Founder & Managing Director Matt Somers - Coaching Skills Training Ltd
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Coaching: the ‘common sense’ approach to framing your thinking

Coaching is so often about reframing your thinking, but what if the answer to your problems is already staring you in the face? Here, I analyse some of the old advice given by my mum’s generation to see how much truth modern coaches can extract from them.

7th Oct 2020
Founder & Managing Director Matt Somers - Coaching Skills Training Ltd
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Rearview shot of a senior woman bonding and spending time with her adult daughter at the beach
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My Mum was born in the mid 1930s and, like many of her generation, lived her life in accordance with any number of sayings and mottos that she felt provided a way to navigate through what was at times a difficult life. It amuses me to see how many of her sayings pop up now from time to time but in the guise of apparently highly original, leading edge thinking.

Living through the unprecedented times we do now, it’s tempting to believe that there’s nothing in our past experience that we can adapt to serve us now, but perhaps there is.

Take the recent controversy here in the UK about how best to handle the obesity epidemic, particularly in light of links with Covid-19 problems. It is now widely accepted that diets which exclude certain food groups – typically carbohydrates – are unwise and that it is the amount of these food groups, and portion sizes generally that are the problem. Well, my mum had this covered whenever she’d announce, “all things in moderation”.

I also read that denying yourself the occasional treat whilst dieting could be counter-productive because it felt like a punishment and made the diet harder to sustain. My mum always said, “a little of what you fancy does you good”.

I’ve found that mum was ahead of the game in the coaching world too and that many of the coaching principles I hold most dear were well established in her mind long before we’d even popularised the idea of coaching. I’ll give you three of the key examples here.

‘You can only do your best’

When I teach leaders to coach, I encourage them to recognise that there are really three types of goal or aim that individuals ought to think through in order to improve the odds of getting what they want:

  • Dreams – why? (the inspiration)
  • Performance goals – what? (the specification)
  • Processes – how? (the mechanism)

Whilst we need a dream or a reason why to inspire us, it may not be the best thing to focus on or have front of mind day by day. This is because it is not in our sphere of control. I might dream of one day finishing first in my local Park Run but I can’t legislate for what the dozens of other runners are going to do.

I’m better of taking that dream and creating a performance goal such as ‘achieve an average pace of four minutes per kilometre’. This is down to me and me alone and what my mum would have had in mind whenever she reminded me, “you can only do your best”.

future L&D leaders hub link

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again

At the risk of being a bit contrary, this was a big lesson for me, because here I think she was wrong.

Our intuition tells us that trying is a good thing, it’s about resilience and determination. My long experience as a coach, however, has taught me that it simply doesn’t work. Trying really hard is a poor way of changing anything. Trying requires effort and effort produces tension, and tension tend to work against the relaxed concentration that we really do need to make a lasting change. It all ends up being self-defeating, like an insomniac trying to get to sleep.

We might be able to conduct an experiment as you read this. Please follow these instructions:

  • Pick up your phone (or a pen or something)
  • This time, do not pick it up
  • Next, try to pick it up

No, don’t actually pick it up – that was the first instruction – just try.

If this has worked you should have discovered that trying turns out to be a lot more like not doing than doing! The antidote to the problems of trying is awareness. Simply becoming more aware of what’s causing habitual behaviour tends to mean we can change it more easily.

For example, I often work with public speakers who know that they use too many filler words or phrases, such as ‘you know’, ‘basically’, ‘obviously’, and so on, but trying to eliminate them tends to fail. If I free the speaker from that pressure, however, and ask them instead to just count how often they use the word or phrase, it stops happening. You see, being calm and aware enough to count enables them to notice in time to stop.

As the Gestalt psychologist Fritz Perls once remarked: “Trying fails. Awareness cures”. Although my Mum would probably have convinced him he was wrong!

There’s no such thing as failure

Last week I had a troubling coaching session with an individual facing redundancy. “You see Matt,”’ my client explained, “if I lose my job I’ll have failed”.

Now, as you might expect, my first response to this was to point out that in 2020, with Covid-19, the lockdowns and everything else that’s been going on, losing one’s job was likely anything other than the individual’s own fault. Even in the good times, however, equating losing a job with failure would be unhelpful at best, and quite damaging at worst.

Failure is a value judgment we choose to make (or not) on a set of circumstances. There is no objective definition of failure (or success by the same token) it is purely subjective. Going back to my Saturday Park Run, if I finish in my lowest ever position but with my fastest ever time, have I succeeded or failed? It’s a nonsense question isn’t it? The answer depends entirely on how I choose to interpret the outcome.

It’s the same at work too. If I make ten outbound sales calls and don’t secure one appointment I may feel I’ve failed, but if those ten calls reveal a flaw in our approach and I use that feedback to transform our approach next month, well maybe that was one of my greatest successes.

So when my Mum was saying, “there’s no such thing as failure,” in no way was she suggesting that people always get the results they intend. Instead, she meant that we don’t have to label outcomes we don’t want as failures. We can choose to interpret them differently – it’s up to us.

Living through the unprecedented times we do now, it’s tempting to believe that there’s nothing in our past experience that we can adapt to serve us now, but perhaps there is. After all, as my old mum would have said, “there’s nowt new in all the world!”

Interested in this topic? Read Coaching: three powerful questions to challenge your learners.

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