A Coaching Model Created by Damon Poole
(Business Coach, UNITED STATES)
One of the reasons I’m doing this coaching program is that I teach a subset of Professional Coaching in my Agile Coaching workshop and I wanted to dive deeper into Professional Coaching. While doing this program I was also inspired to write a book about Professional Coaching for Agilists.
I struggled for months to come up with my “model” of coaching. I’m not a big fan of coaching models, I love the ICF competencies and markers in their pure form. Also, in the Agile world, we have a model of blended coaching that includes Professional Coaching a la ICF, teaching, mentoring, and facilitating. So, in thinking of a model for being an Agile Coach I just kept coming back to the one that is already there. However, while working on the book and updating the material in my workshop, I was subconsciously also working on the idea of a coaching model.
Then I happened across the “Owl”1 coaching model by Heather Tingle. I already knew Heather, so I was curious to know what she had written. I was captivated! Heather’s model isn’t a sequence of stages or an arc or an acronym or like anything I had seen before. It was pure symbolism involving an owl and the moon that captured an approach to coaching that I see as providing just as much guidance for how to coach as any other model I’ve seen.
Thinking about the idea of using symbolism as my coaching model, I realized I had my symbolic way of thinking about coaching that I could use to represent my approach to coaching. My symbol is that of a mirror.
Acting as a Mirror
One of the reasons that people need other people when they get stuck is the same reason that we all have mirrors where we live. We have blind spots. We need mirrors to fix our hair, shave, put on makeup, and attend to anything else that needs it. People can also act as a mirror. If you are out with a friend having spaghetti, your friend might say “You have some sauce on your nose” and then let you know when you have completely removed it.
In addition to our physical blind spots, we also have blind spots in our perception, our thinking, and in the way we see ourselves, our circumstances, and others. To help us see our non-physical blind spots, we need other people.
To act as a mirror for another person, you need to absorb what they are saying and doing and then reflect it to them. For them to accept what you reflect them, they need to trust you and believe that they are seeing themselves accurately reflected in your mirror. Otherwise, they will just see you instead of themselves and it won’t work.
Acting as a mirror provides the following coaching benefits:
- Helps the coachee find their blind spots
- Helps the coachee notice things they said but didn’t realize
- Shows the coachee that you are listening
- Keeps the focus on the coachee
- Keeps the conversation on track
- Builds and maintains rapport
The Components of the Coaching Mirror
The concept of acting as a mirror is illustrated in the figure above. To fully reflect the coachee in your responses, you first need to fully perceive everything about them that you can: their words, tone, body language, and behavior. Fully perceiving one or more people while staying in a coaching mindset takes practice. And, to absorb all of this information, you need to be fully present.
For the coachee to see themselves in your responses you also need to take care not to distort their image by interpreting what they say, letting your preferences or bias show through advocating, or evaluating what they are saying.
Lastly, your mindset can have a big impact on how you absorb information from the coachee as well as how you reflect it. If you are using a coaching mindset, you will be focusing on what the coachee needs to move forward. If you are using an expert mindset, you will be focusing on what you need from the coachee to solve their problem for them.
The first part of acting as a mirror is absorbing information from the coachee. There is a lot to observe about a coachee: their words, tone, emotion, pacing, body language, and behavior.
When your attention is focused on the here and now, you are “present.” When your attention wanders away, you are distracted. When you are distracted, you will miss valuable information.
You don’t need to be present all the time. It is perfectly fine to daydream or let your mind wander. But when you are facilitating a meeting, teaching a workshop, or coaching someone, the degree to which you are present will directly impact the amount and quality of the information that you absorb.
Many things can distract you while you are coaching:
- Thinking about what the coachee is saying
- Trying to solve whatever problem you hear
- Trying to remember a point that struck you as important
- Thinking about things that happened earlier in the day
- Thinking about things you need to do later in the day
- Something going on around you
- Your phone
- Things you need to remember to do
- Getting sidetracked by a topic that comes up in conversation
- Your emotions
To maximize your presence, find ways to eliminate these distractions. It might be by taking steps proactively or through careful and intentional practice at being present.
One day, while attending the standup meeting of a new team as an Agile Coach, I was feeling frustrated. I was thinking about how terrible their standup was and could only think about how they must not have paid attention in training. I was wondering why they couldn’t conduct this basic event when other teams that had been in the same training were doing just fine.
Right as I was having that thought, somebody asked me a question and I realized I had no idea what the question was. I was not present. I apologized and muddled my way through the rest of the standup.
When I was distracted and judging their behavior I was unable to see the two issues that were going on. To absorb as much information as possible it is important to learn how to be fully present.
The next day, I made a conscious effort to focus on what was being said and what was happening. I realized that everyone was doing a “readout” to me personally and most people seemed distracted when they weren’t reporting their status to me. Having them treat their Agile Coach as a project manager was a familiar problem and I knew how to handle that, but I wasn’t sure why folks were so distracted.
At the end of the meeting, I gently mentioned that folks seemed distracted and I asked if something was going on in general that I might not be aware of. I learned that there were two “teams” in this “team” and so half of the people were disinterested half of the time. That was another familiar problem that I knew how to solve. At least half of the job of being an Agile Coach is understanding what is going on. Presence is a powerful tool to help you get to the root of a problem.
The most important thing about a good mirror is that it is completely neutral. It doesn’t distort the reflection; it shows exactly what is there. The best mirrors are clean, sharp, and completely reflective. On the other end of the spectrum are mirrors that are dirty, damaged, or fogged. And of course, there’s always a fun-house mirror that intentionally distorts the view. Lastly, there are mirrors like the one from “Snow White” that speaks to its viewers and renders opinions.
People have a natural tendency to filter what they observe, think, and say through their point of view; their preferences, biases, desires, skills, values, goals, vision, and approach to life. People also have an understandable desire to show others that they understand what was said and felt by putting others’ words into their own words. Unfortunately, paraphrasing can end up unintentionally making people feel judged. People may also become defensive, become less open, change the subject, or even become upset with what was said.
A foundational skill of Professional Coaching is the ability to be neutral. Whether you are observing, thinking about what’s happening, or speaking, make every effort to think in terms of what you know about the coachee’s preferences, biases, desires, skills, values, goals, vision, and approach to life. Be careful not to filter what you see, think, and say through your point of view.
Neutrality includes using descriptive language instead of judgmental language, putting all decision making in the hands of those you are coaching, holding back your own opinion and expertise unless it is specifically requested, and using the coachee’s own words instead of paraphrasing.
This is not a call to be an emotionless machine. Embodying genuine neutrality while remaining human and personable is difficult and takes time to master. Being aware of the need for neutrality and the value of neutrality is the first step toward mastering neutrality.
Reflect the Coachee in Your Words
When the coachee has finished speaking, it is your turn to respond. Your response may be a statement, a prompt, or a question. When your response includes a reference to something the coachee said, provide the most accurate and helpful mirror possible.
Maintain the Coachee’s Point of View
When you refer to something the coachee said, focus on the coachee’s point of view instead of your own. Two examples of how your point of view can weave its way into your references to the coachee’s own words are judging and speculating. Your point of view can be so subtle that you don’t even notice it.
Coachee: “Unfortunately, the retrospective ran over time and I don’t think we got any useful next steps.”
Coach: “What options do you see for recovering from the bad retro?”
Here the coachee has judged the retrospective to be bad from their point of view.
Coachee: [frowning, looking unhappy and pausing before responding] “I don’t know that it was a bad retrospective, I just think we need to get better at making decisions on next steps.”
Coachee: “I was in yet another long meeting”
Coach: “What might you do to avoid such meetings?”
Here the coach has speculated that the reason for what the coachee is saying is that they don’t want to attend the meeting.
Coachee: [looking annoyed] “It isn’t that I don’t want to attend it. It’s an important meeting and we’d all get a lot more out of it if it was better facilitated.”
You may have heard that paraphrasing is a good way to show that you have heard what another person said by putting it into your own words. Unfortunately, paraphrasing can confuse. When you paraphrase, you may insert your interpretation of what the coachee said. Then they will have to interpret what you said into what it means to them. When you paraphrase, you risk interrupting the Coachee’s thought process.
Coachee: “This week I need to implement 3 user stories, help create a test plan, and attend a training session on a new tech stack.”
Coach: “You’ve got a lot on your plate, how might you solve this?”
Saying “a lot on your plate” is interpreting what they said through your point of view. What might seem like a lot to you may be perceived by them as normal or even a light workload.
Coachee: “What do you mean? You don’t think I can meet my commitments?”
Not only was “a lot on your plate” an interpretation, but it was also interpreted as a judgment by the coachee.
Reiterating is Better Than Paraphrasing
The easiest way to achieve neutrality when referring to something the coachee has said is by using the skill of reiterating. Reiterating is simply repeating back, as accurately as possible, what you have heard from the coachee. This is primarily done either as the lead-in to a question or as part of a question. If what you want to reiterate is short, just use everything the coachee said word for word. On the other hand, if you want to reiterate something longer, consider repeating back just the key snippets.
Coachee: “The product owner is distracted and doesn’t always show up to meetings. Based on how many questions I’ve gotten, I’m not sure if everyone on the team has had training. And the standups! They are just a long description of each person’s day.”
Coach: “You mentioned the product owner, training, and the standups. What would you like to focus on?”
Reiterating is not paraphrasing. Paraphrasing is repeating back what you heard in your own words. It is always best to use the coachee’s own words to avoid confusion and stay neutral. By using the coachee’s own words wherever possible, you keep the focus on the coachee.
When exploring an issue, one typically focuses on the issue rather than one’s words, tone, body language, and behavior. Unless a person is on a video call and intentionally watching themselves on video, they can’t see their facial expression or most of what they express through their body language. All of these things – speech pattern, cadence, tone, facial expression, and body language provide information about what is on a person’s mind as they are speaking.
The process of articulating what’s going on in one’s mind and heart can help someone better understand what they are thinking and feeling about themselves, other people, situations, and events. Sometimes a person isn’t aware of what’s going on inside until they say it out loud to another person.
A coach helps the coachee see emotional cues the coachee may otherwise miss. A coach notices similarities and differences between what is said in words and what is said with the tone, body language, and behavior. When we coach another person, we can help them see themselves and better understand themselves, by reflecting on the potentially significant parts of what they have expressed. We won’t know what parts are most significant, but they will.
If we were to reflect on everything, it would be exhausting both for us and for them. As you are listening to others, notice their expression, body language, tone of voice, the cadence of their speech, and their behavior in general. Also, notice the interplay between how they are expressing themselves and the words that they are choosing. Look for the following indications that something may be significant:
- There is a change in emotion, tone, the cadence of speech, or energy level
- There is a difference between what is said and what is expressed in other ways.
Make sure to connect your observations to what they were saying. For instance: “when you started talking about taking that action, I noticed that you started talking more slowly and your smile went away. What’s happening there?”
1) “Owl on a Moonlit Night”, Heather Tingle,