do?” There was a slight pause, and then he answered, “Well, I could go on YouTube and check out the techniques of some of my favorite speakers. [pause] And TedTalks. Mmm. I’d like that.” 

I noted once more, and then said, “What other things might you do?” There was a significant pause, during which he looked out the window. Then he said, “David. He is quite good. I’d love to have coffee with him and pick his brain. [pause] And I really need to watch him more consciously when he presents next time, and figure out what it is he is doing exactly that works so well.”

“Mmmm.” I said, noting these new ideas. “And what else would work for you?” This pause was even longer, and I waited. Finally he said, “Well, a couple of my team members have attended some senior management meetings, and they’ve seen me in action.  I bet they would be happy to give me candid feedback and suggestions.”

Tempted to ask who he might speak with and what questions he might ask, I just said “Ok. Anything else?” After a very, very long silence, he said “Well frankly, if I am really serious about this, I should practice my next presentation several times before I actually have to give it. [pause] I could even film myself. Yes! Yes! It would be so useful to observe myself in action! Then, when I finally like what I see, I will have the confidence to do a repeat performance when it really matters!”

When he was out of ideas, we reviewed each option he had generated, and then moved eagerly on to action planning.

While some of those post-question silences were pretty long, I don’t even think that my coachee noticed them. He was very busy creating. His first ideas were probably not new, because his answers came immediately after the question was posed. But because I kept asking the same question (with different words) over and over again, his mind kept creating, and the pauses between question and answer got longer and longer.

My general guideline in these situations is “The longer the silence, the newer the idea.” There are two things to avoid once you have carefully crafted this creative moment:
  • Don’t grab one idea and analyze it in detail – leave that for later once all the ideas are on the table.

  • Keep in mind that the longer the silence after your question, the harder your coachee is probably thinking, and therefore creating. If your question is followed by silence, you are probably ‘on a roll’! This is the best confirmation that your question is a good one!
 Link to Julie Johnson's blog

I like the narrative style.  It's practical and gives a good insight into the judgements that a coach continually has to make about the nature of their interventions.  I shared the blog with some managers that I had been working with on coaching practices the day after the blog was posted and I received this response from one of the recipients shortly afterwards: 

Thanks John.  I actually used this approach with one of my team – it worked brilliantly, and almost as set out above.

...nice feedback and evidence of the importance of sharing ideas and practices.

Coaching practice - what else do we need to consider?

Through my masters studies I looked in some detail at the field of conversation analysis and ethnomethodology and the structuring of sense-making that is part of everyday conversational interaction. If you are interested in following this in more detail please go to my blog Observing Practice.

Of particular interest in Julie's account is the description of the silences. What's noticeable is the work that's going on in the silences.  

The 'what else?' question is an effective device to stimulate thought and the skill of the coach is to hold the pause to allow the thinking work to develop - "There was a significant pause, during which he looked out the window".  However, what we can't tell from this is what the coach was doing whilst the coachee was looking out of the window.  My expectation is that the coach was helping to maintain the silence by following good listening practices like maintaining eye contact and avoiding non-verbal gestures or movements that might distract the silence.  My point is that these practices are being taken-for-granted but they are as much a part of the ordering process to accomplish an effective coaching intervention as the powerfulness of the question itself.

Why is this important?

Coaching is an important approach to helping facilitate change in individuals and teams.  However, like other management practices, it has a kind of mysterious 'black box' quality to it; coaching is not accomplished through a model or a set of questions or behaviours but through a choreography of fine-grained actions that emerge situationally each and every time a coach works with an individual or a team.  In other words, however good 'what else?' is as a question - and it's one that I often use too when I'm coaching - it rather glosses over a lot of important but unseen work that is also contributing to the result.  

The challenge of capturing everyday action 

My continuing interest in conversation analysis is the opportunity that it offers to study the choreography and use it as a learning tool to  enhance the development of coaches and coaching practice. 

The challenge is that this choreography slips by too quickly and is too nuanced; and to be of use the action would need to be captured on video or audio and then analysed to produce a micro level detail of practice.  I know from personal experience that the analysis takes a great deal of time and, at present, is too onerous to be of practical use.  

However, I am hopeful.  Big data technologies are now emerging that are able to provide information about, inter alia, workplace interactions  - for an example see the HBR blog The new science of building great teams and the use of electronic badges to gather interactional data.  This type of analysis looks very promising and is producing some ground-breaking insight into how people interact.  It forms part of some work that is being described as social physics that is coming out of MIT.  I'm reading up on this at the moment and will write a further post of my sensing making on this topic.

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