When the directors asked the managers and project leaders to undertake a coaching course, I don’t suppose any of us knew what we were letting ourselves in for.
We certainly had little idea of what coaching is. It is easy to think of it as much the same thing as training. However, think of trains and coaches. Trains run on tracks and can go only along a specific route to a predetermined destination. Coaches can go almost anywhere there is a road, follow diversions at a moment’s notice and take you on a mystery tour.
Training starts with a set of knowledge or skills and tries to impart it to the trainee. Coaching starts with a challenge that a person has and tries to help the coachee find a way of dealing with it. They can work together, of course. Feedback is part of your training. If you have difficulty understanding or implementing your feedback, coaching can help identify what the problem is and explore ways around it.
People often expect the coach to come up with ways to solve their problem. That is almost the opposite of how it works. The coach is there to clear away obstacles that keep you from seeing your own solutions to your problem.
We practised coaching on each other to begin with. Then, when we felt brave enough, we started to work with other people. One of my most memorable moments in coaching practice was when a coachee said, ‘I can’t think of any way of doing X, short of Y.’
I asked, ‘Why are you ruling out Y?’
‘Oh yes,’ said the coachee, ‘I suppose I could do that.’
Sometimes all we need to do is ask the obvious question – the question that seems so obvious that we never think of asking it. Sometimes we don’t even need to do that. A couple of times I felt almost frustratingly unnecessary because my coachee clearly just needed to think through the situation to arrive at a solution. All I needed to do was be there for the person to talk to.
As well as practical work, we had to write assignments. These ensure that we understand what we are doing, the theoretical principles behind it, the ethical issues and a variety of possible approaches. They also require us to reflect on our practice and consider how to develop further. It is tempting to think that when we get the qualification we have arrived and can rest on our laurels. Far from it. Coaching is a journey for the coach as well as the coachee. We don’t know where we will end up, but every step on the road is valuable.