I wrote this article for a Coaching website and they told it was too personal. That’s the only way I know how to write and so I decided not to de-sensitise it by talking about “a coach” when I mean to share my own experience. I hope you find my thoughts useful, and I’d love reactions from other coaches, people who go into coaching, and of course anyone who wants someone to help them find a key…
With every new client there is a moment of vulnerability and discomfort for me around 20 minutes into the first session. It seems to happen every time, and I have to take courage and move through it without doubting myself too far. It is the moment I believe I will never see the light in this dark room I am in.
In the first session I am invited into a space of life or experience by my new client. They are explaining to me their world, their challenges, their backstory. They can see it all behind and around them. I am listening intently because I can see nothing at the moment. Within this darkened room there is a door – but I cannot see it.
I am listening and looking and trying to show no insecurity. My unhelpful story is saying: “what are they after?, they are so experienced, so good at what they do, so much more aware of their artform/life/experience, why have they approached me ?, what can I ever do to help them ?” and various unhelpful chatter. And I breathe, and listen more, and very slowly each time (so far), my senses begin to get attuned to the dark and I begin to see the room in which we are standing.
Now my task is to listen and understand where there might be a door in this room. My new client doesn’t want to stay in this dark room. They know that there are obstacles and difficulties here. They want to move away, or forward, or through, or around. Or maybe they want to shine a light in the room and stay there, better illuminated and with so much more awareness of the space in which they are remaining. In each case there is a need to find some light, and that will come from finding a door.
By the end of the first session I hope that I will have found the door. The client may have pointed it out to me, or my listening vision may have spotted it behind them or hidden in a corner they haven’t seen yet. It may not be the right door, but it will be a point of focus.
However, it is almost always locked and there is no key in the door. My fear that I may never find the door is now replaced by a concern that I may not have the key that I need available on the desk in front of me. When I trained with the Coaching Academy, I was introduced to hundreds of keys and methods of revealing a path forward, or shedding light on the current situation. But which key fits.
I remember being told by one of the wisest of our lecturers that, despite being introduced to hundreds of tools/keys, we would end up with a trusty group of just a few that we use all the time. If I have a note for myself as I write this, it is to remind myself to go back to the toolbox and re-acquaint myself with a few more keys/tools. They may be useful to remember in times when the lock seems particularly resistant to opening.
The fascinating thing about all this for me is how frequently, during the first session, I go from feeling lost in a darkened room, to glimpsing a door through which we may travel or through which light may glow, and then to the point where we test out a first key. I glance at my clock and realise that I am beginning to see a new world more clearly in less than 40 minutes of first encountering this person’s life and world. It is an exciting time.
I have to remember to be careful not to change into mentor/advisor as I see familiar areas of their room, or as I learn of the sharp objects they are trying to avoid. My inner voice may be going “well last time I hit this problem myself I did this… or can’t they see that this and this and that are happening…?” I silence the chatter and just listen. Now my role is to ask questions to help them see their room/world a bit more clearly as we look at the door, and wonder about the key together.
By the end of the first session I hope to have tried one tool/key with them to get a better idea of how the room looks, what the door might be, and one tiny action which could put a key into that door and prepare to make a change to their world. We probably don’t turn the key yet. There is time between now and the next session for them to do a bit of a “reality check” so that they are aware of a few sharp or immovable objects in the room before they start moving to or through the door.
What baggage will they need to take with them? What is essential for the journey? Who might they need to tell before they set off? Who might be a wise route-planner to ask?
All questions which may enlighten the situation for next time.
There’s one other extraordinary thing which happens with coaching sessions for me. I arrive at the desk with my own baggage, my own life. I can’t leave it at the door. I can remain silent about it through the session and ensure it doesn’t influence the open-ness of my listening and my questions. However, the universe often decides to give me some reflected light from the room in which the client and I are standing. Almost every time I come away with an awareness of having been coached myself through the experience of the session. A question I may ask kicks back at me requiring my attention. Or even more wonderfully, an answer from my client gives me a gift of understanding which I can use with my baggage and journey. They may offer me just a word, or a reference to a book or article they love, or a piece of wisdom they live with in their life.
Coaching is a fascinating pleasure where I learn all the time. But I have no idea whether I am alone in feeling vulnerable and unsure at the mid-point of a first session. (My inner voice is saying: “it’s probably only me, why on earth are you talking about it?”).
I’d love to hear other coaches’ thoughts.