The hallmark of exceptional coaching is the ability to commit and stay true to a "leading from behind" approach. More than a set of skills, it's a way of being with another person that expresses deep respect and invites thought partnering. Leading from behind evokes a deeper awareness of "what is," a clearer vision of "what could be," and a plan for change that is owned and operated by the coachee.
Being out in front, telling and selling a coachee on "doing this, not that," is advising. At times, we all encounter steep learning curves and sticky situations in our lives, when taking direction without question from a bone fide expert is, well, advisable. As we age, however, we learn to trust our intuition and lean on our own experiences. We filter the expertise of others through our own wisdom, such as it is. Therefore, expect your advice-giving to be verbally appreciated, but rarely implemented.
Walking alongside a coachee is preferable, but from that position, the focus often slip-slides from their experience to yours. Statements and stories that begin with "here's what" signal your morph into mentoring. Indulging in "here's what I know...here's what I've discovered...here's what I did..." diatribes make us feel purposeful, believing that our path can light the way for another. At times, mentoring is precisely the right support to offer, but the persistent projecting of our past learnings onto a coachee's current scenario is less helpful than we like to imagine.
Leading from behind is the place to be and stay as a coach. Asking questions from a spirit of curiosity, and listening with a desire to learn can place you in this power position, from which you empower the coachee's awareness, creativity, and change. Here's the challenge, coach: how do you stay behind as the conversation continues and your inner problem solver kicks into gear?
Here's my advice: Become an observer and reporter of the irrational. Listen for and call your coachee's attention, with respect, to what does not compute. When the dots don't connect, stay with the confusion. The illogical, unreasonable, groundless, baseless, and unfounded statements and assertions coachees make are clues to how and why they are stuck, and may hold the key to getting unstuck.
Perhaps I can mentor you with a recent experience of my own. I am coaching a professionally successful 40-something family man who is confronting his aversion to social situations and casual conversations. Unless people explicitly focus on him, invite him to speak, and look interested in him as he does, he stays silent or avoids the group scene entirely. It's holding him back from making new friends, and shrinking his network at work. He's ready to change his wallflower ways, but his resistance is mighty:
"I'd rather skip the whole thing than ever experience rejection or failure," he declared. "I don't know how to get and hold people's attention. They aren't interested in what I care about, anyway."
"What subjects do you care about?" I asked.
"What about golf?"
"It's so much fun. I am no better than I was 20 years ago, but that doesn't matter. Every time I play, I get eighteen chances to try again, fresh, no matter how badly I botched the last round. I take the good with the bad, and the bad doesn't bother me for long. It's like I'm a different person out there."
"Confident. Not afraid of failure. Excited to experiment with new techniques and approaches. Not beating myself up if they don't work. Funny thing is, I'm not self-conscious at all with whomever I happen to be playing with, even when I make a total fool of myself."
"I'm confused," I confessed. "I get it that for you, golf is a fun game and having a conversation is hard work, but I don't get how all of your perfectionistic and risk-aversive ways magically disappear on the golf course. You are describing a completely different person than the guy who rarely shows up at social gatherings, and when he does, expects his wife to carry the conversational ball. It's not just that you behave differently on the golf course, you are describing a person with a very different set of beliefs about himself."
I was about to ask him how he manages his typical internal chatter about looking good and getting it right when he interrupted me, excited, and said, "Wow, I need to bring that golf guy to the party."
Trust me when I tell you that my "a-ha" happened as he said "Wow"--and not a moment before. My mind could not make sense of his two very different selves. It wasn't logical that he could be and feel so very different in two situations that, to me, carry relatively the same potential for embarrassment and frustration. By describing the disconnect I heard and admitting my confusion, he got clarity--a more complete and positive view of himself that he can leverage to reach his goal.
I'll admit that I was preparing to take my coachee down a different road early on--a road of developing stories about his favorite subjects, which he could perfect and then deliver with confidence. We might pursue that in future sessions, but I suspect that "golf guy" doesn't need coaching, mentoring, or advising on his storytelling skills. Our work is to bring what he already knows and does on the golf green to the get-togethers on his neighbor's lawn.
As coaches, we believe that people have their own best answers. Those answers are often hidden in plain sight, exposed by our willingness to follow closely the thread of our coachee's story, and to wonder with them when things don't add up. When I reflect on the times that a coachee has said to me, "That's a really great question," it has always been a "lead from behind" question, usually sourced from my confusion. I encourage you to celebrate your coaching moments of confusion as tools for transformation!