Sing the Right Song

A Blog Post by Bill Copper

“Well I raised a lot of Cain back in my younger days, while Mama used to pray my crops would fail.”

Those opening lyrics from a great old Merle Haggard song paint such a vivid image every time I hear it. And while, I don’t necessarily relate to the theme of those lyrics, I do appreciate the clear and compelling message. I’m a fan of old-school country music – largely because of the story-telling nature of the songs from those artists in that generation. I spent a day in the office a few weeks back listening to several hours of that music in the background while I worked and it got me thinking about how powerful words can be – when crafted intentionally – for conveying a message, or painting a picture.

“She knew the gun was empty, and she knew she could not win…but her final prayer was answered when the rifles fired again”

See there? Willie Nelson sang some pretty descriptive lyrics as well. And that got me thinking about what it means to intentionally craft my words. How do I put together a phrase or sentence that communicates effectively? What goes into the questions or comments I make in a coaching conversation that makes them impactful? How can I sound more like Merle or Willie – not the twang, but the power in their words?

“You know, she came to see him one last time. Aww, and we all wondered if she would and it kept runnin’ through my mind. ‘This time he’s over her for good.’ He stopped loving her today.”

Okay, I promise George Jones’ lyrics will be the last example…but I’m trying to imagine communicating with this kind of power. How would it change my coaching conversations? What insights or awareness might such vivid imagery create for my clients? How do I begin making my words that powerful?

Well, if you have been paying attention, you KNOW I’ve got a couple of ideas to share about this.

Learn the Forbidden Skill – Share Your Story

A Blog Post by Bill Copper

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much our coaching conversations are just that – conversations. According to Wikipedia, a conversation is a form of interactive, spontaneous communication between two or more people.

Did you see those two descriptors?

  1. Interactive
  2. Spontaneous

What does it mean to have an interactive, spontaneous coaching conversation? Aren’t we as coaches supposed to only reflect back what our clients are saying? Ask some powerful questions? Maybe give a direct message now and then? Well…yes….and NO!

In our own coach training courses, we do indeed spend a lot of time helping break any natural tendencies to dominate the conversation, or interject too much of their own thinking. Particularly in our early foundational classes, we attempt to get the pendulum swinging away from telling and more toward asking. But that isn’t the end of the story for coaches. Our coaching conversations are to be actual conversations. With interactive and spontaneous communication. So, what does that look like? How do we as coaches engage in these types of conversations and still maintain our coaching mindsets that the client has the answers and they are much more likely to act upon their own ideas, hopes and dreams?

I want to share a few principles for how you can share yourself – your story – in the coaching conversation without violating any of the principles you’ve learned for effectively helping others move forward.

First, remember that you are a participant in the conversation, but the conversation is not about you. So, start with a mindset that your purpose for sharing your story is for the benefit of the client – their agenda – their forward movement. Your story should never become the focus, but rather a means to create awareness for your clients.

Next, keep some perspective about how much of your story to share. Keep it brief and then quickly hand back the conversation to your client. Don’t get carried away in telling your story to the point that the focus shifts to you – and don’t tell so much of it, that the conclusion in any way points to a solution for your client.

Also, be very intentional about handing back the conversation to your client with a clear expectation that they can/will take from your story whatever is meaningful for them – not because it had meaning for you.

So….when is a good time to share your story in a coaching conversation? And what kind of stories should you tell? I have found a few really impactful times to share something of myself with my clients and tell them my story:

  • As a means of connecting and building intimacy and trust – this may be some of the most valuable sharing that you can do. When you can gain your client’s trust through sharing something of yourself – particularly something vulnerable. We often assure our clients that the coaching relationship is a safe space for them to share in a confidential setting whatever is on their heart. I’ve found there’s no better way to demonstrate that than by trusting them with whatever is on my heart. When I take a risk and am really vulnerable with my clients, I find it builds trust very quickly and gives them confidence that they can do the same.
  • To “normalize” something they are thinking, feeling, or doing – Sometimes our clients can be tempted to think they are the only ones to have ever done or thought or felt something and they often feel guilty or embarrassed about it. When I can share a story of how I’ve had similar thoughts or taken similar actions, it can help my clients feel less anxiety about their own story.
  • To illustrate a principle – Often we can relate to our clients’ issues because of our own past experiences. This can sometimes serve us well and at other times trap us into imagining their story will turn out like our story. When we are able to relate our story to our clients in a way that illustrates a principal or provides an example, we can potentially create great new awareness for our clients as they draw parallels between the stories and determine what, if any, meaning the illustration has for them. In this area of sharing your story you want to be certain to pay attention to some of the cautions I’ve mentioned above.

If we’re going to have meaningful conversations with our coaching clients, we need to be prepared to take some risk by sharing of ourselves – our story – in that conversation. Engaging in interactive, spontaneous communication with others includes sharing about yourself, and, when done effectively, can help create intimacy, trust, and awareness that can help your clients move ahead.

Three Questions to Start Every Coaching Conversation

A Blog Post by Chad Hall

Every coaching conversation is different: different client, different context, different topic, etc.  Coaches have to be able to flex and adapt to all those differences in order to provide valuable coaching.   But while every coaching conversation will unfold in its own unique way, there are some things that need to happen in practically every coaching conversation (I say “practically” because there’s always that 1% chance you’ll need to deviate).

What needs to happen in every coaching conversation?  Several things:

  • The client needs to find focus on one topic (or at least one topic at a time)
  • The client needs to generate new awareness about the topic, include new options for moving forward
  • Options need to be translated into actions
  • Actions need to be designed

One of the things I often hear coaches struggle with is that first bullet: helping the client find focus on a topic.  This struggle can take on multiple forms:

  • Some coaches struggle to invite the client to state clearly what they want to be coached on (the topic). Sometimes these coaches just chit chat with the client and wait for the client to steer the conversation toward something that sounds like a coachable topic.  The telltale sign of this struggle is the coach’s question: “Is that something you want to be coached on?”
  • Some coaches struggle to facilitate new awareness about the topic before diving into possible actions. These coaches hear what sounds like a topic and then jump too soon to asking questions like “What could you do about that?”
  • Other coaches let their own experience and biases cause the coach to reframe the topic to match what is familiar to the coach. For example, a client might say she is struggling to get started on her book, to which the coach responds, “How could you find time to get started.”  The coach assumes the issue is lack of time, but it could just as easily be low motivation, lack of clarity on the topic, or a hundred other things.

The Best Way to Stop Getting Lost in Conversations: Context

A Blog Post by Chad Hall

Far too frequently I get an email or voicemail that leaves me scratching my head and a bit frustrated.  The common thread?  No context.

Just last week I got a short email from a somewhat familiar name asking for a meeting.  The email pretty much read, “I would like to talk.  Let me know when is a good time.”  While I appreciated the brevity, unless you’re one of my very best friends I need to know why you want to talk before agreeing to schedule a time.

The week before that email I got a long and winding message from someone I did not know asking about “my group” and giving details on a person I did not know.  The sender gave no effort to introduce herself or let me know what the heck she was even talking about.  I assumed it was junk mail, but it wasn’t.  I ignored the message and only later learned that she was trying to find out if a class I teach at church was a good fit for her adult son.

Maybe this kind of thing happens to you, too.  I don’t know about you, but I really dislike this kind of communication.  I dislike it because I so very much like context.

Context is the big picture, the setting in which something occurs.  And context matters.  A lot.

Sometimes context is obvious.  For example, immediately after our kids’ basketball game I could say, “Your son was a beast,” and you’d know exactly what I was talking about and be thankful for the compliment.  But if I wait and say that exact same thing to you three days later while we’re both standing in line at the grocery store, you’d wonder what the heck I was talking about.  I’d need to give context: “That was a great game Monday; your son was a beast.”  (By the way, calling a basketball player a “beast” is a compliment).

Context helps everyone in the conversation connect the dots in the same way.  It keeps us all on the same page and looking at things in similar ways and for a common purpose.  Without context, we create misunderstanding, confusion, and sometimes even conflict.

One of the places I often see context missing is in meetings.  Very often people in meetings dive right into a discussion without first giving the headline or purpose for that portion of the conversation.

When I worked in technology I had a colleague who did this all the time.  He’d say, “Look at spreadsheet X,” and then he’d start reading data or noting where information was missing from a cell.  But he never told anybody else WHY we were looking at the spreadsheet.  Without knowing the context, we couldn’t effectively engage the process.  So we ignored the entire discussion.  I would ask someone later, “Why were we looking at the spreadsheet?” and nobody knew.

Another place context helps is when you leave out a key piece of contextual information.  For example, consider name-dropping.  I don’t mean the names of famous people (Billy Graham told me to never name drop), but dropping the name of someone into a conversation when the other person does not know the person.  For example, if I barely know you and in the course of the conversation you mention “Jennifer,” I don’t have any way of knowing that Jennifer is your wife (or boss, or neighbor, or daughter, or Jennifer Anniston).  By dropping the name of someone without giving the context of who that person is, you’ve created a great deal of confusion.  Plus, doing that is rude.

To be clear, giving context does not mean providing all the background details or events leading up to this moment (in fact, others will wonder what’s the context of all those details!).  Instead, it just means giving a short description of why you’re talking about whatever it is you’re talking about.

Providing context is one of the most important elements of clear communication.  And giving context is a learnable skill. Here are three ways you can improve your ability to provide context:

Take a dose of empathy.  Lack of context is often a symptom of lack of empathy. Put yourself into the shoes of the person or group you’re talking with and ask yourself, “How clear is it to them why I am saying this or why we are going to talk about this topic?”  Don’t assume they’ve already connected the dots the way you have.

Title your chapters.  Think about context like a clear chapter heading that shortly summarizes what is about to happen.  Next time you’re in a conversation, take a pause and ask yourself what the chapter heading could be for the conversation.  The more you think about the big picture summary of things, the better you will be at providing context.

Stop pretending.  When you’re on the receiving end of poor context, admit it to yourself and to the other person.  Most of us smile and nod and stick with it hoping the picture will become clear very soon.  Try reducing the amount to time you wait for things to become clear and instead try proactively asking the other person to provide some context to help you fully engage the conversation.

What about you?
How has lack of context proved problematic for you?  Are you the culprit?  The victim?  Both?  What have you found to be helpful in improving your own ability to provide context?  What have you tried to help others improve?