Words Make Worlds
November 12th, 2023
The Coaching Process
This is Issue 9 of 🌎 Words Make Worlds, a newsletter about the art, science, and craft of the Coaching Leadership Style. I’m your guide, Andi, and I believe that coaching skills are a leadership multiplier leading to happier teams, more authentic work relationships, and stronger accountability (among other things). Let’s get into this week’s topic: the coaching process.
Knowledge is produced in response to questions. And new knowledge results from the asking of questions… once you have learned how to ask questions - relevant and appropriate and substantial questions - you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know. - Postman and Weingartner
The thing that distinguishes coaching from normal conversations is its focus on awareness, meaning, and action. Coaching facilitates learning that generates knowledge, uncovers fresh perspectives, and leads to new actions and behaviors. Each of these capacities can be thought of as a step in the coaching process that creates space for people to step into their own innate wisdom and understanding.
So far we’ve talked about how to begin a coaching conversation and looked at the specific kinds of questions that are inherent to a coaching approach. Today we’re going to take a step back and look at the process side of things so you have an understanding of how to facilitate learning and can begin to experiment in your conversations at work.
I prefer frameworks that are simple, easy to remember, and flexible enough to be able to respond to the unpredictable nature of human interaction in real-time. I find Dorothy Strachan’s “What? — So What? — Now What?” framework fits the bill, providing enough structure to so that you know where you are and where to go, with openings to invite improvisation and creativity.
There are three main phases in the process “What? — So What? — Now What?” (hence the name), illustrated in a cyclical relationship that reminds us that human interactions are nonlinear and that you’ll find yourself moving between the phases in various ways throughout a single conversation.
Each phase is associated with a type of question:
- Notice questions open up space to increase understanding and awareness about whatever happens to be the focus of the conversation.
- Meaning questions invite reflection on what has been uncovered through exploring the notice questions.
- Application questions create commitments towards future actions, experiments, and next steps given what has emerged from the notice and meaning questions.
For the sake of clarity we’ll assume that the questions go in the order listed above — notice, make meaning, and application of the learnings — but in practice you’ll frequently find yourself moving back and forth between a couple of phases until you reach enough clarity to continue on.
Once you have determined the focus of the coaching conversation and figured out what you want to accomplish together, you can move into an exploration of the topic or issue at hand. As we discussed in Issue 8 this part of the process requires stepping into the unknown, which can feel challenging and uncomfortable for the coach. To do this successfully requires letting go of the reins and being willing embrace uncertainty, truly not knowing what the outcome will be. Curiosity is a great friend in these moments.
The process framework is your map, showing you the lay of the land and the direction of your journey. The first part of your journey begins by creating the space for new understanding through the use of notice questions. This is an invitation to the person you are working with to gain a better understanding of what is both inside and outside of their awareness, asking them to get curious about what lies just beyond the visible horizon. Here you support them to clarify their perspective by articulating the details of what they notice and what makes that noticing so important to them.
Once the issue has been brought into higher resolution through the noticing exploration, you can move into meaning questions that invite reflection and deeper understanding. In this phase you are basically asking, “now that you know what you know, what do you understand that you didn’t before?” Together you start to look for patterns, insights, importance, and significance of what was shared in the noticing phase.
Meaning making can lead to ah-ha moments big and small. When this happens you can shift into the application questions, moving the learning conversation from reflection to commitments for future action. The general gist of this phase is, “with this new understanding, what will you do differently?” Make sure that whatever action plan arises that is doable in a short amount of time — encourage people to take small, immediate steps in order to create quick feedback loops for quick learning and insights to work with in future coaching conversations.
This week is less of a practice and more a bank of questions for each phase of the process framework to get you started. The invitation for you is to find a few conversations where you can work with the entire cycle and see what emerges. Be sure to capture your reflections afterwards — what you did that you liked, what you want to learn more about, and what you will try next time.
What? The Notice Questions
- What is important about the issue? What makes it an issue for you?
- What matters most here? What makes this significant to you?
- What is another way to say this?
- How are you feeling about this?
- What are the most important factors or players in this situation?
- What is at stake? For you? For others?
- How have you contributed to the situation?
- What exactly needs to change here?
- What are you assuming here that is stopping you?
- What fears, doubts, or internal obstacles are keeping you from moving forward? What would it take for these obstacles to be completely gone?
- What do you want to accomplish?
So What? The Meaning Questions
- Based on what we’ve talked about, what’s different for you now?
- What stands out for you?
- What patterns are you starting to notice?
- What does this remind you of?
- What does this all mean to you?
- What concerns do you have?
- What are you learning?
- How does this all fit together?
- What feels more clear? What still feels uncertain?
Now What? The Application Questions
- What could you do about this?
- What potential courses of action do you see?
- What will you do about this?
- What step could you take this week that would move you towards your goal?
- What actions can you commit to? By when?
- How will you know you’ve been successful?
- What are you taking away from this conversation?
- What will you begin to do more of? Less of?
Quotes I <3
The idea that managers and employees can share responsibility for learning is a very adaptive one. We make the related assumption that in most organizations, everyone needs to keep learning. Most businesses and not-for-profits confront a range of competitive threats to their survival. These threats include globalization, disruptive technologies, changing societal values, and the rest of the list you’ve grown accustomed to hearing about. The only way for a firm to survive, let alone prosper, is for enough people in the firm to learn how to adapt to and master these challenges so that the organization can respond appropriately.
— James Hunt and Joseph Weintraub, The Coaching Manager
If you enjoyed this issue and found value in it, please share it with other leaders you know. My mission is to bring coaching insights and practices to as many leaders as possible in service of more humane, purposeful, creative, and calmer organizations.
Thank you. ❤️