You say potato, I say Professor Snape.

I’m writing this on a flight from Newark to London. I was meant to be on a flight from Washington to London yesterday. Except, United Airlines. This isn’t the story of my delay, my frantic and ultimately futile cab ride across North Carolina, or even my discovery that the United Airlines full tagline is “Fly the Friendly Skies… ‘cause the ground staff are just plain rude”. For that saga, maybe visit my Facebook page where you can see updates of my excursions to various East Coast airports while my mum comments in bewilderment, my husband attempts to keep me chipper and my boss uses social media to inform me he won’t be approving my expenses…

 

I digress. I was in the US as part of a global project. A big, bold, multi-cultural transformation project with huge potential to revolutionise the organisation I work in. Exciting in itself, right? But also exciting because of the diversity of our fabulous team – East Coast, West Coast, Mid-West and Southern Americans. Canadians, Brits, French and a token South African. We spent the week helicoptering between big hairy questions like “how the hell do we paint the picture of this change to our senior leadership in a way that inspires without terrifying them?” and diverting down hour long rabbit holes attempting to we find the one word that describes temporary workers in both US English and UK English (or, ‘proper English’ as I like to call it). And then translating it into French, and figuring out if it will work in Mexico… Or why, even though the Queen is indeed Elizabeth II, it’s not exactly the same principle as say Billy Ray Gilbert III, and so there really isn’t a huge need for the suffix field in the new HR system for us limeys. 

 

Communication. You can carefully and eloquently say exactly what you mean and other people are just guaranteed to have something else entirely in mind.  Eventually we conceded that we probably need to explore a ‘language pack’ for UK English on the system we were designing, and we would include the suffix field just in case we ever did hire bona fide royalty in the UK (or Billy Ray takes advantage of our to-be-harmonised relocation policy).

 

While these discombobulating debates were taking place my phone pinged. My best friend, 4,000 miles away on messenger. Could I recommend a good book on Coaching, as she thought her company should start doing it properly?

 

It is a measure of how much you are loved that, when you ask someone who took over a year of their life, hundreds of hours of CPD and ten hours of assessment to gain an international accreditation in something if you could buy a single book to do that same thing, they don’t send you the middle finger emoji in response (there is a middle finger emoji, right?), but reply with “What do you mean by ‘Coaching’?”.

 

Yes, Coaching 101 – answer a question with a question. I like the ‘what do you mean by…?’ question. It saves you both chasing down multiple rabbit holes only to find, when you finally emerge blinking on the surface, that you were in fact in different warrens all along. 

 

We were in different warrens. My much loved bestie wanted to train people in presentation skills. A valuable, noble endeavour. But about as much like Coaching as Lipton’s with UHT half-and-half is like a well-brewed Tetley and a splash of semi-skimmed. So I attempted, in between heated debates over whether people could be trusted not to upload pictures of their privates to the social enterprise platform (yes, that well-worn HR fire starter), to describe the difference between coaching, mentoring and training in instant messenger. 

 

Not so easy. Mentoring – pretty straight forward. Someone who has trodden that path before, imparting the wisdom of their experience to someone hoping to tread a similar path. Training: see Teaching. Coaching. How to describe it? I think I finally went with something really pretentious like ‘facilitated learning or discovery, without direction or judgement, designed to enable someone to identify and reach their own self-defined goals’. Bloody hell. No wonder even a Psychology graduate from a top 5 university doesn’t know what it is. 

 

And that bothered me. I can really easily articulate what it isn’t. It isn’t telling or directing. It isn’t giving guidance. It is the absence of judgement and ego. It isn’t mentoring. It isn’t training. It isn’t a subject matter expert imparting their own experience, however valuable or revered. It isn’t gurus or experts. It’s not about the coach at all. Ever. It isn’t Jose Mourinho. It isn’t Sir Clive Woodward. It isn’t talking. It isn’t expounding. It isn’t about ‘fixing’.

 

Coaching is all about the other person. The ‘coachee’, the ‘client’, the ‘subject’ (I don’t like these words – can we have another? How about the ‘hero’ because it’s about making someone the hero of their own story, not a character in yours). It is about creating a place – physical or metaphorical – for them to really stand back, walk around and explore themselves. Not in a therapy or counselling way - Coaching is not an answer to serious psychological needs. But in a way that means someone has a completely clean place to treat the contents of their head and heart like an afternoon at the Tate Modern – exploring, playing, questioning, ambling about and looking at stuff from different angles. Learning without direction or preconception. Unearthing profundity, hilarity and clarity.  

 

Still too pretentious? How about this.

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Coaching is Mr Miyagi. A place for Daniel – the hero -  to be safe, but not coddled. No easy answers, no direction, no posturing. Some tough love, some nurturing. Always with an absolute unwavering belief that, while our hero is human and fallible, he also has within him the ability and reserves to achieve whatever he puts his mind to. 

Or, for those of you born after 1985, it is Professor Snape. 

Driven, ultimately, for good and by love. Acting in absolute service of the hero of that story. A lightness of touch and lack of ego that means it isn’t until way down the line that we, or the hero, even realise the coaching took place. Creating safety from a distance in a way that never screams ‘look at me’ but that means our hero creates their own sanctuary and power without even realising there was a helping hand there when needed.  Standing by with rare protective magic when the hero takes themselves into uncharted waters. Provoking, challenging, unlocking. But quietly, behind the scenes. Not for credit, or glory but for the love of it. Shrouded in unintentional but occasionally necessary mystery. A little of a dark art but infused with out-and-out pure intention. 

And, often, rather sadly, misunderstood. Assumed to be the complete opposite of what it actually is.

 

Yes. That’ll do. For now. Coaching is Professor Snape. Does that help, W?

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