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Change Agents and Facilitators: Do you feel supported?

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.

Greenwich Park

As we talked and echoed each other, I felt as if we were gradually getting clearer on our issues, gaining insights, and that potential strategies and solutions were starting to emerge. 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.

Greenwich Park, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What had Andrea done to help me get clarity on my issues and to feel empowered to act?

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, reflected back to me what I had said and 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 fresh, new angles. Knowing me well enough as she did, she felt safe to challenge me in certain areas, rather than simply remaining silent 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:

  1. A problem (safely) shared is a problem halved.
  2. By being witness to another person’s issues, we gain insights into our own, especially when their issues have resonances with ours.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 and reflections

coaching circle

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?

Coaching Circle is a closed group of circle members who meet regularly over several months. During each session, circle members have the opportunity to support each other on current work challenges. The main methods used are Action Learning Sets and Dialogue.

The objective of Action Learning is to explore a question from your work with discussion and input from a group of colleagues, so that you learn from their thinking and experience and from the questions they bring. It is a deeply enriching process and a wonderful way of learning through reflection and shared experience. As the circle members ask more probing questions, the question holder is encouraged to dig deeper to find answers and overcome challenges. At the same time, the circle members are practicing the art of deep listening and asking open questions, skills that are useful (even imperative) in all areas of work, including consulting, mentoring, and coaching.

Dialogue, on the other hand, allows for a more organic process to unfold, so that powerful insights emerge from the group field.

This combination of Action Learning and Dialogue makes for a very powerful combination of actively working on individual challenges whilst simultaneously allowing for the emergence of insights in a more co-created, generative way.

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 systemic — are often not as unique to each individual as we might think.

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 reflecting on themselves as a group.

The power of a supportive community

Working as a coach or facilitator can often be quite a lonely place. Consultants, managers and those in similar roles 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.

Interested in joining a Coaching Circle?

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