Every coaching assignment is different and the ground covered varies a lot depending on each client and their needs. But there are themes and questions that come up again and again in various forms. Some are rooted in the existential dilemmas that we all face in life; others are born out of common frustrations.
I often describe coaching as working on two levels over time. The first level is explicit: the conscious pursuit of the goals and objectives set at the beginning of a coaching programme. This is what people have come to coaching to address and spend time on. The second level is implicit: it’s what occurs as a consequence of going through a process of self-examination. Sometimes the themes here shift and become the core of the contract, as new depth and complexity alters the premise behind the questions being asked by the client of themselves.
There’s always a practical purpose behind a request for coaching. Often this is to create business growth or to reach stretch targets. But as well as plans to achieve these things many clients find they want to address questions around their own core psychological engine. By getting this into better shape, they have a better set of foundations in place from which to address business challenges.
Here are the top five questions that come up in (my) coaching:
How can I get stuff done?
As mentioned, coaching often starts with practical issues, where a change is needed but solutions aren’t readily apparent. A core principle of person-based coaching is that the most elegant and effective solutions are within the client. The coach may offer a view and practical advice (this is mentoring rather than coaching) but in the long term what will work best are the solutions devised, owned and implemented by the client themselves.
There’s often a distinction between 1) I don’t know how to do X and 2) I don’t have time to do X with all the other plates that I’m spinning. In both cases what coaching offers is the chance to slow down, consider and find clarity. Route one may not be the best option, it might even be self-defeating. Considering different approaches, and in the case of time management, being rigorous about priorities are ways to reach realistic ways forward.
One example is that time management and prioritisation often collide with what I call the Tyranny of Real Work. Doing grunt work, operational activity that is the bedrock of the company can seem overwhelmingly compelling, especially if it’s your business. Ongoing requirements to deal with clients or other work-in-progress are often the reason why strategic things get put off. Reviewing and developing what you think and know are priorities rather than feel should be priorities can be a crucial exercise.
How can I get on better with colleagues, clients, other people?
Conflict, misunderstanding and confusion around how we deal with other people seems to affect everyone. We all know we are social animals right, so why should it be so hard to just get along? Well we’re social despite ourselves; this instinct wrestles with an inner nature that is selfish. Evolution created it so, and we can watch it in action with children.
It’s such a fundamental and instinctive part of being human that we tend to do it more than think about it. Coaching can provide some ways to cognitively analyse and understand human interactions and differences. New understanding can lead to new behaviours and approaches. The parent, adult child metaphor from Transaction Analysis and assessing psychological type with something like Myers Briggs offer useful frameworks.
Above all developing better understanding of the Self and how you then react with other individuals (who also dynamically evolve and change) is at the core of this issue. By a process of reflection and analysis you can become more objective and considered in your own actions over a period of several months.
How can I stop undermining myself?
Imposter syndrome, awfulizing and catastrophic fantasies distract many people. Issues of confidence are normal although often people beat themselves up with the notion that they’re the only one affected by this.
Specific frustrating and self-limiting behaviours and habits can be addressed through CBT or it’s variation REBT. This is a process of breaking down and understanding what we do and learning how to trigger new and preferred responses that come from a considered and rational rather than instinctive and emotional starting point.
A coach can provide a framework for this type of work and help with the motivation to stick at and recognise change and progress.
What is this thing called me?
The themes above often lead people to want to better understand the Self. This is often rooted in a sense that things aren’t as they should be somehow and manifests itself as anxiety.
But anxiety is a normal constant of being human. It inhibits us and holds us back but it’s also true that “a life that was anxiety-free would also be bereft of wonder, enthusiasm and excitement.” The goal of our relationship with anxiety is not to eliminate it but to find a way to live with it constructively.
It has many forms and often people avoid talking about their insecurities, again thinking that they’re unique to them. Better cognitive understanding of the Self and developing a more objective view of it follows from reflecting and talking about it in a useful way. This involves understanding it as a psychological norm, rather than wondering about it as a thing of mystery from the inside only.
I often recommend reading from a selection I’ve built up over the years. Some of the books I’ve found to be useful are:
- The Happiness Hypothesis (Jonathan Haidt)
- Thinking Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman)
- The Interpreted World (Ernesto Spinelli)
- Zen in the Art of Archery (Eugen Herrigel)
- The Chimp Paradox (Steve Peters)
The last and perhaps most powerful questions that come up are around purpose and meaning. It’s also one of the biggest differences between coaching individuals in large vs small companies. Being a cog in a huge machine can easily be alienating and breed corrosive cynicism. Smaller companies have their problems but usually the question of what’s it’s all for is transparent.
But in both cases there’s a question of congruence between personal values and those of the company. People in large organisations are more likely to be annoyed and frustrated by how things are done than by questioning the company’s goals. Fair treatment, consistency of standards and the immediate environment can seem to matter more.
Meaning and purpose are powerful things – they are one for the four key existential ‘tectonic plates’ of being. I like to point out that they can be at the root of very bad things as well as good: war and violence are often accompanied by an overwhelming sense of meaning and purpose in participants who identify with a higher cause, whether that’s ISIS or Das Boot.
The converse is also true, identifying with work as meaningful is the reason people will be inspired to do extraordinary things. And often that’s exactly what they want to do: if coaching can help them find good and purpose in their work there can be a profound emancipation.