In a coach training class, I’d just finished a coaching demo with one of the students who was talking about what he wanted to happen over the next three years. At one point I asked, “What about right here, right now, what’s the next step for you?” I could see he was a visionary and was good at the future thinking. It was here in the present he needed a little extra nudge, and that’s what that question did.
During the debrief, someone asked how I knew which question would get to the heart of the matter. Several students were nodding and had the same question.
I started giving my usual answers, along the lines of there is no right answer, there are multiple ways to get there, etc. All of a sudden, the “client” from the coaching demo spoke up, saying, “He just engaged me in the conversation—I’M the one that got to the heart of the matter, because of the thinking he made do.”
I love that it was a student who voiced this epiphany. And I love how I saw the other students take a deep breath. The pressure was off. As coaches, while we still must listen and ask questions that get people to think, the responsibility to get to the heart of the matter is not ours; it’s the client’s.
New coaches tend to take responsibility for things that aren’t theirs. In every other leadership, mentorship, or supervisory role they’ve had in their professional career, they have been responsible for the other person’s breakthrough, and for whatever’s going to happen.
At its essence, coaching is about helping people take responsibility for their own stuff. It’s about saying to the client, “You’ve got this, what do you want to do with it?”
That’s one of the things that makes coaching unique. It’s not about the professional coming in to save the day, or to fix things; it’s about we enable and empower the other person to do that. Our role is not to tell them what to do or to solve problems for them; our role is really to help them to think and process.
So it’s not my responsibility to get to the heart of the matter, but it is my responsibility to learn that person—how they think, how they process, how they make decisions. That informs the types of questions I ask, and the conversations I engage them in.
It may sound like that process could take a long time, to learn all those things about a person, yet that coaching demo was the first time I’d coached this person. This is the craft of coaching, to be able to learn those things right away. One question that can get to that learning very quickly is, “Okay, what more do I need to know about you, and how you’ve addressed this in the past?”
It’s one of our guiding principles to coach the person, not the problem. That includes helping them define what is the heart of the matter.