Blog Post: Develop Your Maybe Capacity

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A “maybe capacity” allows us not to get too attached to our client’s story or to our own internal responses. There is a discomfort with not forming an attachment to the client’s topic. Without a “maybe capacity”, I’m listening to the client waiting to hear my internal voice exclaim, “Oh, I know exactly what the client is talking about.” Then I apply my own feelings and understandings to the conversation. This is common in everyday conversations but is lethal to a coaching conversation. We need to develop a “maybe capacity.”

First, we need to apply a “maybe capacity” to the client’s story. Maybe the client doesn’t yet understand the full significance of this story. Maybe this story is part of a much bigger story that the client hasn’t connected yet. Maybe the client isn’t yet aware of the fuller perspective connected with this story. The client needs more awareness before they apply meaning and action to their issue.

Second, we need to apply a “maybe capacity” to our own internal response to the client’s story. Maybe this isn’t the same as my experience. Maybe the client isn’t feeling what I am feeling. Maybe the root cause or the solution will be much different than what I’m already guessing.

A “maybe capacity” creates more room for the client to explore without us clouding up their thinking with our own guesses of what this means or what they should do.

How do we develop a “maybe capacity”?

Get comfortable with not knowing.

Your client arrives at the coaching session uncomfortable. The topic at hand has her struggling to understand the meaning of the issue and action she should take. This is normal. There should be some discomfort in the conversation.

The client’s discomfort can become the coach’s discomfort, and we naturally try to smooth over the discomfort by normalizing the issue. We think it is comforting if the client believes we’ve seen this before. It isn’t comforting at all. It’s often annoying. With a “maybe capacity,” the coach assumes this is not something anyone has seen before. The discomfort remains.

Let the client know that we’re comfortable with not knowing, at least not knowing yet. Educate your client to understand that the questions you are going to ask may press into the discomfort and explore the murky areas that surround the topic. The client will have to do some hard work.

Ask questions that are wide open.

At the beginning of the conversation, neither the coach or client are in a position to identify meaning or action. We honestly don’t have our bearings. By analogy, it is easy to spot the Willis Tower in the Chicago skyline. It is the tallest building. It has a darker color. And it has a distinct shape. The hardest position to identify the Willis Tower is when you’re standing right next to it. It’s harder to see the shape. You can’t judge its height. I find myself disoriented looking up at such a tall building.

You need to use the “maybe capacity” to assume a wider view is a better view to start. Sometimes it can feel like you’re making the problem bigger and likely less manageable. You’re not. You’re helping the client have a better sense of context and a clearer view of the nature of the concern. It is easier to have clarity when you step back from the problem.

There are three questions I often ask that help the client step back.

1. What makes this issue important to you today?
2. What do you hope this looks like in a few years?
3. How does this look through someone else’s eyes?

All three of these questions invoke a “maybe capacity” that assumes that the coach (and likely the client) don’t know enough about the topic to start considering what it means or what one should do about it.

Narrow the widened topic to create a frame for the client’s solution.

Our “maybe capacity” reminds us that after widening the client’s view of the issue, neither client or coach is in a position to assign meaning or plan action. We are now too far away from the solution.

The coach should slowly zoom back into the topic at hand. Maybe there are some things the client may know that will help them step from a wider view of the issue into a well-designed action plan. We can be curious for the client to help them create this narrower frame.

Here are a couple of questions I use to narrow the widened focus.

1. What have you learned about yourself from the conversation so far?
2. What should be true of your action plan when it is finished?
3. What are some steps that should be avoided at all cost?

Notice how these questions don’t get right to meaning or action, but they create some hooks that will hold their action plan.

Let the client assign meaning and action to the issue.

Because we invoked the “maybe capacity” from the beginning of the conversation, the client can now see what they need to do. The struggle is over, and it’s time to set some things in stone. Our initial thoughts about the situation have all been voided. We’re grateful that we didn’t tell the client our thoughts, because now we see they would have been a shallow imitation compared to the deep meaning and strong action they planned on their own.

The concept of the “maybe capacity” comes from a book by Tim Hicks called Embodied Conflict: The Neural Basis of Conflict and Communication. The “maybe capacity” helps us to listen at a deeper level and create awareness where we would have never considered. This is a super power that every coach needs to cultivate within themselves.

2 thoughts on “Develop Your Maybe Capacity”

  1. Avatar

    Hi Brian Miller!

    So enjoyed this read around the “Maybe Capacity” coach approach. I especially liked your definition when you say, a “maybe capacity” creates more room for the client to explore without us clouding up their thinking with our own guesses of what this means or what they should do.” I love that! When I think of this, I am reminded once again that I am not the hero of their story, they are! This also reminds me of one of Brene Brown’s quotes, “when we own the story, we can write a brave new ending.” That’s why this “Maybe Capacity” approach is so important, it gives our clients the opportunity do just that. Thanks again Brian for speaking around this subject.

    Thanks CAM!

  2. Avatar
    Ranganath Srinivasan

    Very insightful, thanks Brian! “Coach the person, not the issue” are the words that spring to the mind. Liked this blog- Maybe Capacity. Encourages exploring options. Improves the capacity to look at the wider perspective not only at the situation(the tall building), but also to ourselves(the observer) who is always invisible to us.

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