A typical coaching scenario is a one-to-one session where you meet a client for an hour. It’s a confidential conversation where the coachee is given time to reflect and space to think about what they want to achieve. This can be a goal that is career related or a personal matter. The point is that they’re given private time with me, the coach, and I am there only for them. Conversations can take any direction over the course of that hour: I am simply ‘holding the space’ for them as they explore possibilities. In this situation I am of course in charge because I can use my coaching skills to guide them and prompt their thinking.
Planning the session (with courtesy of RD1st)
In September 2012 I was presented with an interesting challenge: to introduce coaching for the students at Northern School of Contemporary Dance, a dance conservatory, offering high standard professional dance training. The college had scheduled a ‘Healthy Dancer Day’ to encourage the students to reflect on the different aspects of keeping the body and mind fit for the vigorous training they go through. The brief for my session was to get them to think about self-motivation, communication, taking responsibility and choosing to learn and engage. I was not interested in hearing myself talking about the benefits of coaching for an hour and giving examples and lecturing the students. Based on my own experience of studying at Northern, I know that what a student really needs is someone to help them think about how to utilise their unique skills that gave them a place at the college and how to maintain physical and mental health in the face of the ups and down of being a dancer. But, if I wasn’t interested in giving a lecture about coaching, and if coaching is usually done one-to-one, how could I go about coaching fifteen or so people at the same time?
Studio at NSCD and class of 2005 in rehearsal
I was provided with an empty dance studio for the session. Not knowing what coaching was, many of the students came with an expectation of being ‘coached’ in a more traditional sense: how to optimise physical performance. I got a few confused looks when I asked them to sit down and grab pen and paper. We sat in a circle to begin with, cross-legged, lounging, like dancers do! Not having chairs and tables felt very casual and diminished the distance between me and them which really worked.
The first thing I got them to do was to spend three minutes on their own, writing down five things they would like to develop over the next three months. I deliberately chose a short time frame to make it more immediate and attainable and for goals to be tangible and real. Although long term goals are crucial in the coaching process, the articulation of such goals requires time and a patient listener to explore. Short term goals in this setting seemed more appropriate. Now the biggest challenge arose. I wanted them to have an opportunity to explore one or two subjects that they had just been writing down. Ideally I would have coached them individually and taken the responsibility for this process but with 15+ students this was simply not an option. The only alternative was to get them to coach each other. Encouraging them to keep the conversation private and intimate, they paired up and spread out in the space. The task was for one person to talk for four minutes about one of the five things they wanted to develop.
I wanted to be true to my principles as a coach, which means I wanted to encourage ‘active’ listening in a non-judgmental environment. I didn’t want the pair work to turn into a chit-chat between mates, which is what often happens by default when we’re not given a framework.
Therefore I decided to introduce these simple and straightforward tasks:
· Listening without interrupting
· Listening with an open mind and curiosity
· Talking without being interrupted!
· Allowing silences
Although I acquired many coaching skills through training there are some aspects that are common sense or at least can be brought out when certain restrictions are given. In coaching we avoid giving advice, interrupting, finishing other people’s sentences, making grimaces of disapproval or staring out the window/looking at the clock/checking your phone!! If you can simply stay focused on the other person and give them your full attention, they will feel safe to verbally explore options.
I wanted this pair work to be a challenge not just for the person sharing their thoughts but also for the listener taking on the coaching role. So I prompted the listener to be open and more than anything not to interrupt or even speak for those four minutes. The latter seemed to be the biggest challenge for some. It made me realise how often we have conversations where listening is simply an intermission while we’re waiting for our turn to speak. In the end the students shared with the group their experience of talking and listening. The students definitely seemed surprised with the difficulty of listening and of controlling the urge to contribute. But interestingly talking without being interrupted was equally challenging. It’s so ingrained in our culture to bounce the dialogue backwards and forwards that when given time to say more we stall. For some the moments where the speaker had a possibility to reflect and think became a void of embarrassing silence. However, what some students seemed to gain from this was the opportunity to relax into the monologue and not fight to hold on to the right to speak. There was no threat of being interrupted or someone giving out their opinion. The gaps between formulating thoughts gave an opportunity to process what they had just said. And it’s often when you get through the superficial layers of thinking that the more meaty and deep-felt thoughts arise. It made me understand how powerful this process is. In the four minutes they were given at least a couple found themselves resolving issues just through talking to someone uninterrupted. Think what you can do with 60 minutes!
Contemporary class in studio, NSCD
I don’t know if this was the ideal way of approaching a group coaching session. I think many of them came away with an idea of what the coaching process can do and perhaps some encouragement to set more mini goals for themselves. I hope it also made some of them aware of their habits in terms of listening and speaking!
Coaching a group rather than an individual definitely helped me to think outside the box when it comes to using coaching in an untraditional way. With my deep fascination with the abilities and meaning of the body I’m interested how this could carry over in a more physical context. My next step is to start thinking about how I can transfer this technique to a more movement based activity. What if the coachee was using movement instead of talking? What would coaching then look like if I –the coach - simply listen, reflect back and ask question only using movement? Watch this space…
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