Watching great coaching taking place is like witnessing a dance. The coach commands the situation, but without any kind of coercion or direction. The coach fluidly moves from postures suggestive of ease, even lethargy, into sharp focus on the coachee.
Great coaching responds to what’s being said and affects it, too. The coach’s open physicality illustrates that possibilities are open, anything may be important, and everything is acceptable. It suggests that no self-censorship is necessary before speaking and that direct expression could be the easiest thing in the world.
When great coaching is occurring, the conversation is like a musical accompaniment to the dance: a theme is proposed and countered. The voice of the coach invites, assures, demands attention and will not settle for the repetition of over-rehearsed tunes. The coachee’s voice begins shaded with uncertainty, still seeking approval, and in the thoughtful volley assumes a form of inquisitiveness in the face of the coach’s relentless but genuine curiosity and acceptance.
Like a jazz improvisation or a classical fugue, multiple variations emerge as the theme is explored. The mood of inquiry expands into exploration and pursuit, and the conversation can move to resolution, determination, and preparation for action.
When real coaching is taking place, the coach feels alert, awake, owned by fascination with the human emerging through the midwifery of this kind of conversation. The coachee’s mental juices begin to flow and an array of their stories lines the mental hallway through which they see the world. Here there’s danger (what might emerge?) and safety (it will all be acceptable). Here there is the possibility of immediacy, of intimacy, of transformation.
The curious thing is that mindfulness can be helpful to move a coachee into a more useful place, but it’s still a means, not the ends.
Coaching and mentoring conversations depend to some extent on the character and inward state of the coach. But really good coaching conversations can’t be forced.
They happen because both participants mentally, emotionally, and physically arrive at the point of interaction and refuse to trample on the space between them. They bring all of themselves to the dance, and declare the space between them as sacred. Coaches yield themselves at the point of contact and maintain the tension between active involvement and curious detachment.
This is the part of coaching that’s art. Coaches can learn the techniques of good questions and even learn to shut up long enough for another person to have their own thoughts, but they can’t make coaching happen.
Coaches can only bring their whole attention and intention to the moment and invite the light to shine through the other person. Coaches’ expectation, willingness, and choice to sacrifice their presumed importance are what they really bring. That’s what makes coaching possible.