When athletes are getting ready to run their race and achieve the best they can, we see them prepare. They know the importance of being ‘in the zone’. They prepare physically, warming up, loosening their muscles, stretching. They prepare mentally, seeing the finishing line, imagining themselves being relaxed and calm. Isn’t it interesting to contrast what happens in most organisations. To what extent are managers preparing mentally to be at their best in important meetings?
And what about coaching meetings? What can coaches do to be at their best? And what about the coachees? Can coaches do anything to help their coachees be at their best in the meetings? We all know that it will help the coachee to be in a good state to find the resources they’ll need to achieve their potential. So what can coaches do to help?
In the World of Sports
Let’s first remind ourselves about what has been learned about coaching in the high performance world of sport. Tim Gallwey, author of books on the ‘Inner Game’, says that: Performance = Potential less Interference. In a sports context, he noticed that when sports coaches gave instructions (eg ‘hit the ball like this’), it tended to raise anxiety levels and take away enjoyment. This heightened the level of interference and thereby reduced performance rather than raise it. To reduce interference we need to get in the zone and the key ingredients to do this are:
- Creating a quiet confidence that leaves no room for self doubt
- Generating the presence of something bigger than the inner fear
- Being in a relaxed state that creates the sense of ‘no effort’
Fundamental to the inner game is our ability to stay in a high performance state when confronted with difficult circumstances.
In the World of Work
Robert Dilts, one of the early pioneers in NLP coaching, takes this concept of interference further and applies similar thinking to the coaching setup. He emphasises that, in order to perform, we need to prepare somatically as well as cognitively. In other words we need to get our body prepared as well as our mind. Einstein said ‘you can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that’s created it!’ And if our body is in an anxious place, our mind will be too.
As coaches, one of our biggest challenges is that our coachees often turn up in a limiting state that’s not conducive to finding the resources to deal with their issue. They might be feeling desperate, angry or trying to prove that their view of the world is true. Not in a great place to be open to seeing the potential for change! Ideally the coaching discussion should be a generative exploration, rather than a discussion that either goes around in circles or confirms any sense of hopelessness.
The challenge for the coach is to find the best of the coachee so the discussion is productive.
A Process for Creating the Coaching Climate
Dilts describes the optimal state that’s needed in a coaching context using the following acronym:
O – Open
A – Aware
C – Connected
H – Holding
Coach and coachee will both benefit from being centred. The “centre” refers to a relaxed yet focused state of being. Being centred is especially helpful in the midst of strong emotional states such as excitement or anxiety, and is often used by athletes, public speakers, actors, and anyone who wants to feel stable and prepared before a potentially stressful event. Anything that helps you feel calm and aware can help. Noticing how you feel in the chair….whether there are any tensions…..loosening them out.
It will also help to take a few moments to breathe slowly and feel some strength in your core (as practised in yoga or pilates). The coach can help sustain this state by continuing to breathe deeply during the meeting. This will encourage the coachee to do the same, even during the discussion about the current, potentially difficult, situation they are in. Other helpful states for the coach and coachee to adopt include:
- Slowing down – this will help enhance awareness of thoughts and feelings
- Pausing – to strengthen the state of being connected, to the issues and to each other
- Being relaxed – to hold the issues being discussed
Both coach and coachee ideally need to create this state and the state should exist between the two so there is a feeling of connection. Dilts calls the space in which the coaching is taking place the ‘coaching container’. He recommends a rigorous process for creating a contract for coaching, including both parties making commitments to each other and the coachee scoring out of 10 where they are on each of the aspects of the C.O.A.C.H state. If any of the scores are low, the coach might ask ‘What would you need to do to move the score higher…?’ Another helpful coaching intervention to strengthen a more positive state might be to ask ‘What becomes possible for you with a higher sense of, say, openness?’
One of the roles of the coach is to create and protect this more positive, generative state. By doing this, the coachee will be at their best and the coaching channel will be open, thereby increasing the chances of the coachee finding the resources they need.
Dilts points out that even if the coach pays no conscious attention to this set up, there is a set up, a sense of rapport and connection. And the coaching meeting might go well. But it will be down to luck. If you want more of your coaching sessions to go well, it will help to think about the set up and create a positive coaching container. Until, of course, you become unconsciously competent and the skill goes into your muscle – just like a high performance sports star!