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Coaching case study: More challenge please


This month in our ever-popular coaching case study series, Richard Hawkes looks at managing a situation where the coachee is unhappy with the direction her sessions are going in.

Jennie has been in her role as area director of a multinational service company for some time now. She has grown from her original role in the ranks over the years and is now keen to progress herself towards higher levels in the organisation.

Jennie feels that she has become a bit stuck in her career growth and does not know why. She has employed her coach to help her break this impasse and to see if she can find out how and what she needs to do to change to achieve this.
Their coaching programme has been running for seven months (originally set out for six months and now extended for a further six).
Today we pick them up at the start of the eighth session.
Coach: "Let's review where we've got to in the last seven sessions".
Jennie: "OK. We've spent some time looking backwards and specifically at those times and events that have gone well. We have looked at why they went well and what made them a success. We've tried to see how we can relate my attitude and activities from those times to today and make the same progress happen. It has become clear that the hurdles as I go up the organisation become more and more difficult to overcome because the pyramid is getting smaller and smaller."
Coach: "So how do you feel about that?"
Jennie: "If you ask me once more how I feel about that, I think I shall scream. I need results. I need action. I need advice. I need help. All you do is ask me bland questions – how do I feel, how will that affect me, what the implications are, what should I do. I need some proper challenge; make me feel uncomfortable, get me out of my comfort zone, the box, or whatever all those buzzword sayings are. Do you know the meaning of the word challenge?"
Who would have expected that outburst at the beginning of a coaching session? Clearly not our coach. But what should the coach have done? How has the coach got this far without reading the signs? Dare we suggest that the coach had become complacent? Perhaps the coach was trying to fit too much in himself. In any event, it should have not come to this.
Coach: "Umm...well, I suppose we need to restart. Let's have a look at the notes when we started to see if we have kept to the contracting that we agreed at the beginning of this programme." - the coach finds the notes and looks at them- "My notes say that you would like to get to the end of this with a clear idea of what you should be doing and..."
Jennie (cutting across the coach): "We're certainly nowhere even heading in that direction. This has been nothing more than a pleasant wandering conversation."
Oh dear: the coach has lost control of this conversation and maybe the whole programme. Thinking time is needed. Let's see how this is handled.
Coach: "Let's see if we can make some proper progress and get out of the cul-de-sac in which we seem to have found ourselves. If you were in my position at the moment, what would you advise me to do?"
The coach has opened his/her arms in the submissive position and asked for help. Not a bad idea, but where will it lead?
Jennie: "Ask robust questions – find out where I really want to be; keep asking what else; what else; what else and then what else. Find out my goals, the skills I need to learn, the people I need to speak to. Ask me penetrating questions for example – what is actually holding me back; what barriers I am putting in my way; ask me about my confidence at the moment; ask me about how challenged I am; ask me about my attitude – just challenge me and then challenge me again and more."
Coach: "I shall, but first of all what do you need to change to start hearing people? Give me some examples of when you have recently used your listening skills, at home or work."
Jennie: "OK, OK how, when I have just lambasted you, did you manage to pick on the one area which has slipped over the last 12 months. I have turned into monologue because nobody has been taking any notice of me. I am 45, no kids; my husband spends his time out racing. I just feel I have lost the plot. I feel that there is no point. I feel like a lost soul"
It worked. Our coach miraculously, or more probably calling on deep and ingrained experience, has hit exactly the right spot (why did the coach not do this four months ago?)
Jennie: "So, what do I have to do? I could give up and sink even deeper into the morass of negativity, but that has only got me to where I am – stuck in all areas of my life. I could smile and put on a front and pretend all is well. Oh dear, I'm off on another monologue...”
The coach is back in control.
Coach: "Have you got any really good friends who you could share a bottle of wine with and bounce this off them?"
Jennie: "Yes, but they are all fed up with me because I do not listen to myself and they have told me that."
Coach: "Let's move into a fantasy world for a moment. Describe what a perfect world would look like if you could create it now. Tell me in no more than five words."
The coach is at last using some proper skills to coach Jennie.
Jennie: "I can't do it in so few."
Coach: "Your challenge is to do just that."
Now the coach is using the power of silence to wait, wait and wait as long as necessary for the answer.
Jennie: "director; gregarious; loved; successful; serene."
Coach: "So, what is the first step you need to achieve all these states?"
We are going to leave the conversation here. The coach has now got back on track with five positive areas to work on to find out exactly what Jennie's definition of each of these is and what her plans are to achieve each one.
What a conundrum. Our coach had become complacent, our coachee had become irrational and things had started to go astray but the coach bought this back on track quite skilfully, although much too late.
Apart from regular supervision, can you share some of your methods for avoiding complacency in your coaching, how you challenge enough but not too much. You could also share how you would deal with such an outburst?
Richard Hawkes is a leading business coach with Unlimited Potential

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