What do you want from coaching?

How to work with a coach, part 2

By Martin Vogel

Understand your needs

In the first part of this series, we looked at what coaching is and in what circumstances it might make sense to turn to a coach.  This post is about how to work out what you want from coaching.

I’m not thinking here specifically about your goals for coaching, although this is a part of it.  It’s more about how you like to learn and develop and what kind of coaching experience would best suit you.

It is important to get clear about this before you even start looking for a coach.  As I discussed in the previous post in this series, coaching is an unregulated profession with fairly low barriers to entry.  There is a wide variety of approaches to coaching out there.  Taking some time to work out up front what your needs are will help you to discriminate between the different models with some rigour.  The answers to the questions you need to ask yourself will determine what kind of characteristics you should look for in determining which coach to work with.  They will also help you articulate a clear brief to your coach, which means you are likely to achieve a productive relationship more quickly and will have shared benchmarks against which to assess how well the coaching is going.

So here are five broad areas to think about as you contemplate appointing a coach.

1.  What are your desired outcomes?
Having said this isn’t specifically about your coaching goals, it is important to start with a clear picture of the result you want to achieve through coaching.  I used to think it was important that clients come to coaching with very clear goals.  But now I’m not so sure.  It is striking how often clients arrive with quite vague objectives.  They are aware of a general unease about something, a feeling of being stuck, and an awareness that they might benefit from help to think it through.  For these people, pinning down exactly what is the issue is one of the objectives of coaching in itself.  Other times, clients turn up with very specific outcomes in mind and are looking for faster progress towards them than they would achieve without coaching.  Either way, most coaches will put in some time at the start of a coaching relationship to clarify goals with the client.  More fundamentally, I find the goals shift as the relationship develops and the client gains insight into the situation.

So why is it important to get clear before you start about what you want from coaching?  Because it will help you work out what kind of coaching you need (for example, do you want skills-based coaching to help you do something more effectively or more contemplative coaching to help you think through where you are in life?)  Also, when you do get into clarifying your objectives with your coach, if you begin with as clear a picture as you can, this will help ensure that the focus of coaching is rooted in your best understanding of your objectives rather than an agenda that the coach might bring into the conversation.

2.  How do you like to work?
Think of your best working relationships and try to jot down what makes them successful.  Think also of working relationships which haven’t been so successful, and the factors that got in the way.  This doesn’t have to be solely with reference to colleagues at work.  Experience of any close, one-to-one working is germane – it might be your doctor, a counsellor or a personal trainer at your gym.  How task-focussed are you?  To what extent do you like to consider a range of perspectives?  Do you like to make progress rapidly, or do you like time and space to evaluate ideas before acting?  What kind of feedback do you receive easily and what kind of feedback is more difficult to handle?  How honest are you in your working relationships and how do you give feedback?  How collaborative do you like to be?

Think about these questions and then use the answers to think about what they mean for the kind of working relationship with your coach would suit you best.  It is particularly worth reflecting on how open you are to challenge and in what ways you like to be challenged.  Coaching should be a supportive experience.  But it shouldn’t be cosy.  You come to coaching because you want to change or develop in some way, so there is an implicit onus on your coach to challenge you to move forward with this development.  Coaching is a rare opportunity to hear things about yourself that people won’t usually tell you.  Most people you talk to have some kind of stake in your life whereas your coach should be a more dispassionate observer.  You need to think about how ready you are for honest feedback.

3.  What kind of person are you?
It’s worth understanding the kind of person you are in order to think about the benefits and downsides of working with someone who is similar or different.  Coaches often describe different personality types by drawing on psychometric models such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.  This is a tool to help you think about issues such as whether you are an introvert or extravert, whether you tend to prefer abstract theory to concrete data, whether your actions are guided by very rational considerations of more instinctive ones, whether you like to have things nailed down or keep your options open.

The question to think about here is whether you need to work with someone who is like you or different.  To work with someone who is similar may be more agreeable, but there is a risk that you may unwittingly collude towards your shared preferences and you may miss the opportunity to think about ways in which you may need to develop.  Working with someone who is different may bring more challenge to think about these areas where you don’t normally like to go, but the relationship may bring more irritations so you both may have to work harder to make it work.

4.  How do you like to learn?
How you like to learn is closely related to how you like to work and what kind of person you are.  Do you like to explore the broad picture or the gritty detail?  Do you like to try things out, learn by doing, or read up and then apply what you’ve read?  Would you prefer to use tools and models provided by your coach or reflect in a more open and exploratory way.  Are you better with pictures and flipcharts, or words and discussion?

According to the education theorist David Kolb, we learn most effectively through a mixture of theoretical conceptualising, active experimentation, doing things in the real world, and reflecting on our experience.  Kolb suggested that most individuals are more drawn to certain of these modes of learning than others.  But if we learn most effectively by drawing on all four modes of learning, what kind of coaching experience would most assist the way you like to learn?  Do you need a coaching experience which takes you through all four modes of learning or one that complements your normal style of learning.  What you don’t need is a coaching experience which just goes with the grain of how you like to learn.  This may feel more attractive at first glance but it risks neglecting the approaches you routinely resist and which may be the key to unlocking your development.  Ideally, you want a mixture that both plays to your learning strengths and stretches you in new ways.

5.  What are your intellectual moorings?
Coaches draw on a wide variety of intellectual inspirations – some more robust than others.  Some are rooted in theories of psychology – such as psychodynamic perspectives, which often explore unconscious motivations and inner conflicts, or cognitive behavioural therapy, which can involve challenging behaviours and ways of thinking that are unhelpful and replacing them with more constructive ones.  There are also approaches which draw on systems thinking, management literature, organisational theory, adult learning theory and philosophy.  Many  approaches to coaching are based simply on talking and probably focus largely on how you think and feel.  Others take a more holistic approach, involving movement and an awareness of what your body is telling you.  Some coaches draw on a conviction that anyone can achieve anything they want while others will take a measured approach to helping you assess the things that can help you make progress and the things that can get in the way.

It is worth approaching this diversity of coaching models with some open-mindedness.  The models which are more alien to your preferred ways of thinking may contain precisely the wisdom you need to move you forward.  But it is worth also understanding the boundaries of your intellectual horizons so that, as you begin to search for coaches, you can be alert to influences or approaches which are likely to be unproductive for you.

You’ve probably noticed in my discussion of these five areas a theme of valuing difference.  I don’t want to over-state this.  If you work through these quesitons, you’ll gain some clarity about your preferences.  But you need to think about the right balance between indulging your default modes and casting against type.

Most good coaches will take you through many of the considerations outlined here.  But if you work through them yourself, as a preliminary to finding a coach, you’ll be in a much stronger position to articulate your requirements and make an informed judgment about who you should work with.

Once you’ve clarified your needs and preferences, you’re ready to start looking for a coach.  That’s the subject of the next part of this series.

Other posts in the series, How to work with a coach:

  1. Why use a coach?
  2. What do you want from coaching?
  3. How do you find a coach?
  4. Meeting a prospective coach
  5. Agreeing terms with your coach
  6. Your first session with a coach
  7. Working with your coach
  8. Your work between coaching sessions
  9. If your coaching isn’t going well
  10. When it’s time to finish coaching

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