“And What Else?”

This semester I am taking Intro to Organizational Business Coaching taught by instructor John Schaffner (“Coaching”, for short). This is the second time I’ve had  Mr. Schaffner and he is authentic, relatable, insightful, and brings a sense of humor to the classroom – with just the right amount of snark sprinkled in. I thought I would give the world a taste of just that in this interview with the man himself.

John Schaffner, everybody.

Jen: Okay, what exactly is coaching?

Schaffner: Coaching—and this is the definition we use in class—is taking a very important person from where they are to where they want to be. It is oriented around this idea of the “ideal self,” and is predicated on the belief that the person you are coaching has all the answers within them. A coach is both someone who co-creates a relationship to an ideal goal and is a thought partner for the person they are coaching.

Jen: And why is coaching important in organizations today?

Schaffner: Well, my research really talks about the headwinds of VUCA—Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. And I think in a lot of organizations where coaching is prevalent—Google, for instance, has a Director of Coaching—it is because the issues that the folks at these organizations have to deal with involve paradoxes.

Related to that, in class we discuss the difference between a puzzle, which has a finite amount of pieces arranged to form one solution… a problem which can have a myriad of viable solutions—think work-life balance. Problems have a multiplicity of solutions while a puzzle does not. And finally… the idea of a dilemma, which is a problem that isn’t really solvable—world hunger and racism are gnarly problems that we can’t seem to figure out, at least not in the way that we’re thinking about them. All of these exist in the workplace, and coaching can help us begin to tease apart some of these issues that are roadblocks to our goals.

Jen: What are the three most important qualities of a good coach?

Schaffner: Oh, three most important? So we’re in this like “top 10” list world right now, aren’t we?

(Jen laughs)

Schaffner: Well, I would say compassion. Compassion is empathy in action. I can feel bad for you, or I can ask you about how you’re feeling and truly listen and explore that with you. Compassion is elemental to being a good coach.

Then there’s listening—listening is fundamental and it’s something that we struggle with these days. There are more distractions these days that inhibit our listening than there are augmentations. The digital world, the internet– are things that preclude us from listening as well as we should or could.

And, I also think there has to be a sort of core curiosity and desire to help if you’re going to coach. Curiosity helps you guide the individual to think around the problem in ways they haven’t before. The motivation to help is part of this new world of coaching which is oriented around compassion, compared to coaching for compliance. Example—imagine if I said, ‘Jen, you really haven’t met your goals this month. Why haven’t you met your goals? Okay, now I’m going to suggest some ways you can meet those goals.’ No– those goals may not be your own, but rather the agenda of the organization. That’s really where coaching started. Coaching with compassion, which is the basis for this class, is oriented around the goals of the individual.

This ties into your previous question—why is coaching needed in the workplace? I think the business world is entering this new consciousness where concepts like well-being and looking at associates very holistically is relatively new. When I was in business school 17 years ago, that was far from the way we thought of things. Well, people in HR have been thinking about this forever, but what has recently emerged is this notion that things like well-being have an impact on the business from a quantitative perspective.

Jen: In class, you talk about how important it is to “ask a good question” when coaching. How do you do this?

(Laughs). There it is! That’s a good one right there. Let’s break that down and find the source code. A good question has to do with getting people to think differently and make connections differently than they have before, much like a good metaphor does. That opens up a part of your brain where abundance and creativity live. So, asking a good question kicks you into that mode. We’re the only creatures on earth that create metaphor—unless, like, Dolphins are doing it and we just haven’t figured them out yet. I think they might be. Anyway, and it sounds corny, but a good question allows you to get to a very human level with someone. It’s free of judgment, and in many ways it’s focused on getting at truth—and we can discuss what truth is but that’s probably for another conversation. A powerful coach seeks the truth for the person they’re coaching.

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So far, the class has helped me practice strategies for listening to truly hear and understand (not just respond) and craft questions that are powerful and thought-provoking to move the conversation forward. I had my first practice session coaching a fellow classmate last week, which was awkward and clunky and an exercise in vulnerability for both of us. But it feels good to be improving and I’m excited to continue to become a more powerful communicator with clients I am coaching. And, for when I’m really stuck, Schaffner gave us a fail-safe if we run out of things to say to our client:

A.W.E – “And what else?”

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