Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Art of Coaching

This is a draft of my next column for The Intelligencer, a Mensa publication. Feedback welcome.

Whether it's someone at work, our players, or a family member, we all coach.

This anecdote elucidates some non-obvious coaching techniques I've found effective:

I walked into the waiting room to greet my next client. There sat a 250-pound woman named Jeffrie Givens. (
Note: She has given permission to use her name and photo.) When I said hi, she averted her eyes and murmured "Hi." She had dropped out of Cal, was making $8 an hour in retail sales, and had come to me for career help.

I pored over her answers to my new-client questionnaire. She loves singing--not exactly a low-risk career goal. But looking for an entry-point, I had her sing for me. Reluctantly, she did: B+ voice, F performer---I've seen less-stiff cadavers.

I then showed her YouTube videos of world-class performers singing that song. After, I said, "Go into the this room. It has a full-length mirror. Like when you were a girl, play pretend: Pretend you're one of those superstars performing that song. When you're ready to perform it again for me, call me in."

Fifteen minutes later, she called me in and her voice had improved to an A- and her performance to a C.

I then said, "We're going on a field trip," and I drove her to Woodminster Amphitheater. Looking down upon its 2,000 seats and bigger-than-Broadway stage, I said, "You are going to perform here some day." She said, "You're crazy."

Long story short, she has now performed at Woodminster in five of America's great musicals, gained the confidence to finish her degree and land a middle-income-earning job at Children's Hospital. And now she performs a wonderful and inspiring one-woman show, Big, Black, and Shy, that I devised and we co-write which tells her improbable story in anecdote and song. (By the way, her voice is now an A, better than Susan Boyle, a Black Celine Dion.) I accompany on the piano. Her next performance is sold out with a long waiting list. If, however, you might like to attend her subsequent performance on June 17 in the East Bay, email me for info: 

That story embeds at least three principles of coaching:

• Consider going beyond talking. People who seek coaching often have talked about their problem ad nauseam. Sure, coaches need good communication skills: listen well, ask questions to facilitate the client coming up with her own solutions, and tactfully and not-too-often offering their own. But often, an experience(s) is required to blast a person from inertia.

• Build on a person's interest, even if it seems irrelevant or impractical. There's often a way to tie it back to practicality.

• Provide a model for the desired behavior: show, don't tell. It needn't be a YouTube video. For example, to demonstrate how an effective CEO behaves, I role play an executive running a meeting. Another example: I've taken a client who wanted to learn the art of flirting to a pick-up bar to watch what successful bar hounds do.

Here are three more of my favorite non-standard coaching techniques:

The Optometry Game. The Optometry Game allows you to use your ideational fluency without making your coachee feel less-than.

I tell the client, "Eye doctors always ask you, 'Is it better with lens 1 or 2?' Well, now I'm going to give you two options and you tell me which you like better?" (It could be career choices, options for meeting a romantic partner, getting more education, whatever).
You're generating all the ideas. Your coachee simply needs to pick among two alternatives. Anyone can do that.

A variation on The Optometry Game is The Trial Game. I pretend I'm a lawyer making the arguments for one option. Then I make the arguments for the other option. Finally, I ask the coachee to be the judge: to pick the winner and explain why.

Disequilibrate? I consciously decide how much disequilibration to create in the coachee.

Normally, I want my clients to feel confident, that they're efficacious, or at least that they're on the right track. So usually, I try to avoid disagreeing with client contentions.

But sometimes, a client is overconfident, complacent. So if I decide that the likely benefit outweighs the risk, I'll tactfully disagree. Even more occasionally, I'll decide that being tactful won't create enough disequilibrium. In that case, I use a technique I call, The Jerk. I say, "I'm going to pretend I'm a well-intentioned but tactless jerk." I then say something honest but quite blunt to create the desired disequilibration. Here's a particularly forceful example:
"You spend your life blaming your failure on everyone but yourself. Or maybe you really don't want to succeed---It's a lot cushier to let your parents keep funding your lazy-ass existence. Well, if you want to go on being a parasite, fine--We'll all just keep thinking of you as a loser. But if instead, you decide to be a contributor, everyone will think so much more of you and, more important, you'll feel a helluva lot better about yourself. The choice is yours."
I then ask the client, "How would you respond to that jerk?" Usually, the client says something like, "There's some truth in what the jerk said." So, without alienating the coachee, I've said something s/he may have long needed to hear.

The Vegas Game. My job is only half done when my client and I have developed an action plan s/he's excited about. The other half is helping to ensure s/he implements it. To assess the likelihood of that, at the end of the session, I usually ask, "If we were in Vegas, should I bet that you would or wouldn't implement the plan?"

If the client says "Wouldn't," I ask, "What would improve the odds?" If the client doesn't know, I usually say, "Let's go to that moment of truth when you know you should start implementing the plan. What's going through your head?"

Often, that question reveals that I need to provide more guidance on how to implement the plan or on how to overcome a fear. We keep playing The Vegas Game until the client says something like, "Now you should definitely bet on me."

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