Coaching Case Study By Dymphna Ormond
(Executive Coach, IRELAND)
I was coaching a senior manager as part of a Management Development programme. The manager (Mandy – not her real name) was skeptical of coaching, wasn’t sure if it was for her or not however, open to explore the process. There were coaching sessions built into the Management development programme.
I explained how coaching was different to training, mentoring and consulting and how we would work together.
Creating rapport at the start and building trust was key to our working relationship and building Mandy’s belief in coaching. I helped her understand that this was her time, it was a non-judgemental space and a space to explore areas confidentially. The manager opened up easily even though she had initially shared her sceptism. On reflecting back, I believe that the environment I created from the start made her feel comfortable and at ease.
A focus for Mandy was developing belief and self-confidence in her abilities and achievements. From the information she shared she had created a very strong highly engaged team. However, her focus was on what she had not achieved, both in work and outside of work. For Mandy, the challenge of acknowledging achievements and areas to be proud of seemed to be of a long standing nature with significance being given to events in the past. The self-critical analysis seemed to be weighing heavily on the manager.
I asked Mandy the following questions:
- To describe how she would like to feel instead
- What it would mean to her
- How it would impact her work/life
- What she was proud of and then asked her how her team is different to how it was when she became head of the department.
I heard a wonderful story. I listened and paraphrased back to her what I had understood. I wanted her to hear it as I had heard it. I then left silence for around 10 secs and then acknowledged her. I then left further silence for her to reflect (internally) on her achievements. I asked her what she would like to acknowledge herself for. This was difficult for her. An observation which I shared with her and asked for her thoughts on the observation.
Power listening, paraphrasing, reflecting feelings back really helped to build the trust between us and for coaching, the questions, though appearing simple, helped Mandy focus on her achievements and areas to be proud of –reflecting positively on her last 2 years in her position. I felt the acknowledgement from me was well received (from her facial expressions). However, self-acknowledgement is not something that came easily to her.
We also explored different perceptions Mandy had of events and behaviours and the significance she gave them. Mandy realised that she was viewing situations in an almost one-dimensional way. From this we were then able to explore what she wanted to be acknowledged and recognised for and what she did not. She realised how her “did not wants” had been clouding her beliefs. Mandy then saw how she needed to come across in different situations, the beliefs she needed to channel and what she would do. Recognising what she needed to let go off, reframing thoughts and taking action all helped my client see things differently.
Change is difficult. If faced with the same topic again, I would explore some of the other barriers or “what-ifs” Mandy might experience and how she could navigate them. There were times when I might have got caught up in the story. Now I would be more aware of this. I think there were times when I could have used more direct communication. A skill that I am working on.
Learnings and Reflections
The top 3 things I learnt during the coaching experience are:
- Silence is powerful.
- Acknowledging a client and giving them the space and safety to acknowledge themselves creates trust and a shift in perspective for the client.
- The use of appropriate observations and right question is powerful.
- Given more time with Mandy an exercise to challenge limiting beliefs may have been powerful
This case study also got me thinking and I wanted to explore more about challenging self-limiting beliefs, assumptions and fulfilling other people’s should: How to live your life and not some-one’s life.
In The Naked Coach(Taylor, 2007) the author asks the following:
“Are you in ownership of your own life?”
“Do you allow other people, other events dictate how you feel about yourself?”
We do things to serve others and not our-self; we act based on beliefs that have served us in the past however, not today, we act out on big assumptions and hidden commitments we have for ourselves (Kegan & Laskow Lahey, 2009). Transformational Change is hard.
Our Beliefs, Assumptions, Hidden Commitments and Transformational Change
According to Robert Gass(Gass, 2013) transformational change is distinguished by radical breakthroughs in paradigms, beliefs and behaviours. He says that transformational change involves breakthroughs and being the change which involves honouring the lessons of the past and planning the future while having a strong focus on what’s happening right now.
Transformational learning requires long-term commitment to continuous growth and learning; it involves challenging basic assumptions and beliefs, moving to a higher, wider deeper level of consciousness, empathy and awareness. It is the commitment that brings about sustained behavioural changes.
Our beliefs, assumptions, fears, hidden commitments prevent us from moving forward, they keep us stuck. Our critical inner voice – our gremlin – works hard to talk us out of action. It makes out that it is trying to protect and serve us. Action can initially start. However, our Gremlin, or as Taylor says in The Naked Coach, our Voice of Excuse intervenes; sustaining the actions towards change and maintaining the change are halted.
According to Taylor The Voice of Excuse specialises in 4 main excuses for inaction:
- If you do that you could lose everything – protect what you have
- If success was this simple, everyone would be doing it – you need to be convinced
- You need more information, more data and more knowledge before you agree to make your first move
- You do not know what you want to do, or where you want to be.
Exploring these areas with you client could create new awareness and insights for them. If we take the view that our Gremlins or Voice of excuse has a positive intent, rather than a negative intent, and ask powerful questions the client can increase their self-awareness. It can reveal to our clients more about theirinner selves and their feelings which can inspire them to take action or hold them back from taking action or take them in a different direction. Transformational change requires more than just this.
In Immunity to Change (Kegan & Laskow Lahey, 2009) the authors explore the challenges that we face due to our hidden commitments and big assumptions that prevent us from moving forward – even when we think that we really want to. They suggest that client’s should experiment with behaviours that will put the big assumptions to the test. The first step is to support clients in creating a meaningful goal that will have a big impact. Keegan et al(Kegan & Laskow Lahey, 2009) suggest that clients ask their manager, peers, team members, a family member about the one thing they could do that would make a big difference. This goal has to have real meaning and purpose for the client. The focus for the client is on a vision of what the client wants to create and understanding what is working for them, what is good and useful and what is possible so that the heart is engaged. For transformational change to occur it is important to support the client in looking for opportunities in the change e.g. “How will (the goal) serve you?”
The authors of Immunity to Change recommend to ask clients to create a list of:
a) Things they do and b) Things they fail to do that run contrary to their goal. These are not simply bad behaviours that need to be avoided; they can give insight into what is holding the client back.
These hidden or competing commitments are given a higher priority than our other commitments. People will not change unless they believe there is good reason to. These hidden commitments keep us and our clients where they are.
Once these competing commitments are revealed we can support our clients in choosing how they will move forward. Questions you can ask include:
- What is more important, _____ this or ______this?
- What are the reasons you chose ______?
- How does ______ support or block you achieving _____(goal)?
- What is the need behind that desire/need/assumption?
- How is ______ of value to you now?
- Where is ______ of value to you now?
- How much is _________ costing you? (a belief or assumption)
- How is this behaviour/belief/assumption failing you (or someone else who you care about deeply)?
- How have you been holding yourself back?
- What permission will you give yourself now?
Keegan suggests asking the following:
Imagine yourself trying to do the opposite of this (behaviour), what is the most uncomfortable or worrisome or outright scary feeling that comes to mind for you?
The answers can reveal fears that clients have and build more awareness or understanding of how their behaviour protects them from the things they are afraid of. The authors highlight the need to dig deeper into the initial responses. They say the initial response can be like a book cover. Our questions then need to reveal the text underneath the book cover and other fears that we are actively committed to ensure they do not happen e.g. committed to not failing; committed to not looking stupid.
An individual transitioning into a more senior role may have difficultly letting go of old tasks and activities. They are used to being able, to be seen as the expert, to delivering high results, to knowing the right way of doing things. Some new, and existing managers, have a fear of not knowing, not being able, not being the best, feeling humiliated, fear of being out of control. Therefore, they act out certain behaviours that will prevent them from being humiliated, unable, feeling helpless, to not making a mistake, not being needed, not losing credibility. The above approach will support those managers and being the change they want to be.
Beliefs and Assumptions
Beliefs and assumptions are just that. Some of them may be true and others not true. They are not facts and not logical, although our clients may notice supporting facts and explain away contradictions. However, we hold them as truth and act on them. Thus all beliefs have consequences. These consequences are our client’s actions: behaviours, thoughts and feelings.
Many managers have beliefs about themselves and others e.g. “I know the right way” “They are too junior or inexperienced to have an input”. A consequence of this is that the manager does not listen to the ideas/suggestions/concerns of the other person.
In NLP and Health (McDermot & O’Connor) beliefs are described as like possessions. They state
Some could be precious heirlooms, some everyday objects. Some we put on public view, others are too valuable to be shown to all and sundry. We choose them in many ways and like furniture and decorations, we choose them so that they won’t clash.……If you were to think of beliefs as possessions that you could choose and discard at will rather than at random, how would you decorate your inner world?
Assumptions may be true and may not be true. Therefore, we need steps to test the accuracy of them and challenge them.
Beliefs, assumptions and values all play a crucial part in creating transformational change. Transformational change requires a real effort and a desire to change. You have to consciously choose what you will and won’t do. However our beliefs and assumptions have us…..even those we are not aware of, our hidden commitments. The coach needs to support the client in identifying how or if the belief is benefiting them.
Example of questions include:
- What is this belief doing for you?
- How does it enhance-------?
- What are you doing based on this belief that harms/stops/gets in the way of ----?
- Hoes does this belief help you?
- Is it true under all circumstances?
- In what circumstances is it not true?
- Does everyone believe it?
- What situations do not fit well with this belief?
- To get rid of a belief our client needs to replace it with a new belief.
Asking the client questions around this can help them connect their heart with the belief:
- “What would you rather believe?”
- How will ---- be better with this new belief?
- How might -----be worse with this new belief?
- What is the best thing that could happen based on this new belief?
- What might stop you adopting this new belief?
- What is there in your life that already fits this new belief?
- How will this new belief fit with your sense of self?
- What are you seeing as true that could just be an assumption?
- What are you choosing to do now?
- What will you choose to do after this coaching session?
- What are you choosing to think/believe?
- What will you choose to think/believe after this session?
Exploring these areas can create discomfort. However, I believe that transformational change can only occur when we reach that discomfort zone. Marcia Reynolds (Reynolds) states that learning happens in the moment of uncertainty. She states that the barrier that protects a person’s sense of self and the world is momentarily breached, leaving the person vulnerable enough to learn. She talks about the importance of listening with our whole nervous system to be able to reflect back and ask powerful questions to create the important moment of growth.
The skill of staying present with the client to be able to listen for what they are not saying: assumptions, beliefs, values, desires and needs, disappointments and doubts, fears, attachments – is essential to create the trust and intimacy in the relationship to move into the discomfort zone. A coach also needs to work on being comfortable with the discomfort that they may feel in these situations. A coach should challenge and explore their own beliefs and assumptions that will help them develop these core competencies.
It is not our abilities that show who we truly are, it is our choices. Professor Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
To support transformational change a coach needs to create the environment where the client is able to identify the beliefs, hidden commitments and assumptions that are keeping them where they are. Then they can support their client to create the steps to move them in the direction for change.
As a coach, we need to be comfortable with creating discomfort in our clients.
Gass, R. (2013, February). What is Transformational Change.
Kegan, R., & Laskow Lahey, L. (2009). Immunity to Change. Harvard Business School Publishing Corportation.
McDermot, I., & O’Connor, J. (n.d.). NLP and Health: Using NLP to enhance your health and wellbeing. Thorsons.
Reynolds, M. (n.d.). The Discomfort Zone.
Taylor, D. (2007). The Naked Coach. Wiley.