The Point of Coaching Circles™, By Charles Brassard

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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:

  1. The presentation by the client of his/her issue or challenge
  2. A period of collaborative inquiry designed to help the client apprehend this challenge in new ways
  3. Solo time to reflect on what was learned from the exploration
  4. 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

The challenge

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.

The reflection

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."

The voicing

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.

Building momentum

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.

This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide ( 2008, Volume 4, Issue 3). Copyright © 2011 WABC Coaches Inc. All rights reserved.
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Charles Brassard is a certified professional integral coach, teacher and executive development consultant. His most recently published contributions include book chapters in The Future of Executive Development, (Executive Development Associates, 2005), Leading Organizational Learning (Jossey-Bass, 2004) and Action Learning Worldwide (Palgrave, 2002). For more information go to www.impactcoaching.ca. Contact Charles.
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Don’t Leave Them Standing in an Empty Room

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By Trudy Triner

As all corporate trainers know, there are very few leadership training activities that have an absolutely predictable outcome. But as I traveled around the world for a large Boston-based training and consulting organization, there was one activity that did. I referred to this activity as a "thrilling" experience as I introduced it to groups in France, Mexico, Hong Kong, and Hawaii. In truth, it was probably more thrilling for me to watch than for them to participate. But the learning was always profound, if sometimes frustrating and even a tad annoying.

Here's the activity. A class is divided into two groups: one is Management, the other is Staff. They are told that, working together, they must solve a physical challenge. That challenge requires Staff to complete a series of physical moves with their bodies, much like a Chinese checkers game. However, only Management is given complete instructions for the task. The two teams are in separate rooms. Only one person from Management can enter Staff's room at a time. And the activity begins.

Here's what happens time and time again. Management works diligently to solve the problem on paper in their room. They sweat. They try options. They even try moving pieces of paper or sugar packets or pencils to represent the Staff. Meanwhile Staff members wait and wait and wait. They begin to conclude that Management is trying to trick them or make fools of them. As time goes on, they begin to get angry. They disengage. Some start to read the newspaper. Others plot revenge and vow to do nothing Management asks. When a Management person finally appears, they usually have paper and pencil in hand, scribble a few notes, totally focus on the task, ignoring the people, and retreat to share their findings with their Management team as they continue to struggle to solve the problem. And so it goes, most often until the allocated time expires. The problem remains unsolved. Staff is frustrated and sometimes angry. The debrief is rich, but often emotion-laden. "Why did you treat us so badly?" Staff will ask. "We were just busy trying to solve the problem," Management says – truly surprised, and somewhat hurt, that their efforts weren't more appreciated.

The secret to success in this exercise, which is almost never discovered, is for Management simply to explain the problem to the Staff and ask for their help in solving it. Staff members become intrigued. They become engaged. They try alternative moves with their bodies and within a few minutes, they solve the problem. They are proud. Management is impressed and relieved. Everyone wins. And it almost never, ever happens!

I was reminded of this activity and its vivid demonstration of the futility of management trying to solve important problems without engaging staff when our Senior Leadership team asked for a training program that would help managers understand the need to engage employees in solving some of the most important challenges in our health-care organization. They wisely understood that without that engagement, it would be very difficult to meet the challenges in store for health care in the coming years.

We partnered with Richard Axelrod, co-author of You Don't Have to Do It Alone: How to Involve Others to Get Things Done, and designed a half-day program for our 650 leaders, managers, and supervisors. We called the program, Engaging Staff to Lead, believing that the ideal was to have staff become so involved, they actually led the improvement effort themselves. And it worked. We saw dramatic improvements in service scores and other important metrics.

After the training effort, the coaching and reinforcement began. During coaching sessions with managers who might be having trouble with staff engagement, I asked them, "How are you learning what's important to your staff?" "How are you supporting them in reaching their goals?" "What do you do to demonstrate your understanding of the world from their point of view?" "How are you demonstrating your appreciation for their efforts?" "Are you providing as much feedback as they feel they deserve?" And, "Are you providing a motivating challenge and empowering them to solve their own problems?"

A light bulb often goes off as managers answer these questions because these are the types of management behaviors that lead to staff engagement. I love those forehead-slapping moments when they realize they've neglected one or more of those elements of engagement. And they love walking away with a plan to engage their staff more fully and avoid all the negative ramifications of leaving staff standing in a room waiting for management to solve all the problems in another room. That is truly a lose-lose situation to be avoided at all cost.

This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide (October Issue 2010, Volume 6, Issue 3). Copyright © 2013 WABC Coaches Inc. All rights reserved.


Axelrod, R. H., Axelrod, E. M., Beedon, J., and Jacobs, R. W. 2004. You Don't Have to Do It Alone: How to Involve Others to Get Things Done. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishing.
trudy-trinerTrudy Triner is a writer, speaker, and leadership consultant who has helped people be more successful in their work for over 25 years. She is also the author of a popular blog and a soon to be published book, Make Mom Happy By Mail, which encourages us all to connect with our parents in a meaningful way while the fleeting window of opportunity to do so is still open.
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Being Grateful – An Essential Perspective of Any Practitioner Researcher, by Dr. Annette Fillery-Travis

By Dr. Annette Fillery-Travis

So far in these columns we have discussed mainly methodological issues in research such as identifying your own perspective and engaging your community. While musing this week on where to go next, I found myself faced with a number of my own research challenges and realized that all of them revolved around research ethics. So I thought it was high time we opened up that can of worms!

As practitioners, we all aspire to work ethically with our clients. We make ourselves aware of codes of ethics and breathe a sigh of relief that we have a clear framework to steer us out of some of coaching's trickier situations! So, as practitioner researchers, is that enough or do we need a separate ethical framework specific to research?

After all, we do a number of similar things as researchers and as coaches—we uncover an individual's truth through question and challenge, explore meaning through analysis and synthesis, and may even experiment with new behaviors and design alternatives. In short, the initial stages of most coaching models mirror those of the research cycle, and the skills the coach and researcher bring to interventions are very similar. Surely we can use the same ethical framework for research as for coaching!

The answer to my mind is no—we need to go further for a number of reasons. The main one is the care of your participants. When you undertake any research, you are hoping that your participants will give you their time and engagement to provide you with their perspectives, thoughts, and feelings on the research topic. In return, they get the opportunity to have their voice heard. That's it! Nothing more.

So the balance of "gifts" between researcher and participants is rather one-sided. You are getting a wealth of information and knowledge from your participants; they are giving you their hopes, considerations, and reflections. They are prompting your thinking, shining a light on issues hitherto uncovered, and generally exposing their opinions/thoughts/feelings to your scrutiny and trusting you with it all. Your participants are going to provide you with the building blocks of the entire study. You are simply asking the questions. As a researcher I am left feeling profoundly grateful!

I owe my participants a debt: to take care of what they have given me and what I do with it. I need to make sure that it is kept secure and, when reporting my study, I need to keep my participants' safety uppermost in my mind. It is not just putting a tick in a box, but a sincere undertaking that acknowledges the debt of gratitude I owe to my participants, placing the burden of care squarely on my shoulders as the researcher.

Poorly run practitioner research can have devastating effects if we do not keep to a tight ethical framework. One veterinary surgeon I knew, interested in the development of diagnostic skills in young practitioners, designed an inquiry that would have resulted in his sharing his opinion of the skills of a small group of four vets with their boss. It would have been interesting to see who would have been the first vet to sue after being dismissed from their post. A quick rugby tackle by his research supervisor (me!) stopped that design going live, but it threw light on how ethical dilemmas emerge as soon as we start looking.

But it is not all bad news—there is a range of research ethical codes available from the major professional bodies. Best practice, such as a clear contract between you and your participants at the beginning, is also out there in the many books on research practice. But we also need to develop good internal ethical awareness, as no standardized code will cover all eventualities.

One rule of thumb that helps inform me is to consider the information given by a participant (in whatever form) as remaining their property. It is not something the researcher can use as he or she sees fit, but is, instead, a prized possession such as a work of art. An artist remains the spiritual owner of his/her art and the collector simply a custodian of the work. Its value comes from who created it. In a similar way, the participants continue to "own" their data and must give their permission for whatever happens to it. This will mean that we need to check back with our participants to ensure that we are correct in what we have heard from them, that they are amenable to their information being included, and that they give us explicit permission when we want to use quotes from them—even when these are unattributed.

This stance also stops us "giving" our data away to others, even fellow researchers, and this is not a bad thing. Data is bespoke to the study within which it was collected—a product of the question, design, methodology, and instrument used. Rarely is it transferable in its raw form. The outputs of the data analysis can be transferable and of general use, but not the raw data itself.

So keep ethically aware and you are not only taking your participants' gifts to you seriously, but you are taking your own research and work seriously!

Worth a Look

The British Psychological Society code of research ethics.

This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide (June Issue 2009, Volume 5, Issue 2). Copyright © 2012 WABC Coaches Inc. All rights reserved.

If you wish to reproduce this article in any material form, you must first contact WABC for permission.

Stuck in a Career Rut? Maybe It’s Your Learning Style That Is to Blame!

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By Devon Scheef & Diane Thielfoldt

Pop Quiz! Read the scenario below and choose your most likely response:

You buy an appliance and you're not sure how to install it. Unfortunately no one is available to install it for you, so you must do it yourself. What do you do first?

  • 1. Call a friend.
  • 2. Read the instruction manual.
  • 3. Plunge ahead!

If we asked ten people this question, not everyone would answer the same. That's because, when confronted with an unfamiliar circumstance, each person's first inclination is different, as well as their second or third:

  • Some of us reach out to a person who might have experience—people learners;
  • Some of us crack the shrink wrap on the manual and dive into it—information learners; and
  • Others of us grab the tools and get started—action learners.

While many of us would eventually try another approach if our first choice didn't work, the truth is that most of us are happily ensconced in a comfort zone of learning. We've got our 'go-to' choice, which has worked well for us over the years.

Each of the three learning approaches has merit and relevance. But, when overused, that approach may no longer serve us. It can become an unconscious habit that blocks us from more effective learning, like a catchy song that gets stuck in our heads whether we like it or not. And as our life and work challenges become more complicated and nuanced, the need to flex our learning style is critical. But because we're not aware we are in a rut, we continue trying more of the same andgetting more of the same.

Nowhere is this truer than in career management. We embark, making all the right moves with the best of intentions. Until one day it happens: we run into a wall that we can't get over, around, or through. We're stuck—and we don't know why our career progress has stalled. It is possible that, at this moment, your familiar learning habits are to blame.

We are strongest at solving problems and meeting challenges when we engage with all three learning styles. Each learning style contains a critical element of a solution. In more detail, here are the three "comfort zones" of learning—each highly effective, but each limiting when it is the only approach in our repertoire.

People Learning

People Learning gets results by using others' experience as a shortcut to learning. People learners often seek out best practices, glean insights from others, and learn fastest when they can discuss, brainstorm, and collaborate with others.

Career Challenge: You manage a team of Six Sigma black belts, who support improvement initiatives throughout your organization. You've been in this role for about three years, and you recently applied for internal promotions, with no success. You prefer People Learning.

How People Learning Is Helping You

You probably seek career advice from others, trying to learn why you haven't been promoted. When you apply for internal promotions, you probably leverage your internal networks as references and sources of information about the role so you can make the strongest possible application.

What's Missing?

Information Learning—Carefully study the job description, rewriting your résumé to highlight your relevant expertise.

Action Learning—Since you can't do the job until you get it, provide examples to interviewers of your action plan for the first 30 days.

Information Learning

Information Learning is the ability to observe, synthesize, and analyze situations, facts, and data. Information learners are skilled observers—the stereotype of information learners glued to Google or with their nose in a manual just isn't true.

Career Challenge: As part of a high-potential rotational program, you've been asked to implement your company's new SAP processes in your department. You're going to do this by holding a training session for the department. The session has a lot of visibility; your manager tells you that this is a "career-making" opportunity. You prefer Information Learning.

How Information Learning Is Helping You

No one is more organized, structured, or diligent about the SAP implementation details than you. You're certain of the process steps. You have complete documentation and training manuals customized for each member of your department.

What's Missing?

People Learning—Reaching out to other people who have implemented SAP in their departments to see what they've learned that could help you be most effective. What barriers or challenges did they face in the training?

Action Learning—A trial run or practice session with a key member or two of your department, using that feedback to fine-tune your training.

Action Learning

Action Learning uses experience and results to gauge effectiveness, and engages in step-and-repeat learning,proving true the motto, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."

Career Challenge: You're the national account sales manager for a large office equipment manufacturer. You've been told you have a bright future because of your can-do attitude and action orientation, but that you need to "be more strategic" in order to be promoted to an executive role. You have your eye on the VP Sales role. You prefer Action Learning.

How Action Learning Is Helping You

Just do it! That's your motto. You've willingly jumped into high-risk client situations and helped your company emerge a winner. You'll pick up the phone, badger corporate for the resources your clients need, put your feet on the street with your sales reps, and try new selling approaches.

What's Missing?

People Learning—Connect with and interview the VP of Sales, other executives in your organization and in other like companies. What did they learn about the jump from field sales manager to corporate executive leader? What advice would they give you, especially about the strategic aspect of the role?

Information Learning—Locate your company's executive leadership competencies; how does your experience match with those? How does your company define "strategic"? To be seen as more strategic, subscribe to sales and industry publications. Be alert to trends and industry impacts and how they affect your company.

Now What?

Now, with some insight into the three personal learning approaches and knowledge of your particular 'go-to' style, you can expand your learning style to include some of the other approaches. When faced with a new career challenge, try all three learning approaches for maximum effectiveness and to get unstuck—fast!

This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide (June Issue 2009, Volume 5, Issue 2). Copyright © 2012 WABC Coaches Inc. All rights reserved.

Devon Scheef is co-founder of The Learning Caféand President of Scheef Organization Development & Training, Inc. She is a frequent speaker and co-author ofMentoring: A How-To Guide published by the American Society for Training & Development and The Personal Learning Model. Contact Devon

Diane Thielfoldt is a learning strategist and co-founder of The Learning Café, which partners with clients to create custom learning solutions that produce business results and support personal growth. Diane's corporate career encompassed leadership roles with McGraw-Hill, TRW, Bausch & Lomb, and Xerox in sales, marketing, communications, and learning design, development and delivery. Contact Diane.
If you wish to reproduce this article in any material form, you must first contact WABC for permission.