Thank you, as I say, thanks very much for showing up. A tiny bit about me, so I’m one of the Prosper coaches. I do a lot of work across academia. I’m not an academic, but I’ve been coaching probably for about 12 years. I work across the public, private and not-for-profit sector. A long time ago, when I was much younger, I used to have a proper job, as my dad said. He doesn’t quite understand the world of self-employment. I worked out in the corporate world, and went through my own career transition when I was just hitting 40.
I know it’s hard to believe, but a long time ago. I left a very well-paid job and I bought a little Piaggio truck, which had a coffee machine in the back. Everyone said, ‘You’re going to do what?’ I said, ‘I’m going to start my own business.’ I was so scared inside, I thought I was going to die, which obviously, I didn’t. That’s where my journey started. That’s why I’m really passionate about supporting people really to find whatever their purpose is, whatever their career purpose is or life purpose or whatever that is.
Today, we’re going to cover, why a coaching approach to a career conversation? I think it’s about setting expectations. If there’s anybody thinking, great, I’m going to be a coach by 11 o’clock, it might be a bit of a stretch, but hopefully, that you’ll have some information about what we mean by a coaching approach. What we mean about a coaching relationship, so the coaching relationship is really key to what I call the magic. Actually, the relationship that we have when we’re working with someone in a coaching conversation, is different to what you’d normally have maybe as a PI. We’ll explore that a little bit. I’m going to introduce you to what we call the coaching principles. These are the foundation blocks of what coaching really means.
Then I’m going to talk a little bit about contracting, which is a very posh word, but really, it means how we’re going to work together. Then look at what I call the core skills of coaching, and then time for your questions. Next time, what we’re going to cover is how to, what I call structure a coaching conversation. I’m going to offer you probably one of the most popular coaching models, called GROW. Next week is a little bit more practical on the how. If we can find a postdoc – I’ve got a couple of names, I haven’t approached them yet – I’m going to do a coaching in action live demonstration. If I can’t get anyone, Fiona, I think you’ll have to be on standby, or if there’s anybody in the audience today who thinks, actually, I’ll step forward and have some coaching, then please let us know, so I’d be happy to do that.
We’re going to give you a little opportunity to have a go. I’ve also got a resource for you next week which you can take away. It’s got some really good questions on there, so you can use it as a tool as we go. Here’s a second, little activity that I’d like you to do. Grab yourselves a piece of paper and a pen. It’s a great way to start a coaching conversation around what I call begin with the end in mind. Coaching is very much around where am I now, and where am I trying to head to?
This little technique is a great little technique. I’m going to ask you, the question is, what do you want to be saying as you leave our session today? The begin with the end in mind techniques come from a guy called Stephen Covey, who wrote a book called ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.’ We know that when we focus our brain on where we’re heading and what we do want to have happen, without going into the neuroscience, it actually starts to help us focus on what we want to have happen. Very often, the brain, we’re five times more wired to know about why something won’t happen.
I’m just going to give you a minute, just to think, what do you want to be saying as you leave the session today? It needs to be something positive. What do you want, you do or you have, or I have more information about coaching, or I feel more confident about something? It’s got to be personal to you and, also, it needs to be possible. As I say, if you’re hoping to be a coach by 11 o’clock, it might be a little bit of a stretch. I usually start all my coaching conversations is, what do you want to be saying as you leave today? Asking the question of the person that you’re working with. Okay, I’ll carry on then.
When it comes to having a career conversation, what would you say the real challenge for you is right now? Just have a think about what’s the real challenge for you? You might not have any challenges. Sometimes, it’s like – it’s perfectly fine if you don’t. I think one of the common things that I hear, and again, certainly when I stepped into the coaching, using a coaching approach is very much, what I love about coaching is there’s no expectation for me to be the expert or have the answers! I’ll explain that. Sometimes, we feel a great pressure because we want to help and be supportive, then something pops up and we think, I’ve no idea what to do with that. Then we beat ourselves up, thinking that maybe we should have had that.
One of the things about coaching is – and you’ll see in a minute – is the expectations are slightly different. You’re the expert in your role and the postdoc is the expert in what they do. Coaching conversations are all around where’s the person now? Where are they heading? People often say, ‘Well, what’s the difference between coaching and other things?’ I work in different spaces and, sometimes, people dwell very much in the past. What we’re trying to do is get the person to move forward. Generally, there’s been a bump in the road or they’re not quite sure. It really is, look, it’s very forward-focused around where are we heading? What support do you need? Where can you, as a PI, be most useful? I love that word useful because it takes a little bit of pressure off the being helpful because we all love to help. Sometimes, that’s quite exhausting.
Where can you be most useful? You bring to this conversation your expertise in what you do, but you might not have all the answers to everything else. It starts to take the pressure off you, is how can you be useful in this conversation? Coaching is really about unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their growth. There’s a guy called John Whitmore, he’s one of the forefathers of coaching. He’s been around since the early ’80s. Really, a coaching conversation is a partnership that helps the person unlock their own thinking. It’s all about growth.
It’s really interesting, when I first stepped into coach postdocs – I’ve been working with postdocs, around Liverpool particularly, since about 2015, working with small groups and doing group coaching. Sometimes, people think if they go for coaching, there’s something wrong or they need fixing or something. They’re not good at something. It’s certainly not that. It’s all about how do we unlock a person’s potential to be even better than they already are, even though they might be stuck?
The first thing to say, I suppose, around a coaching conversation, is the coaching relationship is slightly different than maybe the postdoc/PI relationship. It’s got a certain kind of difference. What I say to anyone who’s got a black Lab – there we go, I loved this picture, it’s got nothing to do with coaching, but I loved the picture. It’s really around creating, wearing a different hat. Sometimes, I’ll say, if I’m having a conversation, ‘Right, I’m just going to put my coaching hat on for a minute and ask some questions.’ I distinguish, in a conversation, what I’m actually doing.
The coaching relationship has some rules if you like. One of them, that the postdoc is resourceful and an expert in their life. It might be quite different to the mentor relationship where you’re seen as an expert. We have to hold that the person in front of us is resourceful, will know the answers to the questions, or will know where to get them, and will be expert in their life. It shifts the power dynamic in the relationship. Also, the agenda for the time together that you spend comes from the postdoc. What is it that they’re bringing for conversation? One of the other things that, very often, is you say, ‘Right, we’re going to have a conversation and what do you want to talk about?’ and they go, ‘I don’t know.’ Again, around how can we have that conversation to say, ‘What is it…?
It’s your time, we’ve got an hour together’, or whatever it is, ‘What is it that you want to get from that time together?’ Having that conversation when we’re contracting, which we’ll look at in a minute.
Your role is really to create what I call a safe, non-judgemental space to ask questions and help unlock their thinking, which I’m sure that you do anyway now, but again, it’s that unlocking the thinking. What you’re trying to create together is what they call a thinking partnership, where you’re finding solutions and creative solutions together. You’re probably asking, in a coaching relationship, a lot more questions than giving advice. The balance and the dynamic changes. Contracting is something that is a conversation around how are we going to work together? I don’t just use contracting in a coaching conversation.
I worked for a couple of years in the university, for one of the pro-vice-chancellors. If I’m going to work with somebody, it’s one of the first questions that I ask of someone, how are we going to work together? He was lovely, and he said, ‘I don’t know, I’ve never been asked that question before.’ I had some things, and I said, ‘Here are some things that work really well for me when I’m working with somebody.’ He said, ‘That’s really helpful.’ What happened was, and one of the things that, I’ll give you a really good example of this, we had really different relationships with time. He was very spontaneous and last-minute. I don’t work well like that.
What happened was, as we started working together, what I noticed was he was very lastminute.com, and I wasn’t, and because we’d had that conversation up front, I was able to have another conversation to say, ‘What I’m noticing is the things that are working really well for me, some of the things aren’t working, and what can we do about that?’ We were able to have a different conversation around, I was able to bother him a little bit more, to find out if there was anything coming down the pipeline that I needed to be aware of. It’s a great question around, as I say, not just for a coaching conversation, but for any working relationship. I do that for group coaching. How are we going to work together as a group? Here’s some of the questions that I might ask in that time together.
What a contracting conversation does is set the expectations. This is what I’m going to be responsible for and this is what you’re going to be. It helps set how you’re going to work together. It’s great if you’re just starting to do some career development conversations with an individual. You can do this at the beginning, but there’s no rule to say, you can do this at any time really, even if you’re working with somebody now. Again, the begin with the end in mind, what’s the goal for the conversation today? If you’re going to be working with someone and supporting them over a period of time, what are their goals for the longer term?
Very often, typically, and particularly, so the Prosper programme, what I’ve been working with, some of the postdocs that I’m supporting with is we’ve done what I call our initial meetings to say, what do you want from our coaching together? Where do you think you’re heading? Sometimes, they don’t quite know. Then we get a little bit of a longer-term goal, but then each of the sessions that we do, I’ll say, ‘What do you want from our time together today? What’s the goal for today?’ It might be something as simple as, ‘I want to have a conversation around exploring a different whatever it is, a different sector, and I’d just like, appreciate some clarification and some questions around that to help my thinking.’ In that contracting conversation as well, it’s how often are we going to meet and for how long?
As a PI, this really helps you commit to your time. How often do we sit down and we’ve got an hour and that goes into two? Next week, I’m going to show you how you structure that conversation. We’ve got an hour together today, what would be most useful from our time together today? It really sets out the boundaries of what you’ve got to focus on rather than, well, we’ve got an hour, but it’s okay to go for two! We very often find ourselves in that. It’s a great way to really start setting expectations. How are you going to contract? Again, how are you going to contact in between sessions? Sometimes, for some people, they like to check in and be accountable. Some people don’t want that as well. It’s useful to have that up front. What support might you need in the sessions and how are we going to make that work? How will we keep confidentiality? How will that look?
One of the things that I’ve been working with my postdocs is around, and particularly when we work in a group setting, is that actually, any of the resources and tools that you have, you can take them away and use them and share them. Any of our coaching conversation, we’ll keep that between us. You’ll agree that confidentiality, what’s okay to speak about and what isn’t as well. I’ve already talked about really around the time commitment as well, and again, those boundaries, so what’s okay and what’s not okay in our conversation and our meetings together, that accountability piece.
That, again, from a coaching perspective, is you’re accountable but not responsible. If you agree to, I don’t know, you’ve had an hour’s conversation, and the postdoc has agreed to go and do a little bit of research on something, you can hold accountability, so when they come back, check in, ‘How did you get on with that?’ You’re not responsible, they are. If they haven’t done it, get curious about what got in the way. They’re owning their agenda. They’re their expert. They’re responsible for moving things forward. You can hold accountability. What I know about this work is that for some people, that accountability is, if they know they’re going to come back and tell you that they’re going to do something, then they’re much more motivated to do it for someone else. That’s a little bit about the contracting piece.
These are what I call the conversations. They might seem quite obvious, but there are some real core skills around a coaching conversation, which you would probably use, but maybe in a slightly different way when it comes to coaching. Asking more questions. When we say more questions, they’re more what and how questions, so what we call more open questions. I’ll give you a little bit of an example in a minute. Staying curious a little bit longer. We know that, very often, somebody comes with a challenge or something they want to talk about, and we all have what we call, I call them a little advice monster inside, that says, ‘I know that!’ Within about 11 seconds, they’ve got the challenge and you’ve already got an answer in your head. Okay, what we know about coaching conversations is very often, the first challenge that comes up isn’t the real challenge.
The trick is to hold back your advice for the time being, to ask more questions. ‘Tell me a bit more about that.’ Next week, we’re going to show you how to go through the structure, to bring out those questions and that information a little. What and how questions are really great at getting more information, and staying curious a little bit longer.
There’s a super little TED talk by a guy called Michael Bungay Stanier. If anyone is interested, if anyone’s got an advice monster – and I know everybody has – he’s a coach. He’s written a brilliant book called ‘The Coaching Habit’, which he’s got 7 questions, really simple. It’s great for any, people don’t want to train as a coach, but there’s some really super little questions in there, really 7 simple little questions. He’s done a TED talk, so if anybody is interested – he’s quite entertaining as well – but if anyone recognises that they’ve got an advice monster, and he talks about those questions as well. If anyone’s interested, it’s only about 15 minutes. We use it on our training. I do a lot of coach training and so we use it in there, again, around keeping that advice monster at bay. The use of silence is a really great one. Some people love silence and some people don’t.
As a coach, it was an area, it’s still work in progress for me because I want to jump in and ask. Sometimes, giving people space and time to think of the question that you’ve asked them, gives them time to process it. Very often, what we sometimes do is load people with too many questions rather than just a few. The use of silence is great, it’s a core skill in coaching, and that importance of listening. I love this, listening is particularly useful when we just create that space. If you think about being listened to, sometimes it doesn’t happen very much.
Sometimes, we don’t always have the answers or we can’t always help people. Simply by creating that space to listen can be really empowering for somebody, particularly if they’re having a real challenging time identifying barriers. Very often, with career conversations, we’ve got a barrier. We’re not quite sure how to get round this or move forward, so identifying what that barrier is and then asking some questions about what’s possible… Next time, we’re going to offer you the GROW model, that’s got some really good structure to help with that. The power of what I call reflecting back, so simply reflecting back what you’re hearing. It can be very powerful to reflect back what you’re listening and what you’ve heard somebody say, and help them get some sort of idea about what they’ve been talking about. The power of open questions. This is probably really familiar to you.
In a coaching conversation, we tend to use a lot of what and how questions. How do you think you could do that? What do you think might help? The resource that I’m talking about, we’ve got those questions. There’s a double question mark on the why question in a coaching question, and in general very often. Why questions, yes, certainly use them, but there’s a little bit of a warning light. Why questions sometimes can sound a little bit judgemental. Why have you done that? Help me understand what made that happen. See the difference? A why question very often will take the other person up into their head, to justify why they haven’t done something or why they have. Whereas if you’d be more curious, like, ‘So help me understand what got in the way’, it’s a much more curious and non-judgemental way to ask a question. It keeps that relationship as well, so it doesn’t feel, going back to the not being judged. I’m not saying don’t use it, but I’m saying use it in caution.
Then a little bit of words on advice. Of course, you’ve got advice because you have expertise in your certain areas. Sometimes, it’s easier to hold that back. One of the great questions if your advice monster is trying to get out, one of the, or actually, someone’s asking, one of the great little phrases I use is, ‘I’ve got some thoughts on that. However, what do you think?’ Great little question to get the other person thinking, and then you can offer your advice too. It’s about creating that partnership and, as I say, this is in a true coaching conversation. Again, it’s around helping a person unlock their thinking and then you offering your suggestions and advice. As I say, this is not about not giving advice, but it’s actually maybe just holding that back, to try and unlock that thinking a little bit more.
We’ve had 40 minutes together today and I’m curious, there’s one thing that you’re taking away from our session together today. I’m talking about coaching is very forward-moving, okay. At the end of a coaching conversation, I’ll very often say, ‘What are you taking away and what might you do?’ We know action changes things. That’s what makes a coaching conversation different to a normal conversation is, ‘As a result of us speaking together today, what might you do differently? What are you going to commit to? What’s been most useful?’ It moves it forward and it only has to be a tiny step. What we know about this type of work is that, actually, it’s the very small step, it moves that person into one step to do something different, into action.
It might be, I’m going to have a conversation with somebody. I’m going to do a piece of research on that. I’m going to have a phone call with that person. I need to reflect on this question. That is the main whistle-stop tour of coaching. I’m curious as to what questions you have.
Q. At the end of a coaching session how do you assess how successful it’s been?
I usually round off a coaching conversation with, ‘What’s been most useful about our conversation today, what are you taking away?’ If they say, ‘Nothing’, that’s great because you know what? It didn’t work so well. I’m sure they don’t. Sometimes, as well, another great question is, ‘What’s worked well for you today? What would be even better? What would be better next time?’
There’s a lovely little phrase, what works well, even better if… It’s a great way to give feedback to someone. They talk about the feedback sandwich, don’t they. What’s worked well, but you didn’t do this. What happens is we walk out of the room and what do we remember? The bit that didn’t work. What works well? This works really well, and it would be even better if we could do this next time. I love that, it’s a great little feedback tool. It’s very much a coaching approach, but it still helps the other person feel more empowered and it gives them feedback as well. I get that asked a lot. It’s not like, right, come in, we’re going to coach you! I think, sometimes, I might say this, ‘It might be a different conversation – would it be okay today if we have a slightly different conversation?’ Then introduce it that way, rather than, we’re having a coaching conversation and this what’s going to happen.
I do a lot of work in the NHS, and we’re working at the moment a lot with GPs, to help them have different conversations and more a coaching conversation with their patients. The patient comes in and is expecting to be fixed. The GP, well, I’ve done everything clinically I can, there’s nothing else. Having more of a coaching conversation, and how they introduce it is, ‘Today, we’re going to have a different type of conversation to one you might be used, that you might expect.’
Q. What should you do in a coaching conversation if a postdoc comes to you with unrealistic expectations?
Asking questions, and again, we’ll talk about that. One of the things about it is that you’re sharing your reflections. One of the things, and I have that quite a lot, so I used to, in a previous life, I used to manage what I call naughty teams that didn’t work very well. They all thought they were amazing. I was like, really? Okay! One of the things that I would say is, ‘Let me tell you what I’m noticing.’ If it’s very unrealistic, ‘So how will you do…?’ Again, asking questions. ‘What I’m noticing is that…’, or, ‘This is my reflections from where I’m sitting.’ They might choose to accept that or not. I think there is a role around, actually, rather than saying, ‘Really? I don’t think that’s going to happen!’ if you’re using a coaching approach, it’s very much around, ‘Well, here’s what I’m noticing. In my experience, here’s some things that I know.’ How does that land with them? ‘Given that where you’re heading, what might you need to do different to get where you’re trying to get to?’
Sometimes, in a coaching approach, you have to let people make the mistakes and then they learn. I don’t mean life-threatening mistakes. I think, in a coaching approach, sometimes you can share your experience and then they’re going to do it anyway. Then it’s all about, so that didn’t work, what are you learning about that? Some of those questions, it’s like, ‘What’s the reality of that? Actually, let’s look at it. Is this possible? Is this actually achievable? If you’ve evidence that, actually, you need these grades and that’s not going to happen, so what do you need to do next?’
Q. Can the coaching approach be used when talking to people in normal meetings?
Yes, and that’s, and it’s uncomfortable, and once we stop being uncomfortable, it’s perfect. Again, those questions is, so they come in with all the monkeys – so for those who don’t know the monkey, the monkey is the problem. The trick is to keep the monkeys on the floor or in between you, and say, ‘That’s great, so what do you think you could do about that’, or, ‘What do you think you might need to know?’ It’s that very gentle pushing back. They might go, ‘I don’t know.’ I might say, ‘Would you like to think about that?’ It is around that gentleness of getting used to pushing that back, which is exactly what we’ve been doing with the GPs because, ‘Here’s all my problems and you’re going to pick it up.’ That energy management is, that’s why we’re exhausted because that’s, then we go home, then we’re worrying about it, and they’re not your monkeys. In effect, you’re what we call internal coaching, and there’s boundaries with that.
Again, I think there is a boundary in that around – but actually, I think it does, if you can create a great relationship up front, which is one of trust, I do hear from postdocs around, I’ve been able to have that conversation around that. It’s going back about what are you agreeing, what’s okay and not okay? You start working with somebody new, that relationship is going to change over that 3-year period. The contracting place, when I’m meeting people, is very much around, ‘Do we need to change anything about the way we’re working together? Is everything okay?’ as things go. The contracting up front and that, ‘How are we going to work together?’ is a conversation that goes through your relationship with that person over the years. They might not need the same level of support or they might not want to do that. Are they comfortable having a career development conversation or would somebody else be more suitable?
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