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 minds.
But coaching time is also a learning opportunity, for both sides. For the coachee, it means finding a way to engage in meaningful actions, that will move him closer to his own goal, or at least provide more clarity on the 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 thinking ahead, or they naturally like to predict the development of the conversation, but for the coach, it means developing 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 get out of trouble. In a way, they may be outsourcing focus and mindfulness to the coach.
Here, a few questions that a coach should ask 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 more to find some balance for the coach that is deeply involved in the relationship, thus avoiding the development of further bias. By provoking awareness of 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 DOES “NORMALIZATION” MEAN?
When we are accustomed to doing something in a certain manner, we are unlikely to alter our course of action 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 a symptom of fix mindset to let a method become 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 a state. The inferent problem is that soon we grow confirmation biases that do not allow us to make an 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 from 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 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 others, or because they can prove it through dialectics.
Famous are his words: “I know that I do not know”: for Socrates, putting our 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 the 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 sharpen and master skills. However, not everyone reflects on such experiences and challenges them. On the contrary, empirical knowledge can also be reassured through this process: so, the fixed mindset. Assuming that reflection is a natural process not depending on our own history is giving a fertile soil for our prejudices to grow.
Recent studies about coaching consider that. In the coaching dyad, the coach is assumed to be “the knowledgeable one” because he is leading the conversation. In this perspective, a coach that uses reflection wrongly risks influencing and altering 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”, which is when we are vigilant both on ourselves and on the surroundings at the same level. We can think of it as mindfulness with situational awareness. With complete control over 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 to 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 keeping it in check. There are some strategies for the coach to have a greater experience of reflection and therefore be able to enjoy it to 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 the feeling of clarity and control. Situational awareness can also be trained over time, 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 on 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 for 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 of facts (introspective reflection) from their evaluation (retrospective). This way you are going to learn more about 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 in not losing 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).