Last week, a surgeon named Atul Gawande wrote an article for the “Annals of Medicine” section of the New Yorker magazine titled “Personal Best”. It dealt with his positive experience with a coach, and went on to describe the long-standing and widespread use of coaching among people at the top of their game, ranging from Yitzhak Perlman to Tiger Woods to Ernest Hemingway to Renée Fleming. The article observes that “Hiring a coach requires the painful acknowledgment that we’re not as good as we’d like to be – or failed at achieving something. Yet all kinds of pros use them”.
“The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short.”
Gawande quotes a “formula” that describes the process of acquiring expertise through coaching: from unfinal to unconscious competence. (Please re-read the previous sentence – it feels convoluted, but it’s dead on in my view).
That is indeed the orientation of coaches who work mostly with top professionals. It is, however, somewhat different that the primary stance I take in relationship to many of the clients coming to me for life, career, or relationship coaching. Even when a client comes to me specifically complaining about “falling short” in an area of life, I will not focus exclusively on finding and correcting weaknesses, although this will of course be part of the process. I will also spend some time on other areas: exploring the “reality” of the shortfall (is performance truly subpar, or is it being characterized as such through the client’s lens of perfectionism?); the importance of the shortfall (is procrastination, for example, genuinely problematic, and if so is it problematic from an end-result point-of-view or from an emotional one?*) and, most importantly, I will often guide my clients to ways of discovering, exploring and cultivating compensatory strengths.
A very common example is clients who come to me stating that they are interested in a wide variety of things, making it difficult to concentrate or get sufficient satisfaction from a unidimensional kind of job. They feel that there’s something wrong with craving a lot of variety: I often hear those clients wonder if they have A.D.D. Frequently I will suggest that they stop trying to stifle their natural curiosity, and instead look for avenues in which to channel it. As we explore this approach we are often able to identify opportunities to do that at work, and not just extra-curricularly.
Another example: I recently worked with a client who frequently had to make presentations to a relatively small group of top people in national security. She was very comfortable discussing the topics one-on-one, or even three-on-one, but froze up when the group size hit more than a half dozen. I suggested that she spend a little more time “laying the groundwork” for the presentation by having brief one-on-one chats (even during a chance encounter in the hallway) about the subject prior to the presentation. She utilized her excellent one-on-one skills to compensate for her deficiency at group presentations, and wound up feeling a lot more comfortable in the larger settings.
In order to strike the proper balance between effectively correcting weaknesses and deepening strengths a coach needs a wide variety of skills. Jim Knight, director of the Kansas Coaching Project (a coaching organization dedicated to working with teachers) described some of the qualities he felt were essential in good coaches. “(They)…speak with credibility, make a personal connection, and focus little on themselves. They listen (far) more than they talk. They are one hundred per cent present in the conversation. They also parcel out their observations carefully”. He went on to say: “It’s not a normal way of communicating, watching what your words are doing. (Coaches sometimes have)….discomfiting information to convey, but they do it directly yet respectfully”.
* Often clients can get anxious or lose confidence because they learned certain axioms early in life that dictate the “proper” way to perform – for example, “Don’t toot your own horn”. Taken to an extreme, this axiom can lead clients to practically bury their contributions, and so they don’t receive appropriate recognition and then begin to believe that they are undervalued or unworthy.