Coaching Case Study By Doris Bisaro
(Leadership Coach, ITALY)
Anna, my coachee, is a young woman who is going through a very intense period in her life.
During our first session she tells me she works in a very hostile corporate environment, yet she has been identified as a young talent by the company and has been included in their young talents leadership program. She is aware of her talent and is happy she has been selected but she struggles with long commuting times to reach her workplace, a hostile work culture and an intense workload which has led to a period of extreme tiredness and need for sleep to recharge batteries.
The case study is based on our second coaching session. I do not know what the session will be about.
I happen to be on holiday in a geographical area where the internet connection is not good at all, but I am adamant about keeping to the schedule we have both agreed for the session. So I decide to get up an hour earlier and drive a few miles looking for a better connected area. I end up on the edge of a very narrow road. In front of me the blue sea waking up to the light of the morning sun. Majestic and impressive. I decide to hold the session in my car. There are no distractions around me. It feels a bit awkward, but I know I will not be disturbed. The only variable I cannot really control is the internet connection, but when we start we both agree we will do our best with the means we have available. The fact of getting up early and doing the session despite all adversities adds a subtle touch of complicity in our partnership: nothing can stop coaching.
Interestingly, when asked about what she wants to talk about, Anna starts to says she needs to speak about a “big issue” which she labels as a “time management issue”. She then goes on to explain that she is untidy and this natural inclination results into a waste of time and distraction for her. She knows she only uses 30% of the clothes she owns; she also owns books that she never looks at and knows she will probably never read. These things take up too much space in her house. She is going through a transformation phase and she struggles with letting go a part of herself.
Instinctively I would like to explore what it means for her “being in a transformation phase” and “what is the part of herself she wants to let go of”, but Anna’s rhythm is incessant, she needs to talk and she is opening up so comfortably with me that I consciously decide not to interrupt and let her talk. Her energy level is high, I can sense it from her sparkling tone of voice, determined pace and straight-to-the point approach. I therefore decide to relax, to breathe, silently hold the space within which she is “analyzing” “what is going on with her” and listen.
Once she has completed her first thoughts, my strategy is to repeat back to her what I hear, to let her know that I have truly heard her and double click the sentence that had struck me most: “What I heard you say is that you are going through a transformation phase and are struggling with letting go a part of yourself”. Given my coachee’s extroversion and willingness to speak about herself, I decide not to add a question. I pause.
She confirms what she has heard from me and adds a significant statement: “I have too many things in front of my eyes now and they are distracting me. I would like to have only the stuff that mirrors the person that I am now.
The energy in Anna’s words is overflowing. She further delves into her topic, by skillfully asking and answering questions on her own, to the point I feel flooded by too many details. I therefore ask her permission to interrupt and pop the only question she has left unanswered in my view: “What person are you now?” My question is very direct. The result is one of the longest silences I have experienced in a coaching session so far. I stay with the silence – to the point it makes me feel uncomfortable – and, much to my surprise, what follows is “another Anna”. Her voice becomes mellow, the pitch lowers and the pace slows down. Her clear analysis of herself yields to a different kind of vocabulary, an incredible metaphor: “I am like water”. I hear a deep breath, which is followed by “what water means to me”. She explains that, just like water, she is now able to adapt and change shape. She feels she has acquired the skill to be flexible in order to achieve her objectives while keeping true to her identity. I acknowledge the vivid image of herself she offers to me. Clearly this image connects her subconscious and conscious mind and represents an insightful image, newly acquired awareness. My eyes instinctively stare at the immensity of the sea in front of me. I want to ask my client what her objective for the session is: What do you want to achieve with this session? She replies with a determined tone of voice: I want to stop finding excuses and fee up space.
I am curious to understand what is blocking her from taking action even though she has such a clear and powerful image of her new self and ask “What is the relation between “what you are” and the things you want to get rid of?” The question surfaces what these things mean for her. She says that the new Anna is also the things she is no longer using. They are part of her, they represent her experiences, her emotions, her successes. She likes these things, particularly her books. However, she is aware she cannot possibly read them all. She has tried to get rid of these things because they are a weight and are making her heavy. She concludes by saying “my objective is to be light, not a one-hundred-year-old tree which tries to relocate carrying along its deep roots”. The client is offering me another strong image, quite different from the previous one. At that moment I feel like a kid in a sweet shop: I do not know which is the sweetest candy and, just like a child I pick one, maybe the most colorful, and ask: “How are the things you want to let go of connected to the one-hundred-year-old tree deep roots?” Anna explains that these things represent effort, study, hard work, hers and her parents. They represent what she has learnt, what she has experienced and are also a monetary investment in herself. She goes into more detail about the objects and she ends by asking a question “Why should I get rid of them?” At this stage I feel that my question, which is meant for me to further investigate into what is stopping her from letting them go is not serving my client. I have gone down this path assuming that if she can dig more into the reasons that block her from taking action, I can help her shift her perspective on it. However, I immediately realize the question is putting the focus back on the problem and taking her into the why loop, probably connecting her with her weaknesses or fears. I am taking a path which is not helping my client reach her objective. I feel I need to balance carefully challenge and support here, therefore I decide to change strategy and to work with her strength: her imagination. I ask her to envision the best result coming from “letting go”: “Imagine you have got rid of this stuff, what would if feel like?”
Anna opens up again and, just like a river, her rich imaginary worlds start to flow again: It would feel like lightness, cleanliness, possibilities, silence, concentration, agility, flexibility. I double clicked on three words: light, agile, clean… like water (to build on her powerful vision of her new self). I conclude by asking a question: what would it feel like for you to honor what this stuff represents AND let it go? “My clothes are the experiences and the emotions I lived while wearing them, my books are key messages I still bring with me. I would love to invite my parents to dinner and give them a present that shows how important what they did for me is, giving them a present that represents what I have become today thanks to those things”. She is already projected in the action mode, and she concludes with a question which sounds rhetorical by the touch of humor she uses – I can hear that in her voice: “After all, what material goods are they?” Like a three-year-old child who is eager to know the answer and is curious to know the answer, I play it back to her with a neutral tone of voice: “After all, what material goods are they?” The answer, which comes with a burst of laughter and an explosion of relief is “just an obstacle!” I feel another shift in her voice – sparkling and joyful as if she had unpacked a new fantastic present. I take this opportunity to check with her if she feels we are going into the direction she wanted. You said you wanted to use this session to “Stop finding excuses and free up space” – with this objective in mind, where do you think you are now? “Now I know that postponing by finding excuses means keeping my mind busy and not being able to be agile. For me the final goal is important. I want to become excellent in two or three things I have identified and to do so I must be agile. What’s the first thing I can do to be agile? I can start from a category of objects. This will immediately make me feel lighter, as fresh water flowing more smoothly. And I can keep my books alive by giving them as presents, at book crossing points for instance. My ultimate goal is to become excellent in 2-3 things. To do so I must to create space and the time to do it is now. I acknowledge Anna’s level of self-awareness, her ability to make progress. She moves into the action phase of the process on her own, asking herself the right question. However, I observe she is using the word must a couple of times: “I must be agile” and “I must create space”. My intuition tells me there is still something in the way and I decide to ask her: What happens if you replace must with “want?” I want to create space means I am able to focus on what matters. As a river, I cannot waste my energy into a multitude of canals. What matters to me is closing these canals (i.e. getting rid of these objects) so that the water can flow to the sea at full speed. You mentioned your first step, how can I support you to reach the sea at full speed? You have supported me in acquiring this new awareness about me and I now feel confident in doing it. Thank you! As we are getting to the end of the session, I thank Anna for opening up with me and making so much progress in little time.
I entered the session with a totally open-mind. I did not know what would come up. I did not have an agenda. I let go of any kind of expectation and felt free to be there with her. I used a very loose process so that I could go with the flow, to notice what came from the conversation and enjoy rather than focus on the mechanics.
These are the three phases of the process I followed:
I listened actively and powerfully to what the client was saying. I met the client where she was. This client was very self-aware and had excellent analytical skills, she was continuously asking herself questions and answers them. I followed her thoughts and words as long as they brought more clarity to her and allowed me her to understand who she was in the story. I did so by “highlighting” some words/sentences that struck me while I was holding the space for her to explore. The first powerful question come from the client: “what person are you?” It brought new awareness to her about her new identity.
I defined/clarified the coaching agreement. I checked what was holding her back from achieving what she desired. I noticed the question did not serve the client as she went into the “why loop”. So, I improvised: I asked her to imagine what it would feel like once she had let go of the objects. The shift in her rhythm, the use of the metaphor was signaling new insight was added to her. The client felt enthused and very pro-actively moved into the “evolve” phase on her own.
once the vision was clear, I made sure the client embraced what had emerged from the session so as to be able to evolve. In this case she had self-coached into it the next step and the how, so I asked her how I could support her.
This experience brought new awareness about my coaching presence, which is the key element in coaching.
The five minutes before I enter a coaching session are the most important moment for me of the coaching session. If I come to the appointment scattered or distracted my attention will inevitably be focused on “centering myself” while I am doing the session and will invariably undermine powerful listening. Having taken the time to find the conditions that were conducive to the session was fundamental. A clear horizon and no distractions allowed me to be fully present with my client.
Stopping worrying about the impression I am making on others and “adjusting” the impression I am making on myself is key to let go of my always intruding fear of failure. The moment I consciously know and accept that this is my journey into coaching and that I do not need to be the greatest expert on earth to coach, but rather that each session adds new insight to my awareness, thus boosting competence and confidence, I feel more relaxed. Starting my coaching session feeling relaxed allows me to enjoy the session. I live it with curiosity, wondering what could happen, what resources my client will tap onto with excitement. This allows me to improvise which is one of my strengths and I feel nourished by what happens, whatever it may be: surprises and detours. Facing detours and finding a way to get out of them requires courage and I acknowledge to myself this courage. Letting go of the need to control the situation is scary but super powerful. In the two instances I decided to pause I felt I was taking a step into the unknown. I felt scared AND brave. In both cases incredibly enlightening things emerged.
The question “What would it be like to honor/value the importance of something AND let it go?” in this experience was helpful for my client and for me. At the end of the session I asked myself “what would it fell like to honor the “need to know” you have each time you start a coaching session AND let it go? Something clicked in my mind. I respect my “need to know”, it is motivator in many instances and in many cases a redeemer. However, here my goal is to enjoy the session, not “to know”. I imagined putting the “need to know” in the hands of the immense, majestic sea I was facing that morning. It could flow, in another direction towards the horizon. In the coaching space, the coach does not need to know, the client knows and the coach supports the client to unearth this knowledge. That’s all the coach needs to know.
One hour after the end of the session, my client sent me this picture of a book-crossing place in her city with this text message: “9 books into book-crossing, some stuff thrown away, other things found their right place in my home. There is one thing I have learnt about myself: by establishing a precise time for getting rid of things, I am more efficient. I do not waste time with memories and do not play for time. With a specific time set I stop finding excuses and do it.
In the evening I received another message: “I’d like to share with you the energy that sprung from this morning session: I re-organized the whole bedroom for all categories of items, excluding clothes. I will do clothes when I am back from holidays. What matters now is that my house is well-ordered, each thing found its place. I am going to bed with a sense of relief”.
When I received the first message I realized that not only did my client reach her objective “stop finding excuses and let go a part of her”, she had gone beyond that: she had learnt one important thing about herself: what was useful for her to reach her objective. She had been able to identify what structure supported her: setting a time to carry out the action.
I am satisfied with the way the coaching session evolved. I am grateful I was able to go with the flow, to be daring and to be fully tuned in with my client. However, if I could do it again I would establish better the measurement of the goal by asking a few questions such as: – What we you be able to do that you could not do before? – What tangible changes will there be in your life? – What will you be able to do that you were not able to do before?
I would be more mindful of how I run to conclusions once the session is over. Although the client kept thanking me and was enthused, I was assaulted by self-doubt on my effectiveness the moment we concluded the session. Had I been good enough? Maybe my enjoyment did not yield real results for my client. Next time I will manage the feelings of the post-coaching phase better, with the same open-mindedness and curiosity I have when I approach a session: – What if my coaching session is successful? – What’s the best thing that could happen? – How am I going to celebrate my success? The five minutes after the coaching session are as important as the five minutes before.