About an hour before the tornado destroyed his home, Craig was observing the pigs. Sometimes animals seem to know more about storm intensity than we do. He said the pigs were more agitated than usual. “I watch them for about 30 minutes every night after I feed them.” His comment caught me a bit by surprise. I curiously asked trying not to sound condescending, “You observe the pigs for 30 minutes every night?” He answered a bit stupified, “How else would you know which ones are sick?”
I admire Craig’s ability to patiently observe. Since he watches every night, he instantly knows when a pig is acting unusual. Maybe it is not as interested in food. Maybe it is ravenous. Maybe it is isolating itself. Maybe it has some bruising or is favoring a leg when it walks. Craig definitely knows when something is peculiar in the pigsty because he commits himself to observation.
Craig should be the patron saint of coaches. We should be committed observers, paying regular attention to our clients, cataloging normal behavior so that we easily recognize abnormal behavior. Maybe the client is ignoring an issue. Maybe the client is making an issue out of nothing. Maybe the client has lost focus. A great coach quickly notices abnormal behavior because they are regular observers of their client.
How does your client sound? How have they changed their pacing? How have they changed their schedule? Are they sleeping well? How have they adjusted to a new season (spring, summer, fall, winter)? Has anything triggered a traumatic memory? Are they more or less anxious than last week? Have they begun to ignore their coaching agenda?
The coach should feel free to share any and all relevant observations with their client. The better the coach — the fewer questions they ask, and the more observations they make. The key to making a good observation is to relate only the facts to the client. It is tempting to diagnose the client and theorize the source of their irregular behavior, but that is beyond our purview. Let your observation evoke awareness in the client.
Observe the Client’s Mindset
At the beginning of the coaching conversation, your first observation should be to examine the client’s mindset. How present is the client? How optimistic/pessimistic is the client? Does the client feel stuck? Is the client experiencing imposter syndrome? Is the client focused on something outside of the coaching agenda? Is the client’s brain in a limbic loop, trying to decide whether to fight or flee?
Often, the client can reorient if only made conscious of their mindset. The client knows they are not powerless, incompetent, and unimaginative. Sometimes they just need a reminder. If we are observant, we are in a perfect position to bring this to our client’s attention.
Sometimes I have observed, “It sounds like you have a critic interrupting your thoughts.” The client is so used to hearing their inner critic that they lose awareness of its presence. If the client agrees there is a critic, I will often ask, “Who’s voice is it?” This empowers the client to silence the voice and change their mindset. Your observations at this point can reset the client’s mindset. Be careful not to be judgmental. You could worsen the situation.
Observe the Client’s Creativity
While not every client will be as imaginative as the next, you should observe your client’s readiness to think creatively. Is the client in a rut? Does the client believe the possibilities are tightly limited? Is the client focused on the past? Does the client feel like a powerless victim? Is the client open enough to take an adventure of the mind? Is the client limited by assumed constraints?
Your client’s brain is likely not in a creative gear. A great way to evoke creativity is to draw some distinctive lines. As you listen to the client talk about the issue, note what boundaries the client has set. When you reveal the unseen boundaries to the client, a veil is removed from the client’s eyes, and they are now free to imagine that something may exist beyond their assumed boundary.
A client may believe their resources are limited to what they possess. You notice they created a boundary that excluded what others might possess. A client may not have a helpful contact who could garner them a better position. You notice they have not considered asking their friends to make a contact for them. Your helpful observation of boundaries allows the client to think beyond their current ability.
Observe the Client’s Efficiency
A simple definition of coaching is getting the client from where they are to where they want to go. Something for the coach to observe is how fast the client is making progress on this journey and how much energy they are expending on the effort. How fast or slow are they making progress? What is the cost of their effort? How effective is their method of accountability? What is the most effective motivator for the client?
Clients require accountability to make progress. One reason professional athletes hire a coach is because they are unable to push themselves to their limits. They need an outside voice to motivate them. The same is true with your clients. The coach needs to observe the client’s progress and give them an honest appraisal.
While I don’t want the client to be accountable to me session to session for accomplishing their action steps, I do take responsibility for the client achieving their overall goal. At various points in the client’s journey, I take time to evaluate their progress. Normally observations are made with a light hand, but the issue of their overall progress is a matter of agreement. The coaching can not continue if the client is not committed to achieving their contractual goal.
While the pigs eat, Craig takes time to run through a mental checklist. He pays attention to their eating, and he takes time to examine their surroundings and demeanor. Craig is a great reminder that as a coach, helping the client work through an issue is only one of my obligations. When a client pays broader attention and makes helpful observations, the coach’s value increases exponentially.