By Mark McKergow, Centre for Solutions Focus at Work
Published in Coaching At Work Vol 4 No 3 p 52 (2009)
One of the most common questions I am asked when I'm training managers as coaches is about when and how the coach can use their know-how and experience. We all know that coaching is fundamentally about drawing out the performer's know-how, raising their awareness and helping them clarify their thoughts using questions. And yet managers, always wanting to be helpful in getting things done, are concerned that their own knowledge and wisdom might be going to waste.
One helpful framework which might help here is a spectrum of places where know-how might emerge, with the performer at one end and the coach at the other.
As coaches, we usually start by seeking the know-how of the performer relating to the specific context at hand - the issue or challenge. Questions like 'when you've done this before, what helped you?' can be very useful. Often useful ideas e,erge - enough to make progress. But what if we want more ideas? Where can we go next? Is it time for the coach/manager to add their own know-how yet? I would say not - there are plenty of other possibilities to explore first.
As a solution-focused coach I am always on the look-out for things that helped the performer at some point in the past (rather than whatever might have hindered them). The time when the performer did best is often a fruitful source. Once the performer has identified the occasion (and there must be one, logically, if the performer has carried out the task even twice before), the coach can help pick out the useful know-how by asking 'what went well then?', 'what did you do that helped?', 'what else?' and so on. This helps the performer get more clear on the details, and the recollections can spark ideas for things to do next time.
Now we are looking for related events - that share some elements with the challenge faced by the performer. For example, in coaching someone about making a key career decision, I asked about other 'big decisions' they had made successfully. It transpired that this particular performer had been through a long drawn out process of choosing their house, and we were able to examine their experiences and pick out ways they had managed to come to a good result. This provided some excellent strategies that had already worked for them, and were easily applied to the current situation.
Moving further away from the performer on the spectrum, we now come to the area where other people's know-how can be brought in. We have not yet reached the 'coach' end of the spectrum, and so we're asking the performer about other people or groups who seem to have ability in the area in which we are interested. Suppose the performer wants to improve their website. Who else's website is good? What about it do you like? How did they decide to do it that way? This can make a great activity for the performer, to take time before the next session to seek out and examine other people's know-how.
Can coaches input their own know-how to coaching conversations? I would say yes - after all, if you knew something that might help someone, it would seem unethical to withhold it. However, I urge you to take care in how and when you do it (an art which might form another column). We have seen above that there are many other sources of know-how, which may appear more relevant to the performer and offer a better 'fit' with their situation. If the performer discovered and values the know-how, it's more likely that they will put it into practice energetically. And you, the manager, might learn a new alternative way of doing something to add to your own repertoire.
Dr Mark McKergow is director of sfwork, the Centre for Solutions Focus at Work and co-author of several books on Solution Focused practice including The Solutions Focus (Nicholas Brealey Publishing 2007).
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