A coaching conversation is not an activity having an end in itself. Such activity is meant to be a solution-oriented, dialectic moment where ideas take form out of the chaos of our mind.
But coaching time is also a learning opportunity, for both sides. For the coachee, it means to find a way to engage in meaningful actions, that will move him closer to his own goal, or at least provide more clarity on matter. For the coach, the practice is the laboratory to test related skills and try out new ones. All for the sake of an augmented experience for the client? I convene that there is more.
Coaches sometimes refer to this skill as an “art”. Because of that, chances are for the coach to become extremely confident. Some are used to think ahead, or naturally like to predict the development of the conversation, but that means for the coach to develop bias on the present moment. Therefore, we risk manipulating the development of the dialogue. That is not what the wisdom of the coach must do, and that’s not how he/she should serve the client.
LET’S TALK ABOUT REFLECTION
Reflection is an activity that helps to iterate the course of the coaching relationship. For a coach, it evolves from two intertwined perspectives.
On a retrospective level, the coach can look back at the facts. First and foremost, it is important to understand if something was not missed or did not achieve a satisfying level of clarity from both sides. For example, in case few options were considered, but some have been left out not because unfitting, rather not considered properly. Another case is when some facts haven’t been explored fully, because the flow of information was too intense for the coach to be able to catch up. We can take notes to help ourselves, but we cannot lose focus on what is happening around us because we need to scribble that down. Clients are looking for “present” coaches that help them getting out of troubles. In a way, it is possible that they are outsourcing focus and mindfulness to the coach.
Here, few questions that a coach should ask to him/herself following a coaching session, as a form of retrospective analysis.
- Did the conversation go (so) well?
- What did I miss?
- On what I should focus on next time?
At the introspective level, the coach can look at the session more intimately. There is a need to reflect upon agreements and disagreements with the discussed facts. That is is more to find some balance for the coach that is deeply involved in the relationship, thus avoiding development of further bias. By provoking awareness on the role of emotions, morality and ethics over the performance, the coach can use self-consciousness to assess opinions from facts and maintain a detached view (as humanly possible).
The introspective reflection uses powerful questions that create a bridge from the critical analysis of the facts to the one of the Self.
- How much attention did I pay?
- What thoughts prevented me to stay focused?
- Was there something I would disagree with , or that I did not like?
WHAT DO WE MEAN WITH NORMALIZATION?
When we are accustomed to do something in a certain manner, we are unlikely to alter our course of actions because “that works – and always worked”. This phenomenon, known as normalization, occurs when carrying out a practice in a standardized way becomes more important than its purpose. It is symptom of fix mindset to let a method becoming more important than its intent, transforming the very same into a dull, ineffective routine.
The normalization of reflection happens more often than one can imagine. For any expert in his field, that is because of the confidence we have developed over time. Indeed, positive results and accumulated knowledge are what make us achieve such state. The problem in that is soon we grow confirmation bias that do not allow us to make effective judgment in given situations.
It’s on the strength of observation and reflection that one finds a way. So we must dig and delve unceasingly.Claude Monet
If we look back in history, we can find that mankind raised the alarm on different perspectives. Furthermore, different cultures faced the problem in a certain fashion. Hereinafter, I collected at least one for each point of view: philosophical, scientific-psychological, and spiritual.
3 SUPPORTIVE OBSERVATIONS
THE SOCRATIC METHOD
In the ancient Greece, Socrates among the others discussed the importance of not being caught in our conviction. From what we know through the writings of his scholars, he fought against the common sense that people are wise because they know more than other, or because they can prove it through dialectics.
Famous are his words: “I know that I do not know”: for Socrates, putting our own knowledge constantly upon discussion was a way to seek true sapience. In the end, he decided to give his life in the name of wisdom, preferring to be outspoken in matter than negotiating with Athenian law.
Recently, Foucault’s theories on the relation between knowledge and power put the reflective practice in coaching to the test. Indeed, experience is considered a too way powerful source of knowledge and wisdom, when it is instead a form of subjective learning. Experience is what we seek to sharp and master skills. However, not everyone reflect on such experiences and challenges them. On the contrary, empirical knowledge can also be reassured through this process: so, the fix mindset. Assuming that reflection is a natural process not depending from our own history is giving a fertile soil to our prejudices to grow.
Recent studies take that into consideration looking at coaching. In the coaching relationship, the coach is assumed to be “the knowledgeable one” because he is in fact leading the conversation. In this perspective, a coach that uses reflection bad risks to alter influence the decision-making of the client. This is something that we voluntarily seek in mentoring relationships in form of advice or experience sharing.
WISDOM FROM THE FAR EAST.
Taoism, Zen and Martial Arts have all in common one interesting principle, that of “non-action”, or in Chinese, Wu Wei. In theory, it is a state that a person achieves in the form of the ultimate holistic control over the Self. The result is the complete adaptation to reality and its challenges: physical, mental and spiritual.
Another way to describe Wu Wei is as “active passivity”, that is when we are vigilant both on ourselves and on the surroundings at the same level. We can think of it of mindfulness with situational awareness. With complete control on ourselves, our passions and emotions do not matter anymore. Instead, their energy can be used to achieve anything. With coaching, this verifies when the coach can isolate his consciousness from his reality (history, problems, pains etc.) in order to focus uniquely on his client, without bias.
APPLICATIONS AND STRATEGIES FOR THE COACH
What history and cultures teach us is that being able to focus with no worries is not a problem of our time, only. Reflection is an activity that requires energy and time. As we have seen, however we tackle the problem, there is a risk to fall prey of ourselves. We may believe to know the best. We may unknowingly exert negative influences on our interlocutor. We may fail to concentrate on the present moment because of past events or future worries.
Acknowledging that is already a great start to overcome the issue and if not, at least to keep it in check. There are some strategies for the coach to have a greater experience of reflection and therefore be able to enjoy it at its fullest.
#1 – Collect yourself mindfully before the session. Getting an empty mind is an impossible task, but concentration can be channeled. For example, breathing exercise helps to oxygenate the brain and achieve feeling of clarity and control. Situational awareness can also be trained overtime, playing to narrow visual, acoustic and tactile focus.
#2 – Take your time to collect information and acknowledge capacity. It is proven that our working memory can store in average 5 to 7 objects at once, but they are going to fade if not. The first instinct can be to write down notes compulsively. A better strategy could be to use mnemonics, mental imagery, and memory palaces. Such tools spare you to lose concentration on the moment and are also a great exercise of mindfulness and concentration.
#3 – Focus for 20% on the content and 80% on the context. The latter is more important because it is the reading key of the narrated events and thoughts of your interlocutor. This may sound like a contradiction, but we can jot down mindlessly all the rest and go back to it later for the reflection. Meanwhile, the present conversation and its development are more important.
#4 – Think of reflection as a critical hub between two conversations. Remember to separate your personal impressions on facts (introspective reflection) from their evaluation (retrospective). This way you are going to learn more on yourself and tame your prejudices, in preparation for the next session.
Reflection is a way to find, develop, understand, thus express your best self.– My personal definition of reflection
The ways to avoid normalization are many. Working on self-perception between coaching sessions is effective to not lose concentration during the sessions. It is possible to master focus in a zen-like fashion. If you notice reflection not to be effective anymore, something must change in your M.O.
After all, changes are just a good stimulus for personal growth.
- Allen, B (2014). “Daoism and Chinese Martial Arts”. Springer Science + Business Media Dodrecht.
- Csikszentmihalyi (1990). “Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience”. New York: Harper and Row.
- Cushion (2016). “Reflection and reflective practice discourses in coaching: a critical analysis“. Sport, Education and Society.
- Lee, B.; Little, J (1999). “The Art of Expressing the Human Body”. Translation of Marco Braghieri (2007).
- Plato. “Apology of Socrates”. Translation and notes of Manara Valgimigli (1966). Reviewed by Laterza (2000).
- Plato. “Crito”. Translation and notes of Manara Valgimigli (1966). Reviewed by Laterza (2000).