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Understanding Coaching

As mentioned in my previous post, the deep dive workshop with Lyssa Adkins at the Orlando Gathering was a huge learning experience for me, and so I want to share some of the learning and insights I had in the session. Besides being an agilist, Lyssa is also a Co-Active Coach, and a lot of the skills she taught are professional coaching skills which are also applicable to agile coaches or ScrumMasters.

Objects vs People

The most important learning I took from this sessions is that whatever coaching techniques you are using, none of them will work if you view the people you are coaching as objects rather than people. My first reaction was to think that of course I treat everyone I coach as people. Then Lyssa related an exercise she did of going to work and trying to visualise an ‘o’ or ‘p’ on people’s foreheads which represented whether she treated them as people or as objects, where objects are people you see as problems to be solved, or obstacles to get around. She was surprised at the number of ‘o’s. I started thinking about the people I work with and was suddenly struck that there are a lot of people I treat as objects. Maybe that’s why I haven’t had much success at coaching them.

Levels of Listening

A second skill Lyssa taught was levels of listening. I’ve done a bit of mindfulness meditation and found the different levels easier to understand if I related then to particular mindfulness meditation exercises.

Level 1 is our usual type of listening. We hear what the person is saying be we are actually focused on ourselves. Lyssa describes it as being all about ‘me’. Someone talks and you are thinking about a similar situation in your life or how you would have responded. To me it’s the state you realise you exist in most of the time when you first start meditating.

Level 2 is really listening to the other person, like having a direct connection to them. I relate this to a mindfulness meditation where you focus on sound. You try to quiet all the usual thoughts in your head (which are usually about yourself, and take you back to Level 1), and really focus on what the other person is saying. Interestingly in exercises where you practise this, as with meditation focusing on sound it is often easier to do this with your eyes closed.

Level 3 encompasses level 2, but includes taking everything in your environment into account. If you here a loud bang while the person is talking to you. They heard it too and therefore it could affect what they are saying or how they are feeling. Tuning into these things, including emotions within yourself are all part of level 3 listening. I find this similar to an exercise called choiceless awareness in mindfulness where you try to be completely present and focus on everything that is happening, sounds, sights, physical sensations etc.

As a coach you want to try to practise level 2 or 3 most of the time when you are coaching someone. This means you need to put your own stuff aside and really focus on the person/people you are coaching. Since coming back from Orlando, I’ve tried to be conscious of this and find that I often slip into level 1 even in very personal one on one conversations. But at least I’m noticing and trying to improve. It has also struck me how it is impossible to do level 2 or 3 listening while multitasking. As an ex-program manager with a million things on the go, I often used to read emails or type documents while people were taking to me. I used to think I was good at this, but now I realised I was never really paying enough attention to either activity. I’ve started making a habit of closing my laptop or notebook when I want to focus on listening to people.

Powerful Questions

Another technique Lyssa covered was powerful questions. This is another difficult area to master if you are used to being a project manager and trying to solve everyone’s problems. I realised that I usually ask questions to try and prompt people to get to the conclusion I have already reached which I think is the solution. I’m slowing starting to figure out that as a coach my solution is no longer important. What is important is helping people get to their own solution, which I might never have come up with.

Powerful questions are open ended non directed questions. Sometimes they almost seem unrelated to what’s going on. It can seem kinda silly until you realise that their purpose is to help people generate new ideas, think about things from a different angle or just take a step back and reflect.

My favourite ones are: “What is possible here?”, and “If you had it what would it look like?”. Next time you are in a meeting that is going nowhere and no one can agree what the solution is, try one of these. I have even found them useful to ask myself silently when I’m stuck in a discussion or thought pattern that is going nowhere.

Coaching vs Mentoring

Lyssa also talked about the many different roles of a coach. I’m not going to mention them all, but I found the distinction between coach and mentor interesting. As I understand it, a coach is someone who helps other find their own solutions, a mentor guides people in their understanding of something, for example of agile. I find it interesting to realise that as an agile or Scrum coach I need to fill both of these roles at different times, and that is okay. Sometimes I wonder which I should be doing, and I don’t have a definitive answer yet, but I do find distinguishing the 2 roles for myself is useful. I find that if I first decide if I should be coaching or mentoring the team before taking action, it gives me clearer guidance about how I should be interacting with them, rather than just playing it by ear. If I realise that the team needs mentoring I give them some guidelines about what other agile teams have done in a similar situation. If I realise the team needs coaching, then I try to resist giving them some examples and try to focus on helping them get to their own solution.

In all the deep dive was fantastic, but it made me realise I have a long way to go as a coach


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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Carlo Kruger #

    I had a weird coach vs. mentor moment yesterday. Went from one client where I am very much in mentor mode to another where they’re more accustomed to me as coach. I noticed that one team didn’t have a burn down chart in place and when they replied that the reason for that was that their ScrumMaster was sick, I went into mentor mode. They were quite taken aback, since my tone was inappropriate.
    Was a good learning moment for me.

    April 7, 2010
  2. Karen:

    I just stumbled across this while I was reading about Kanban on your blog and I am thrilled to see what happened for you in the deep-dive agile coach session (and afterward). Sounds like you are on a good road to do exactly what you blog says, “coaching teams to do better scrum.”

    April 15, 2010

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