Imagine you are strolling through an international coaching conference in Denver, you want to meet Peter, a Master Certified Coach and think that his balancing session is the perfect place to do so. As you enter the small conference room, you see a group of people of all races and ages, some children, too, with bright shining eyes, following every word of a tall and thin guy with a beard, who is reading them “Winnie the Witch”, a normal children’s story which – if this is how you understand it – holds a deep poetic truth about change. If you sit down to listen, you might also want to look for a humorous twinkle in his eyes and take that seriously – or not, depending what is more helpful for you at the moment.
P: Actually, it was my impatience that brought me to coaching. I had been managing an internal management development department in the Swiss insurance business and was very frustrated by how slow change was occurring. Creating programs and watching them being implemented only two years later, felt like nothing was moving much.
What I really like about coaching, on the other hand, is that change happens much faster. I work with an individual or a group, and only a short while later, people report back that it has been helpful and that they are making progress; so I know that what I do is fruitful.
K: You divide your time between coaching yourself and teaching how to coach and managing your coaching school as a business – what are the most recent stories that come to your mind when you think of people moving forward?
P: Actually, that happens both in teaching and in coaching itself. Last week, I was working with a group of coaching students, who had been working with me for 9 days over a period of 4 months. The difference between how this group of coaching students manages to be helpful to their clients in their coaching role after these 9 days is so gigantic you can almost not compare it to the beginning. At the beginning of the training, the students usually spend a lot of time trying to explain, bringing their own ideas into the discussion with the client and try to convince the client of a solution. Toward the end of the training, they manage to be very minimal in their interventions. They merely ask a couple of very smart questions, and very quickly, they somehow enable the clients to come up with their own best ideas, best ideas in the sense that the clients know what will be working for them in the reality of their own lives.
K: This is fascinating – how do you do that in your training?
P: Hm – that is probably the most difficult question. If I knew, I would write a book about it. (laughs). What really seems to help is giving participants a lot of time to actually do coaching, and then find out what works. There is a story on this. Recently, in a training, I gave the group a little bit more input on one of the important questions in the solution-focused model than I usually do. I talked about the “Miracle Question”, where the client is asked to imagine what it would be like if the problems he is having disappear over night. We spent half a day explaining the 257 very important things that you have to keep in mind to be sure to ask the “Miracle Question” correctly. The counterproductive result was that after the end of these three days the participants asked the strangest, weirdest, and most unhelpful “Miracle Questions” that I have ever heard. When we are not explaining and give them enough room to explore for themselves, they seem to be smart enough to figure out quickly what works best and how it works best without us telling them. So if we talk less and give them more time to experience, it seems that participants are learning a lot faster.
K: You also work with the Credentialing Committee of the International Coach Federation and you give exams for prospective Master Certified Coaches and Professional Certified Coaches – what is your experience in examining these coaches from all over the world?
P: There are two aspects is this:
The first aspect is that working with the Credentialing Committee allows me to stay in a learning loop regarding coaching. It is a fascinating opportunity for me to be able to listen to coaches from all over the world, to find out how they coach and get an idea of “best practice”. Also the discussions that we have afterwards in the Credentialing Committee when we think about what has been helpful, what were the strong points of the coaching that we have just heard, what does this person do extremely well give me a lot of ideas of what I can try out, and that moves me along in my own learning. It is personally very rewarding.
The other aspect is that there seems to be something like the “essence” of coaching no matter whether you are doing it, be it in the US, in South America, or in Japan. Certain points that prove to be extremely helpful for clients strike us as recurring in many coachings. With the work for the credentialing committee, I seem to find out more about what makes excellent coaches do really excellent work.
K: Is that in any way communicable?
P: I could try to communicate it in a very complicated and complex way, but I could also try the opposite
P: Probably. Actually, it is incredibly simple. It is so simple that I almost hesitate to say it because it seems so natural and clear and almost too obvious. It has a lot to do with the quality of listening, the quality of simply being there as a coach. Just by the fact that there is someone sitting across the table or at the other end of the telephone line, the client gets space to think aloud along his own solutions. I think, one of the essences of coaching is not to disturb that thinking process too much, really just hold the space, and hang in there with the client, so he has the time to go through all the ideas that are in his mind but that he has never taken the time to finish. That is one thing that seems very helpful.
The other thing is also quite simple and has been known for a long time. As soon as clients have time to imagine the future that they want, as soon as they have time to paint a clear picture of where they want to go, change becomes a lot more probable and happens a lot faster than if the clients don’t know what exactly it is that they want to get out of coaching and how they want their life and their business or their relationship with a team organized differently.
Maybe there is a third which is particularly true for working with managers and working in a business environment. If coaches manage to get clients to think about the things that already seem to work fine, progress is sped up. In business, a lot of people are very busy troubleshooting. Wherever they go, wherever they look, they seem to be confronted with trouble and they need to deal with it. The coach can ask simple questions like: “When has this been going a little bit better?” or “Were there examples when you were happy with the results and how did you manage to do that” to help the client get on the road to success a lot faster. Usually many signs and incidents clearly point out how to manage the road to success. However, we sometimes forget to look at what is already working. As soon as we have time to look at that, we can figure out how these exceptions actually came to happen, and then success can be repeated a lot more easily.
K: You are in the process of writing a book together with Insoo Kim Berg, one of the founders of the solution-focused model. In which ways could that book be helpful for a coaching student?
P: What we have been very careful about when we were writing the book is to make coaching as simple as it is. I have already pointed out a couple of simple things to do earlier in this conversation. The book is about simple little things like these – things that give you a good head start if you want to get involved in coaching or that will help you along or remind you if you are a more advanced coach.
We also describe in the book what you can do as a manager to introduce the notion of coaching into your managing job
K: This is interesting – you say that coaching is also something you can do when you are a manager?
P: Well actually, there is an interesting historical fact that I would like to mention. Much of the growth of coaching in the English speaking world has come from this combination of management and coaching.
Managers usually wear two different hats: Their directive manager’s hat and an idea-creating, supportive coaching hat. So 20 years ago, when coaching started to become really big with large corporations, the main thing was to introduce managers to some of the secrets of effective coaching in order to help managers become more effective by being able to use these tools. So there is this very strong historical link between coaching and managing people. Quite a number of my clients to come to coaching because they want to become better managers as well. I noticed that in a way, they become more extreme in this learning process of coaching. They become a lot more clear and strict in setting goals and clearly stating where they think a project, or a team, or a company should get to and a lot more clear in setting boundaries, too, which seems to be extremely helpful for people working with these managers. On the other hand, they also seem to become a lot more open towards the solutions of how to reach those goals that the team or their employees come up with. So it is a two fold change. Managers become more extreme in clarity about the goal and more extreme in helping employees or team members to become creative in finding the most effective way for themselves. That’s probably the secret of managers who also do coaching.
K: That’s fascinating! Do you have an example from your coaching practice that illustrates that?
P: There is one recent example of a very successful business woman. She works with a small team and with an assistant who plays a key role because this business woman is on the road quite a lot. The business woman came to the first coaching session saying that she needed to take a decision either to get rid of that assistant or to find a way to make this assistant a lot more business oriented. The more she told me about the case, the more she got upset about the fact that this assistant seemed to be extremely capable in organizing things beautifully, making sure that everything is neat and in order and precisely taken care of, but somehow misses the great business opportunities that she encounters. So she takes calls and does not seem to realize what kind of a business opportunity could open up in the call and how she could make sure that actually that business remains with the company. So since this is such a small company, the assistant has a crucial role: Either she learns to grasp the business opportunities that she encounters, or my client would not be interested in her capabilities as an extremely efficient administrator.
So we had a little talk about how she would like that employee to act differently, what would be the first small signs that she as a business woman would notice that would tell her that things are moving into the right direction. The business woman said that the assistant would ask a client for the aim of the telephone call and would react immediately if it is a business related goal.
We also talked a lot about what she as manager would do differently. She said she would notice that she would be a lot more relaxed around that assistant. Interestingly enough she would get less bossy and less demanding in a sense, not nagging all the time. She was quite shocked when she noticed how much she was nagging and disturbing that assistant with her constant unhappiness with some of the things the assistant was doing.
Of course, we also looked at first small signs of what seemed to work best with that employee. She noticed that some weeks ago, she came back from a business trip and on her desk she had found a neat order of people to call back, projects to take care of. She remembered that the assistant had arranged the different calls and things to do by order of business opportunities involved. At the beginning of our coaching session, she had been convinced that this employee would not be able to do such a thing, and all of a sudden she realized that she had already been taking first steps. The business woman was surprised with both noticing how her reaction sometimes was not helpful and that there actually were some good signs that she must have missed and overlooked.
When she came back (for a follow-up coaching) about two weeks later, she was overwhelmed and said that it was almost like a miracle happening. The first day she got in after the coaching session, it seemed to her like as if that assistant had been part of our coaching session and had heard all the things that she wanted her to do more of. She said from the first half of the day on, it was totally clear to her that she should definitely not get rid of her assistant and that there were so many things that the assistant already did well. She had had a lot of opportunities to compliment her on things that she did that very morning. They even went to out for lunch together, and she had a long talk with her pointing out very clearly what business goals she had. She had gained some trust, and she said that she wanted to involve her in some thoughts on how to develop the business further but that she had previously not shared with her assistant. Her assistant came up with very creative ideas at lunch on how she could better support the manager. So actually, our second session was the last session we had. Things had been clear enough, and from what I have heard the team is still working together well. It is just not an issue any more.
P: I was really surprised myself. You asked “Can I explain things that happen?” and one of the things that I like about my job are these quick changes to the better: I can’t explain them, but I know from experience that they happen quite a lot. This is what is so fascinating about being a coach for me.
K: Thank you so much for the interview, Peter
P: Thank you!
I switch off the recorder and the mike next to the telephone. Peter and I chat some about the children, life and unrelated philosophy. Then it's 9:00 o'clock in the morning already and we both agree it's time for some work (or coffee).
Kirsten Dierolf M.A., (1965) has American and European university degrees in theology and linguistics. She is a Lecturer at two private German management schools / universities and works as solution focused trainer and coach mainly for banking, IT, and pharmaceutical industry: Kirsten is interested in creative chaos, devine pranks, art and adventure. She can be contacted a www.speaking-gmbh.de or in her workshop at the Solutions in Organisations Conference in Interlaken 2005.