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Hard(ly) to coach (Markus Gärtner)

On March 14, 2014, in Syndicated, by Association for Software Testing
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Over the past few years, I noticed a pattern for myself. Whenever I found myself in a group situation, there is usually this one guy, the one that asks a lot of mystique questions. Do you know that guy? Sometimes there are a couple of them, sometimes there is none, sometimes it’s myself. That mystique guy (or gal) asks a lot of questions that drives you nuts. Within a second I can spot a coaching question coming up. Sometimes I project lots of meaning on why he’s asking that question. I think I developed some kind of resistance to that.

Coaching questions

There are lots of variations of coaching questions out there. Some of them are direct, some of them are less so. Some folks learn them by hard (guilty as charged!), some folks can hide the coaching intention better in their questioning.

I remember a situation where I had a chat with a team that I wanted to join. We sat over lunch break together in order to find out whether we would fit together. “What do you want to achieve?” I remember my reaction. I could directly spot the nature of the question, it was frightening me. I knew I could trick their system by simply providing what I thought they wanted to hear. “To make this world a better place, bring unicorns that vomit unicorns that vomit rainbows, and make everyone dance in heavenly peace.” (or something like that)

I knew if I said that, I couldn’t stand behind that. I knew if I gave an answer like that, I would reach out for a shallow agreement, setting myself up for later disappointment when we found out that we didn’t fit together.

Since a long time, I consider myself hard or even hardly to coach. I can spot those coaching questions on the spot. I can even directly jump to the conclusion about what my other side wants to hear. (Sometimes I am wrong my assumptions.) And I hate that.

I hate those coaching questions not only because I know how to trick their system, I also know that it will defeat their purpose – and that I am bad liar. And I know that I am guilty of asking those questions a lot, too.

I even prepared this picture to indicate my hate.

god_kills_a_kitten

So, if you happen to ask me a coaching question, be aware that God just killed a kitten. Your fault, sorry.

The Coaching Contract

But wait, there’s more. There are times when I want to be asked coaching questions. That is when I have a direct agreement with someone that I want to take a step back, and see what I can improve. That’s when I reach out for a coach to specifically help me.

The most valuable thing you should be aware of is the coaching contract. When engaging with a coach, we have a chat together about what kind of feedback I am looking for, and what I would like to learn. We take the first steps together. I get used to the type of feedback that I will receive, and how I react to it, and whether I feel ok with that feedback.

All of this is in place because I am deliberately going out of my comfort zone, and I want to have someone guide me out in the wild. I want to avoid the situation where I become upset about the current situation, and I want to feel safe that someone is taking care of the facilitation that needs to happen in order to bring me back. That’s why I settle with a coaching contract.

The problem in the aforementioned situations though is this: we don’t have a coaching contract. In most of these uncontracted coachings, I notice the following happening inside me: “who are you to ask me that question? Do you really want to go down that road with me?” “I don’t trust you to be able to handle the situation when I go off constraints, so don’t ask me that question.”

Of course, most of the times, I can keep myself calm enough to not take it personally (beware of me after 6pm), and navigate through that situation without confrontation. While writing this blog entry, I think that I probably need to challenge the premise that it’s ok to ask me such kind of questions right now.

What to do instead

I can only answer that for myself, but maybe you feel that same. Instead of receiving a coaching question (and I don’t know whether I used the right term here), I would like to have an open conversation. Whenever someone asks me questions like “what do you think about it?”, that’s not telling me what that other person is thinking about it. Whenever someone asks me a question like “What did you see or hear that led you to that conclusion?” I would like to receive “I don’t see how you reached that conclusion. What did you receive as information that you didn’t provide to me?”. And, sometimes I just want to try out stuff, and reflect over it later, rather than up-front to avoid too much speculation.

So, please, whenever you are tempted to ask a coaching question to me, check whether we have an agreement, if we don’t, and you still ask me that question, be prepared to be guilty of God killing a kitten. Yeah, right, it’s you killing the kittens.

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