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Coaching case study: Being present


With our regular columnist Richard Hawkes away, his colleague Steve Thomson provides the community with more good coaching advice, once again highlighting the importance of role play.

Often in coaching situations – whether formal or informal – we find ourselves faced with a coachee who seems rooted in the past; reliving previous mistakes or frustrations; creating less than helpful self-images based on what happened months or even years before.
Take for example Sarah, a graduate recruit in a large organisation which is going through a process of streamlining and modernisation.
Sarah is one of a select group brought into the company specifically to help bring about changes. Her role is in customer marketing – effectively getting the company's messages out to retailers and wholesalers – and she's working with a team which is mostly comprised of people who have worked in the department for many years. She's the youngest and least experienced member of staff, but also the only one with an MBA. Coaching is offered to all staff, and Sarah was keen to take up the offer. Let's pick up the conversation as the session gets under way:-
Coach: So Sarah, what can we talk about that will be of most benefit to you today?
Sarah: I'd like to talk about the difficulty I'm having in making my opinions heard. No-one is prepared to listen to me. They're all older and more experienced than I am, and they treat me like a child.
'What are you currently doing to address this?'
'Well, I always go into team meetings fully prepared. I have any material I might need with me, and I've got a clear idea of what I want to say.'
'And how are you received by your colleagues?'
'They almost never call on me to speak. They just all talk, and carve up the work between themselves.'
'What work do they hand over to you?'
'Drudge work. Research and data stuff that anyone could do.'
'What are you doing to change this?'
'What can I do? If I complain they'll ignore me and if I were to go to my line manager they'd gang up on me.'
'Do you have any evidence that this is what would happen?'
', but that's what always happens.'
Coach [considering]: What makes you think that?
Sarah: You can see it all over the place. It was the same in university, even in school. It always goes like that.
'Let's backtrack a little so I can make sure I understand you. When you were in school and in university people sometimes excluded you, and if you complained it made matters worse. Does that sound right?'
'So now you're at work and you feel that people are excluding you here too, and if you make any complaint you'll once again be excluded in some way?'
'But so far you've not complained?'
'What words would you use to describe your situation?'
'Outsider, newbie, isolated.'
'Can you construct a sentence to sum up how you see yourself?'
'I have a lot to offer, but I'm not being allowed to put it forward because no-one is prepared to let me speak. I feel ostracised.'
'Have you ever felt like this before?'
' school. My parents moved me to a new school when I was 14 and I felt a bit the same then. Also, when I finished my degree and went on to study for the MBA it was a bit strange. I felt like a bit of an outsider there too.'
'Can you construct a sentence that describes how you felt at those times?'
'I felt outside of the group and isolated, I guess.'
Coach: Now, I'd like you to role-play something. I want you to imagine that you are a member of the group that you feel is ostracising you, and pretend that I am you. How do I look to you? How do I sound? What am I doing to fit in?
Sarah [thinking about this for a time]: You’re stand-offish. You think you're better than I am. You look down your nose at me and the rest of us.
'Now, as yourself, describe the person you would like to be to make a better impression on your colleagues.'
'I'm warm and chatty. I want to help, and to be involved. I listen to their experience and hope they'll listen to my perspective but I don't push it at them.'
'Good. Can you carry that ideal forward to your next team meeting?'
'I think so, yes.'
Sarah has been projecting her past into her present, which will always have an impact on her future. The coach has spotted that she's using language that can’t be supported by her current experience. By her own admission she's never really tested out whether her colleagues will act as she predicts, so what she believes will happen is actually a reflection of her past experience. The coach having her – by whatever method – re-appraise her sense of her place in the community allows her to quickly formulate a plan to take her forward in a positive way.

Written by Steve Thomson, senior coach at Unlimited Potential

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