by Ryan Behrman
I like walking through parks. This one was Greenwich Park in London. Walking alongside me was Andrea, a fellow coach and co-trainer. I was in the middle of a very challenging couple of weeks with a client organisation, and immediately started offloading all my problems onto poor unsuspecting Andrea. She patiently listened to my rantings and ravings, and echoed many of my problems and concerns. It turned out that she was facing several similar issues with her client organisation to those that I was facing with mine.
As we talked and echoed each other, I felt as if we were gradually getting clearer on our issues, and that certain strategies and solutions were emerging. I felt my spirits slowly lift, and by the end of the walk I felt ready — even enthusiastic — to go back to my client with a renewed confidence and to act on the new insights I’d gained.What had Andrea done to help me get clarity on my issues and to feel empowered with actions to take back? Let me start with what she hadn’t done.
Firstly, she hadn’t given me advice. She hadn’t told me what to do. Instead she’d listened to me attentively, and had asked me questions to help me get clear on what the real issues were. As she asked more probing questions, I was forced to dig deeper and to explore the challenges from multiple angles. Knowing me well enough as she did, she felt safe to challenge me in certain areas, rather than simply nodding politely as I rambled on. She also shared her own challenges with me, especially those that were similar to mine.
We shared what was working for us, what wasn’t, and in what areas we felt stuck. Where we faced similar issues, we shared our stories as an offering by way of saying “Hey, this worked (or didn’t work) for me, I’m mentioning it in case it might be useful to you.”
Four principles of peer-to-peer coaching
From this process I can distill a few principles of peer-to-peer coaching:
- A problem (safely) shared is a problem halved.
- By being witness to another person’s issues, we gain insights into our own, especially when their issues have resonances with ours.
- Listening to and echoing another person is usually more effective than giving advice, especially when the advice is unsolicited. It’s a strange phenomenon, but when we hear our thoughts played back to us we tend to hear them in a different way than the usual repetitive dialogues we have with our ourselves internally. This can help open up new areas and options that we were previously unaware of.
- Asking open questions — ones that encourage exploration, reflection, and discovery — is a very effective way to help someone clarify their issues and challenges, and to help them find ways to move forward.
The power of a group’s questions
If sharing insights and questions with a peer can be so helpful and insightful, how much more so could it be with a small group of peers?
A coaching circle is a small group of 5 to 7 circle members plus a facilitator who meet approximately once a month over a period of several months. It is similar in some ways to a community of practice. The format I will describe is based primarily on an approach called action learning. Founded in the 1950s, action learning is a proven method in the world of professional development. It’s all about transformation for both the individual and the organisation, and has earned a well-respected place on many management, leadership, and professional development programmes.
During each meeting, a couple of “issue holders” have the opportunity, one after the other, to be coached by the rest of the coaching circle members on a work challenge or issue that is current to the issue holder. The facilitator keeps the time, may act as a circle member, and may provide guidance and interventions along the way, depending on the nature and maturity of the group.
As the coaching circle members ask more probing questions, the issue holder is encouraged to dig deeper to find answers and overcome challenges. At the same time, the circle members are practicing the art of asking open questions, a skill that is useful in all areas of work, including consulting, mentoring, and coaching.
Some of the greatest insights that I’ve received over the years have been as a circle member rather than as an issue holder. It turns out that the challenges we face — whether they be inter-personal, emotional, or operational — are often not that unique after all.
Learning = action and reflection
Action learning, as the name implies, is all about action and learning. Which means that issue holders receive support for their actions and their progress month-by-month. Each time the coaching circle meets, they practice reflective learning through providing individual updates to the group and ending with a group retrospective.
The power of a supportive community
Working as an Agile coach can often be quite lonely. Coaches and consultants frequently spend the majority of their time supporting others while they themselves might feel unsupported. A coaching circle is a safe place to explore one’s challenges. Being asked probing questions from circle members allows the issue holder to work through problems that often they’re not able to work through on their own, while developing networks and relationships that are deeper than most work relationships.