Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Questions or Suggestions


Coaching, training, mentoring, teaching and all the rest then, eh? What are the differences? When do they matter? I'm interested in that stuff, because I find theory useful to inform my practice. But as a practitioner I want to prioritise congruence with the situation over being constrained by a label.

How can theory inform my practice? A book like The Coach's Casebook provides a set of scenarios, talks about possible coaching approaches to them, and reflects on a fictionalised coach's attempts to work through them. This provides me with knowledge of tools and areas of potential application. I can call on these when someone comes to me with a problem. (Which they do, often.)

What I generally won't be doing at that point is trying to open a meta-discussion in which we negotiate whether we should try coaching or mentoring right now. At best this can be clunky and a distraction for  the person I'm trying to help. At worst it blocks the conversation and maybe buries or worsens the problem.

I also generally won't be deciding solo and up front to act as a trainer, or a teacher because that's imposing a restriction that could hinder my ability to assist. In fact, it's my experience that techniques frequently associated with different roles can be valuable in the same conversation. That's why I favour congruence.

My ability to be congruent is enhanced if I can understand the needs of the person I'm talking to better and, while I won't negotiate the terms of a coaching agreement in the moment, I have found that asking "are you looking for questions or suggestions?" has proved to be a great shorthand: not clumsy enough to break the conversational flow, but distinctive enough to provide an opportunity to direct it.

Questions mean that I will attempt to help them to explore the problem and their views on it (and I'll often reference Weinberg's definition of a problem as part of that) while suggestions will see me proposing options: actions or perspectives, for example.

I used this approach in the mentoring experiment with Claire that we wrote up recently, and it proved  helpful. In that case, we had also discussed this particular point before we started working together:
Although we use the terms “mentor” and “mentee” we don’t have specific definitions in mind, and will accept what others might term coaching, teaching, mentoring etc as we feel is most suitable and acceptable at any given time.
In summary: for me, the hat being worn is usually unimportant compared to the strength and value of the relationship being built. Knowledge of tools is beneficial but understanding the need and reacting to it appropriately are crucial.
Image: https://flic.kr/p/XZy3r

Edit: In short Twitter conversations Gus Evangelisti and Adam Knight both made the point that there are times where it's important to be clear about the kind of relationship that's being established. I agree, and I really like Gus' blog post From Consulting to Coaching with its simple yet effective visualisations of different modes of engagement and how they might vary in applicablity.

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