Connecting the dots from session to session
In coaching training, we put so much emphasis in developing our skills on how to handle a single coaching conversation that we rarely address the topic of how to support our clients in the long-term progression of the coaching engagement.
The issue of continuity and connectivity of session to session within a whole coaching process is a frequent question I get from my mentees and students. If the very first step in the coaching conversation is to ask the client what would be the focus of that session, how do I make sure there is a connection between sessions? How do I make sure the client is progressing in the agreed upon direction? What if the client brings up a topic that is completely different from the overall objective of the coaching program?
This is particularly important when we have different stakeholders involved in the engagement and there are certain expectations around the results of the coaching program.
Regardless of the set up, the simple answer to these questions is always – stay with the client. Stay where the client is. The client knows best.
Coaching is a client driven process. The coach is there to provide the framework for the coaching conversation, but the client is the one who sets the direction. And it may be that the path chosen by the client is a bit more unpredictable than we expected. Nevertheless, the client is the one in charge. The client is the one who sets the goals and leads the way.
Coaching is about giving the client the responsibility for the process. Coaching is about believing that the client is able to take charge. Even in an organizational setting where expectations are set for the coaching, it is crucial that the client understands the importance for them to take ownership of the engagement.
Having said that, as a coach, it is also our role to support the client to stay on course and make progress towards their goals. Accountability is one of the most powerful benefits of coaching.
So, how do we reconcile these two ideas?
First of all, we must remember that what may seem disjunct or even contradictory to us coaches, may make perfect sense for the client. Even if the client brings up a topic that is apparently outside of the overarching agreement, we need to support the client in clarifying where this unexpected topic fits in the whole landscape of the client’s world. It may be that in the path to reach their destination, the client needs to make a few stops to be able to get to the desired outcome.
Remember, coaching is a human-to-human interaction and as humans, our journey is rarely a straight line.
We also need to consider the crucial role of transparency and authenticity in coaching. One of the foundational points of our craft is our ability to freely connect with our clients and to relate with them in an open and sincere way. As you are establishing the coaching agreement, if you sense a disconnect between the session’s topic and the overarching direction, ask the client. Perhaps they are not even aware of the disparity and that alone can be an opportunity for new awareness to surface.
I would also invite you to look at the whole coaching process as if it was one big coaching session where you have an agreement, you bring the client into a discovery mode, opening the space for new awareness and landing on a clear movement forward.
If that is the case, what would you do if in the middle of a single coaching conversation the client changed direction from the session’s agreement? Of course, you would ask to clarify and perhaps even change direction.
The same holds true in the big picture of a coaching program. If the client moves and keeps moving in unpredictable ways, ask them, clarify and support them in making sense of it all.
Bottom line, the client is always in the driver seat. The client is responsible for the coaching process per se. We hold the space. We bring our expertise in creating the environment for coaching to happen and for awareness to surface. The responsibility of connecting the dots is for the client to take.
Supporting the action plan and success of the client
If you are an intuitive coach, like I am, you may have the tendency to sometimes indulge a little too much in the discovery part of the coaching process. Clearly, supporting the client in exploring the situation, getting to insights and evoking new awareness is exciting. We are all waiting for that moment of shift, when a new perspective comes to the surface and the client is able to notice something they were not aware of before.
For new coaches, this moment of discovery becomes so powerful and rewarding that it is easy to forget that our job is not finished yet. Getting the client to an insight is not enough. For a session to truly have a long-term impact, there is more we need to accomplish and pay attention to.
The International Coaching Federation (ICF) gives us a good framework for this final stage of a coaching conversation. Competency #8, “Facilitates Client Growth”, is clear on the importance of helping the client in setting up an action plan and methods of accountability that will bring the client into sustainable results.
Awareness to Moving Forward to Support
To tell you the truth, I am cautious about the word action. Many times, this word is interpreted as the need to establish a tangible, concrete step forward. In reality, the result of awareness can prompt the client to many different ways of moving forward.
Action can be tangible with the result of the coaching conversation as a clear, concrete step forward. However, action can also be an investment in self-discovery or some moment of reflection, time for observation or brewing on a concept. Action can be to stay still for a while or perhaps even to take a step backwards, or even to quit.
That is why I prefer to call this “moving forward” so my clients have complete freedom to decide what is truly relevant for them in the moments, hours and days after their session.
It is important to remember that this movement forward needs to be a simple, organic result of awareness. Action does not come out of thin air. It is a consequence of the discovery and the exploration the client has done previously. Now that the client has a new awareness, a new piece of information, or, as I like to say, a new ingredient in this recipe, what are they going to do differently?
Here, we can see the flow of the coaching conversation from establishing the agreement, maintaining presence, listening actively, evoking awareness to now facilitating an opportunity for growth and development.
Action cannot be manufactured. The best action plan is created out of a natural evolution of awareness.
But designing an action is also not enough… A client can be very clear and precise in establishing their movement forward, but what will support them in actually accomplishing what they created?
That is why in coaching, we need to invite the client to create systems that will support them in being successful with their plan. What are the resources, the measures, and processes they need to make sure they will follow through?
In coaching lingo, we call it accountability. I prefer to use the expression, “systems of support.” Always remember that it is best to promote the client’s autonomy and check the level of personal commitment they have to their plan. The best accountability is not necessarily to another person, certainly not to the coach. As coaches, we want to encourage the client to take full responsibility for the process including guaranteeing their own movement forward.
Oh, and after this, how do you close a coaching conversation? Simple! Ask the client… Is this a good place to stop?
The deceptively simple competency of Presence
It is one of the competencies frequently dismissed by the less experienced coach. We are often much more curious about the intricacies of the coaching agreement, or perhaps the nuances of ethics than on the act of being present. At first, polishing the action plan or savoring that moment when a client comes to a new piece of awareness seems much more interesting and exciting. We want to believe we are always present and so, being present to our clients is a no-brainer. We got this…
And then, the more we coach and the more we delve into the process of coaching, we begin to realize the subtleties and the depth we are called to when it comes to maintaining presence. This is no simple task. It demands a level of self-awareness, humbleness, confidence and comfort that may take years to master.
The ICF defines competency 5, “Maintains Presence,” as the act of being “fully conscious and present with the client, employing a style that is open, flexible, grounded and confident.”
This gets complicated because we cannot be fully conscious and present with our client, if we don’t truly know how to be fully conscious and present with ourselves first. That is why personal foundation work is so crucial for an effective coach. It is essential for us to be in connection with our own inner workings, strengths, insecurities, and our own humanity to be able to connect with the humanity of our client.
There is a methodology to coaching and we may be able to brilliantly articulate the coaching process, but if we are not truly in touch with who we are, we will miss the most essential part of coaching – the human-to-human connection. Regardless of what kind of coaching we do, this human connection must be the source of coaching and this only happens when we are truly present.
Presence is not just a question of filling up the space or sharing the same room. It is not simply being in front of another person and relating with them in a socially acceptable manner. Presence is not even a matter of giving someone our full attention and listening to what is being said.
The act of being present in coaching means we are here, moment, by moment, by moment – not 5 minutes ahead, not 5 minutes behind. We are not concerned with what questions to ask or what answers need to surface. Distractions are not even an issue because any possible distraction is no longer important. The person in front of us becomes the most interesting subject in the whole universe. In itself, the act of being present in a coaching conversation is the true acknowledgement of the value of that individual and WHO they truly are.
All of a sudden, there is no concern about performance, having the right answer, asking the right question or the need to provide value to the process. We are connected in the moment and we know that this is where the coaching process truly begins.
I have heard many very experienced coaches frequently say, “all competencies are crucial to coaching, but if I had to choose one, ‘Maintains Presence’ would be the most important.”
Simply put, if we are not present, nothing else can really happen. If we are not present, there is no place for listening, no sense on an agreement, no trust. Questions are empty, prescriptive and powerless. We may be able to come to some actions, and develop some tricks along the way, but in the end, it is all superficial and even meaningless.
The interesting point about presence is that we can practice it anytime, anywhere. Even right now… How aware are you of where you are in this moment? How fast is your breath? What are the noises or level of silence in the room? How does your body feel in the position you are in? I would encourage to do this level of personal check-ins two or three times a day. Ask yourself: where am I right now? There is a difference between where your body is, and where your mind is. Presence is when you, as a whole are in the same place, the same moment.
To transfer this practice to when you are working with a client, take a second to check where you truly are. How attentive are you? Where is your focus? Who is this person in front of you? Surrender to the moment and trust that together you will both find your way through this process.
A note about the New Year
It is interesting that presence is the topic for my last post of 2020. I wished I could say I planned it exactly this way, but I am way less strategic than that. It has been a year of global challenges and unimaginable losses. How wonderful would it be if we could have a 2021 where presence would be our practice?
Below a video to help us getting started... Enjoy!
Understanding the real purpose of the Coaching Agreement.
A recurring question I get at almost every practicum class or group mentor coaching program I lead is around establishing a successful agreement for each coaching session with a client. Somehow, this seems to be a Core Competency that coaches have a hard time understanding and demonstrating effectively.
I hope that by now we all agree on the crucial role the coaching agreement plays in the success of a coaching conversation. Coaching is an intentional process and without knowing what the client is truly looking for at every session, we will not be able to support them well. We may have an insightful conversation and even get to an action plan, but was this action what the client really needed, and most importantly, was our approach the most effective way of supporting the client to get here?
The PCC Markers are very specific about the assessors’ expectations regarding this competency. Four distinct points are made that help us grasp the concept of the agreement.
These are very tangible elements the ICF has identified as important to address while supporting our clients in designing the direction of the coaching conversation.
The problem here is when we start taking these points so literally that our questions become prescriptive and we are no longer present to the client and where they are in the process.
I am sure you have experienced that moment when asking the client “what do you want to have accomplished by the end of the session?”, the client stares back at you clueless of how to answer the question. This is not necessarily because the client is not prepared to engage in the coaching process. This is not even because the client does not know the answer to the question. Most likely what is happening is that the question came out of context and does not resonate with where the client is in the moment.
So, what to do?
I would suggest going deeper…
What is the real purpose of the coaching agreement?
What is the bottom line?
A successful coaching agreement is not established by asking formulaic questions simply to check the box. Coaching is an organic process. Every interaction is different. Every moment is unique. What we need as coaches is to be grounded in the intention of the process so we can artfully adapt to each situation.
The function of the coaching agreement is to give the client the opportunity to clearly identify and verbalize what they are looking for.
As coaches, we want to support the client to connect to the bottom line of their present moment. What is missing? What are you searching for? What makes it so important? How are you going to know you got there?
This process of defining the expected destination for the coaching conversation can take many turns. This will require presence, flexibility, depth of listening and complete partnership with the client so we can attend to what the client really needs in that moment.
So, next time you have a session with your client, be present, listen. Start by asking what’s in the client’s mind. What is the focus today? Let the client speak. Notice the nuances. Pick up on a few words that seem important. Build on the partnership. Eventually, see if you can bring the client to fully express what they are looking for, what they need the most in the moment. That is the coaching agreement.
No matter what, or how long it takes, remember that without knowing your destination you and your client will most likely be walking in circles, making the process harder and ineffective. At every session, aim for a clear direction and understanding of the client’s needs. This alone will set you and your client on the path for a successful coaching interaction.
Simplified, clarified, organized, inclusive
The International Coaching Federation [ICF] released earlier this month an updated version of the PCC Markers to align with the new Core Competencies model released last year. This is yet another milestone and a clear demonstration of the ICF’s continued commitment to the development of the coaching profession.
The original version of the PCC Markers was created by the ICF in 2014 as a tool to support ICF Assessors in determining the minimum skill level required for a PCC credentialing candidate. The intent was to better standardize the certification process and to clarify the expectations by the ICF at this level of certification.
The PCC Markers have been highly successful in supporting coaches from around the world in more precisely define what truly means to be a beginner PCC certified coach. Consequently, it also brought us to a much better understanding of the Competencies themselves. By putting language to what a coach needs to demonstrate, the Markers gave us the opportunity to delve deeper into the behaviors expected by a coach at all levels and to better appreciate the efficacy of the model.
A by-product of this effort was the support the Markers gave to coaching training and mentoring. Even though the initial purpose of the Markers was not for training, they have brought us such depth to the Competencies that inevitably coaching training programs and mentors immediately began to use it in their own work and curriculum.
The Markers were simultaneously released in English, Spanish, French, German and Portuguese. I had the honor to be a part of the team translating the Portuguese version.
As you review the document, keep in mind that, just like the updated Core Competency model, this new version of the PCC Markers is an evolution, not a revolution. If you knew the previous version, you will easily notice that the familiar concepts remain the same. Similar to the work done with the Core Competencies, the new version of the Markers is basically an effort to reorganize, clarify and polish the language to make it clearer and more succinct.
The good news is that, we now only have 37 markers, down from the previous 47. Some of the repeated concepts were removed. And it is wonderful to notice how particularly attentive the ICF was in the effort to eliminate biases, cultural differences, and in using non-gender specific language.
The ICF has announced that implementation of these Markers to the assessing process will occur sometime by mid 2021. We want to recognize the efforts of the team of assessors involved in this process and in particular Carrie Abner, Vice President of Credentials and Standards and Thomas Tkach, Assistant Director for Credentials and Standards at the ICF for all the work they put into this project.
Coaching as an art form.
It is the dilemma of every artist. On one hand we need to strive to master the tool. On the other, we need to remember and be fully connected to the humanity of what we do. This is the balancing act of every master and of every person who wants to be truly effective in their craft.
I call it Form & Flow – a dichotomy we cannot forget.
Technique is vital. No professional can be successful without it. Here, we must strive to understand, to polish, to have a deep grasp of the concepts and to be committed to ongoing practice and development. Artists without technique produce nothing. They don’t know their tools and therefore, they cannot deliver what they truly imagine.
At the same time, (and most importantly, perhaps,) technique alone creates empty and purposeless work. It is like a skeleton without flesh or a picture without its intended color. Regardless of what we do, to be effective, we must know how to be deeply connected to the heart of it all.
Coaching is no different.
Mastering the structure of the coaching conversation is paramount. This is an ongoing responsibility of every serious coach. The ICF Core Competencies are, in a way, simple, but also endlessly rich. We have layers upon layers of detailed work that needs to be done in order for someone to master them – and it takes years. That is why coaching training, mentoring and the actual practice of coaching are so important. It is through training that we learn best practices and gain a deeper understanding of a model that has been proven to be effective.
It is also important for us to remember that our profession is young and therefore, constantly developing. Every day, there are new perspectives and new ways to look at this framework. It is imperative for us to stay up-to-date and to continue to practice how we demonstrate and deliver these concepts at the time of coaching.
Having said that, we can’t be like that piano player whose fingers fly like magic, whose knowledge is unparalleled, but whose music is stale and heartless.
Regardless of what kind of coaching we do, we must always remember that at the core, coaching is a human to human interaction. Whether we are coaching the CEO of a company or the mom next door, our clients are human-beings and no matter their situation, at the heart, they are looking for connection. It is our job to create the space and clear the way for this to happen. And we can only do this, when we are connected ourselves.
Form gives us the tool. It informs us. It gives the structure, the technique. Form is our ability to demonstrate expertise and to establish a process that is productive, well-defined and repeatable.
Flow gives us the WHO, the essence, the humanity behind it all. It is here that music happens, and transformation occurs. The effective coach knows how to balance these two forces like a true artist who uses their tools skillfully but with clear understanding of their ultimate purpose.
No artist can be a master without form. No coach can be efficient without good training and detailed practice. At the same time, no artist can make music without heart and no coach can be a catalyst for growth without the ability to freely connect to the core of themselves and of their clients.
The Three Threes of Coaching
In coaching, we will often find many ideas grouped in lists of three (3). These are essential concepts a successful coach must keep in mind. They are simple reminders of important points that will help us build and maintain our practice and also support us during our coaching conversation with our clients.
List 1 | To Be a Coach
In the updated model of the ICF Core Competencies, we are introduced to the new competency “Embodies a Coaching Mindset”, where the ICF stresses much broader approach to coaching. This is foundational! Coaching is not simply something that we do. Coaching is who we are. It is a way of being. Therefore, to be effective, a coach must think holistically and always pay particular attention to three main areas of development.
One may have the cleverest marketing strategy, the most up-to-date website and social media presence. If right in the moment of coaching, the coach is not able to deliver, it is all for naught. Everything we do is for that time when we are in front of our clients and we are able to proficiently support them. Skills are paramount. And we know that coaching is ever evolving. We are never done. Our technique must be constantly polished and refined, seeking to be current, to understand trends and follow the development of our profession.
At the same time, we can be the most amazing coach but if nobody knows about it, we will never be able to do much. Concurrent with our efforts to be a great coach, we must also spread our wings, have the courage to show up and let others know about our skillset. And also, business development goes way beyond marketing… To have a sustainable practice, there are those ‘not-so-exciting’ systems we need to put in place to support the growth of our practice. Calendars, agreements, forms, reminders, welcome letters, computer software, accounting, contacts, business cards – the list goes on. There is much that needs to be done for us to get to that moment of coaching.
Coaching is a human to human interaction. We can have amazing coaching skills and have full command of the Core Competencies. We can have a great business set up and impeccable marketing. But how are we internally? How are we showing up for our clients? How well are we able to treat ourselves and each other? Most importantly, how aware are we of our own biases, triggers, and shortcomings? This is not just about self-care. This is about developing our level of self-awareness and building a strong internal foundation that enable us to be fully present to our clients. As I always say to my mentees, we don’t need to be perfect, but we need to be and grow in our awareness.
List 2 | To Build Your Coaching Skills
If we focus particularly on coaching skills, to be a truly effective coach, we must always work on three main areas.
Coaching is not just something we decide to do one day and the next day we are using the title. Coaching is not about how much expertise one has in an industry or subject matter and decides to train or mentor others in it. The profession has specific ethical standards and competencies that must be mastered. There is work to be done. And the truly serious coach knows the importance of going through a training program that is reputable, accredited and current so they can be an expert in the coaching methodology that has been researched, analyzed and practiced by thousands of coaches worldwide for more than three decades. Because coaching is a self-regulated profession, it is imperative that we follow standards and learn not only the foundational tenets of our craft but remain current with the latest development in the industry.
In addition to coaching training, we must put into practice the concepts learned in coaching school into practice. Because coaching is a human to human interaction, we will only be able to understand the nuances of the process when we are actually engaged with our clients. It is in practice that it all comes together. It is in a coaching session that we see the fundamentals of the process coming alive and we are then able to embody our learning. As the saying tell us: “How do I get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.”
Yet, training and practice is not enough. In order for us to really master our learning, it is imperative that we also engage in a coaching relationship with a more experienced coach. I believe that a solid mentor coaching process will not only give us the opportunity to be observed and challenged to new awareness of the coaching process but also support us in being the well-rounded coach in the areas I mentioned in list 1. Mentor coaching is much more than skills development and Core Competencies. It must have a holistic approach that embodies the broad aspect of being a coach. I do not know a single successful coach who does not have a mentor coach.
List 3 | To Practice Your Coaching Skills
To polish and develop your coaching skills, it is not only important to be in coaching mode. There are three roles you need to often put yourself in so you can truly understand the coaching process.
As I mentioned above, if you want to learn how to be an effective coach, you must practice being a coach. Coaching is not just concepts, models and techniques, but it is the actual moment of the coaching interaction. And we will only be able to fully understand the practice when we do it and engage with a real client.
At the same time, it is important that we always put ourselves in the role of the client. There is so much we can learn by being coached. We become better coaches when we have others coaching us. In this role, we will be able to feel how our clients feel and see coaching from the client’s perspective. In this role, we will notice how the competencies work from the client’s side. As we put ourselves in our client’s shoes, we gain a depth of understanding that we would ever get by only being in the role of a coach. That is yet another reason why having a mentor coach with a holistic approach is so important.
This is a role often dismissed and forgotten but with a potential for being tremendously insightful. I stress this especially when leading a practicum class when students are more often in this role than coaching or being a client. There is so much we can learn by observing others coach. In this role, we can have a bird’s eye view of the session and notice certain nuances we would not be able to pick up by being in the session itself. The way the coach responds to the client. What the client is saying and not saying. Being an observer alone can sometimes dramatically change the way we coach. Take every opportunity to see a coaching demo.
As we build and maintain our coaching practices, it is important to remember that we humans are creatures of habit. It is interesting how often we get into a comfort zone and begin to focus more on one aspect of coaching than others. Coaching is organic and alive. It is always asking us to stretch and grow. These three lists of three are foundational. They are a good reminder of points we may sometimes forget and must always pay attention to.
On the issue of taking notes during a coaching session...
This is a question that often surfaces in coaching training. Is it ok for the coach to write while conducting a coaching session? What are the pros and cons of taking notes in coaching?
When it comes to coaching, I usually try to stay away from “black and white” answers.
Coaching is a human to human interaction, and as so, full of gray areas.
Writing while coaching is possibly one of them.
What I believe is important is to be aware and purposeful about the decisions we make when we are in front of our clients. Every time I see a coach or a student in one of my practicums or a mentee in a recorded session taking notes, I always wonder about the true motivations behind that action.
What is prompting the coach to write this piece of information? What is the decision process happening behind the scenes? Is this just a habit, a crutch? How much has the coach thought about this choice?
When I ask the student what made them take that step, the answer is usually around the idea of not forgetting that piece of information. “If I don’t write it down, I will forget.” “I must remember these facts.” “It helps ME to organize MY thoughts.”
As you can see, all these statements are coach centered. We are writing for us. We are taking notes out of our fear that we might forget. We are writing out of a personal preference. In doing so, our focus is on us. Perhaps with good intentions, but bottom line, we write to fulfill our own needs, not the client’s.
Other reasons I hear are: “I write so I can bring back these points at a later time.” “I write so I can show my clients that I remember.” (Somehow this statement seems contradictory to me.) “I write so I show efficiency.”
Here comes the issue of the value of coaching. Remember that coaching is not solution based, but discovery based. Our value is not on the archiving of details, but on how we create the structure of the coaching conversation that provides the client the space for exploration. More important than remembering the exact words, our focus needs to be broader and deeper, trusting that when we are anchored to the essence, the pieces will come together.
While we do want to remember certain points and relevant facts, most importantly is that we are present to the moment and to the core of what our client is experiencing.
Regardless of skills or tricks we have created, or whether we are coaching in person, on Zoom or even over the phone, the fact is that when we look down and we start taking notes, at some level, we break the connection with our client. And that connection, in itself, is more valuable than any piece of information.
The funny part is that once you establish this level of coaching presence, remembering details is the easy part.
I am always amazed at how much information surfaces right at the time when it is most relevant. That is because I am present. That is because I am connected with my client.
You can see that my strong recommendation to all my students and mentees is to put the pen down. Look at your client and truly, intentionally be present. That alone can be the transformative action that will make a tremendous difference in your client’s life.
If you have the habit of taking notes while you coach, I suggest you pay very close attention to the true reason for this. Your client needs you more than your memory. Details can be remembered and refreshed. Words can be substituted by meaning and experiences. More important is that you stay with your client at every second and establish a true connection at every moment.
Having said that…
When I am coaching, I always keep pen and paper close by. In all my years of experience as a coach, there have been a few times when it seemed important to jot a few things down. When this happens, the decision to write is conscious and they are always preceded by some sort of statement that makes the client aware I will be taking that step. This shows my clients that we are doing this together and that we are partnering even in the act of taking notes.
One more point…
Remember that in coaching, the client is the one in the driver seat. Often times, if there is something that really needs to be recorded, I am of the mindset that perhaps it is the client’s job to do so. This may be one of the few moments that making a request is in order.
As a mentor coach, I am always giving feedback to my students and mentees helping them develop their coaching skills and prepare for their certification with the ICF. ForCoaches is a place where I can publicly share some of my insights and experiences. What does it mean to be a truly effective coach?