Recently I had the experience of coaching a client that seemed easy from the start. She was coming to coaching with typical issues and challenges: she was worn out, unsatisfied, and harboring resentments. Okay, I thought, “This one is a slam dunk”. You see, I know this type of client. I’ve worked with many mothers like her. The path forward was all laid out for me. It happens, right? We get to a certain level of experience and we can feel confidant about our ability to size up a client and think we know what they are going to need from us, from the coaching experience. That’s not a bad thing. But it is something to be cautious of because it can be a trap. Thinking the way ahead is already laid out for us makes us a bit lazy; it dulls our curiosity and numbs our connection. That’s not what the coaching relationship is all about. The coaching relationship is dynamic, vital! Think about the last client you had that truly co-created the coaching experience with you—I bet it was energizing. I bet your willingness to go deeper and ask the scary questions was being matched by the client’s eagerness to learn more.
How can we maintain our curiosity about a ‘typical’ client? How can we experience each and every client as unique and different from the last? After all, we are dealing with people, not algorithms. For me, a couple things help to maintain the interest and curiosity needed to do my best work.
The first is to make a habit of exposing myself to new ideas. I look for resources and references everywhere. Drawing inspiration from books, essays, and TED talks in the fields of psychology, education, art, philosophy, activism, etc. Our knowledge base should always be expanding. We need to think of ourselves as life-long learners. Just because the coaching model is fixed, doesn’t mean it can’t be enriched and enlivened by our own growth. In fact, the beauty of the 4 phases of the coaching model is that they themselves can be amplified in new and meaningful ways by the coach’s ever-evolving experience and wisdom.
Next thing I do to maintain my curiosity is to treat my coaching like an improvisation, rather than a tightly scripted play. We need to put our own personal imprint on it. We also need to allow the client to shape the dialogue. I think of myself and the client as musicians who have come together to jam. Every jam session is different; I bring my skill set to the jam, but I allow myself to be spontaneous and responsive to my jamming partner. To jam well, we can’t go in knowing where we’ll end up. We simply have to be in the moment; trusting ourselves and our partners to find the way together. Some ways to do that is to experiment with asking new questions in each of the phases. When was the last time you came up with new questions, or spontaneously asked the question that popped into your head even if you weren’t sure you should? Perhaps you’re the kind of coach that likes to have your questions all laid out in front of you so you can check them off as you go. Experiment with not doing that. Try putting your focus on the listening, instead of the questioning. There might be more silence on a call like that. Let silence fill the space and see what happens. In that silence you might hear a voice from deep inside you. That voice might have the next question! It might have a reframe. It might be a voice of panic saying, “I don’t know where to go from here.” It’s okay! Go with whatever that voice offers you. It’s your intuition and it is a wise guide. By the way, that silence is doing the same thing for your client. It’s offering them the space for wisdom to emerge. Remember, you’re not doing this alone!
When we expose ourselves to new ideas or put ourselves in uncomfortable territory we are sustaining our ability to be curious. We’re asking ourselves, “What new things can I learn?” “What else or who else can I become?” In other words, by intentionally seeking out new perspectives and experiences, we are embracing the living systems model of dynamic change and growth. So the curiosity we need for our clients comes first through offering it to ourselves. We must see ourselves as capable of growth. We must continuously confront and shed patterns of thought and action that no longer serve our highest purpose. When we are doing that work for ourselves, we can see that the potential in others is unlimited, no matter how typical they appear to us at first glance.
Copyright, Julia Cadieux, M.Ed., 2016. Used with permission.