Understanding our default drive
In our quest for speed and quick fixes, most of us have been conditioned to deliver solutions and answers that produce the most immediate results. In this light, coaching is often seen as a luxury in our hectic life because it generally entails interrupting the flow of transactions and slowing our pace. This is the pace, however, that allows us to notice other human beings in the fullness of their lives, not as mere robots on the assembly line.
When we understand that each one of us encounters reality in our own unique way, we begin to appreciate the kind of care and attention needed to help others break through their limiting beliefs, unproductive behaviors or frustrated wishes to become more effective and fulfilled at what they do. While solutions from the past may sometimes work for dealing with "technical problems," they rarely work for the leadership challenges people face, because these are invariably rooted in relationship issues (i.e., how effectively we coordinate our actions with others) for which there is always myriad possible answers.
Building new muscles
Coaching can play a critical role in our development by challenging our usual way of seeing and doing things and helping us to expand our field of vision. It helps us to develop our ability to apprehend what life presents in creative and authentic ways through greater awareness, discernment and practice. Imagine if you had five trusted coaches at your service to help you tackle your most critical leadership challenges.
This is what Coaching Circles can offer. They powerfully marry the principles and practices of action learning (pioneered by Reg Revans) and those of integral coaching (pioneered by James Flaherty) to create a learning environment rich in compassion and self-discovery. More to the point, Coaching Circles achieve a dual purpose: they help people take concrete actions to support their goals in the organization and they hone the coaching skills they need to express their leadership voice more fully.
How Coaching Circles work
Coaching Circles are typically composed of a small group of five or six people who meet every six to eight weeks. During these meetings, each person successively uses his/her own "airtime" (i.e., a period of 40-60 minutes) to present issues or challenges and to receive coaching from the rest of the group. In its simplest form, there are typically four elements to each airtime:
- The presentation by the client of his/her issue or challenge
- A period of collaborative inquiry designed to help the client apprehend this challenge in new ways
- Solo time to reflect on what was learned from the exploration
- A period during which each member voices his/her insights and where the client highlights what has shifted in his/her perspective and what he/she intends to do next
Clients bring to the Coaching Circle a dilemma or challenge they have struggled with for a while or one that represents a new opportunity for them. It has to be personally meaningful and they must have some accountability over the outcome. While there may be many "moving parts" to this challenge (and this constitutes the overall context for coaching), the client presenting the challenge will generally focus his/her interest on the element most pressing or most baffling at the time. The client speaks openly and precisely (i.e., with examples) about what he/she is facing and articulates a clear request for coaching to peers in the circle so that the inquiry can focus on what matters most to the client.
The collaborative inquiry
This is where the habitual reflex to solve problems is really put to the test. Asking questions to stimulate exploration and inquiry rather than to elicit precise answers is counterintuitive to most people. Yet this is what produces the most breakthroughs in Coaching Circles. In this element of the process, circle members use the client's request as a starting point to ask insightful questions. What is insightful about questions is their ability to disturb and confront the client with a possible new reality.
Each thread of questions has the potential to awaken a new perspective or to shed some light on a hidden assumption or unseen possibility. This way of inquiring demands that people pay attention to the complete human being at the core of the presented issue and to truly believe in his/her creative potential. The group's questions become catalysts for action, not through "expert advice," but through a discovery process that leaves full accountability and ownership in the way forward to the client.
This practice in Coaching Circles allows everyone to make sense of what just happened in the context of their own realities. We realize in this "breathing space" that the struggles of our peers sometimes mirror our own. Similarly, their insights can spur our own thinking and our own breakthroughs. The skill of reflecting involves stopping long enough to connect our mind to our heart and to our body, to sense our experience fully rather than automatically judging things based on what we "know."
During this last phase of the airtime, circle members share the outcome of their reflection, by focusing either on the "content" of the inquiry or the process, or both. They focus on what is meaningful to their own experience and refrain from discharging their last brilliant piece of advice to "rescue" the client.
For the client, this is an opportunity to provide feedback to peers about their contributions and to make explicit and public commitments for future actions in the context of the leadership challenge presented. This becomes a point of departure for his/her next time as a client when the circle meets again.
This coaching process gains momentum during the successive airtimes that make up the full experience. When supported by a learning coach, the group usually builds their coaching capacity more quickly and becomes more adept at translating their insights and their skills back on the job. The learning coach can also gradually introduce themes and distinctions every time the circle meets to enrich the learning process. Over time, Coaching Circles can become a very powerful community of practice driven by a practical curiosity, a love of inquiry and a deep care for the success of others. The group also learns to function effectively on its own and becomes able to self-regulate, to self-correct and to learn on a continuous basis.
Coaching Circles can take many inventive forms. As such they play a powerful role in the development agenda of executive teams or as an integral part of the leadership programs they sponsor. They help to build a greater capacity for listening, questioning, dialogue and feedback in the workplace and create a momentum for action and learning well beyond the formal boundaries of the development initiatives that bring people together.