“So, are we going to spend time talking about our feelings?”

This question has been thrown at me many times in “coaching chemistry calls” – the initial meeting between someone seeking coaching and their prospective coach to see whether they would like to work together – mostly from clients who have never worked with a coach before.

Some appear uncomfortable, in case I do say yes. Some appear apprehensive; is this really how this coaching thing works?

As part of True Partnership’s ongoing series on demystifying the process of coaching, we would like to share five examples of how we work with clients on leadership development topics (but these could work equally well in other contexts too).

1. Reflecting back

A Product Director, that I’ll call Paul here (not his real name) came to a coaching session recently, still insidiously annoyed about how one of his team members had been consistently disruptive in team meetings. Paul saw the perceived disruptive behaviour as a deliberate challenge to his authority and in the last team meeting, had snapped in front of his team, something that he has since regret.

So, we reflected back on the situation together.

Re-playing uncomfortable situations is never easy. But placing yourself from a distance, as though you were a fly on the wall, can lead to insights on how and why you acted the way you did. Over time, this kind of reflection (especially in the presence of a supportive coach) can help you discover greater leadership insights about yourself.

“What happened?”, “How did your body feel when you were about to snap?”

Paul remembered tension accumulating around his chest and shoulders as this team member “complained” about decisions we made last week. “I was beyond livid, as he always, always, does this”. “He thinks he’s always right but he’s not. I could feel my head hurting as soon as he started. The rest of the team is just as fed up as I am.”

“How did the team react to your outburst? How do you think it impacted how they perceive you as a leader?”

Understanding how you affect others is a crucial emotional skill and can give you vital signals on how best to influence others, key ingredients to an adaptive leadership style.

2. Understanding our patterns

We are hard wired to behave in patterns. Research shows that up to 95% of our day-to-day behaviours are subconscious. This means that our brains are only making conscious choices on what we say and how we behave in a fraction of our lives and the interactions we have with one another,

With a supportive coach, these patterns can be brought not just into conscious awareness but also changed over time.

“Is this the first time you’ve reacted this way?”

Having recently been promoted, this is the first time Paul has managed a team of 10+ people. Not only did he feel unsure about his capabilities to lead a big team, he also thinks that the team recognises his inexperience and tries to actively take advantage of it.

Together we explored Paul’s thought patterns when he’s with his team in meetings. Paul realised that he sees a lot of what his team members say as criticism of him, regardless of whether he was at fault or could have prevented things from going wrong.

That’s why he goes into high stress “battle mode” in team meetings and felt compelled to defend himself and his actions at every turn.

Understanding your emotions and thought patterns can bring enormous insights into why we behave the way we do.

Armed with these insights, Paul was able to recognise his default thought patterns as they happen “real-time” and interrupt his thought patterns just in time before he tipped over the edge into defensive mode.

3. Understanding what we avoid

“You describe your team member as being consistently disruptive. Have you discussed this with him before?”

We all avoid some conversations in our lives. But if someone has consistently done something that bothers you in the workplace, shying away from the conversation, however unpleasant you envision it to be, isn’t going to make the issue go away.

“What stopped you from having a 1-1 conversation with this team member, so you can tell him how you feel?”

Paul thought he would come across as a weak and inadequate leader, if he were to point out his team member’s unhelpful remarks as demoralising to the team. “I didn’t want to give him any more ammunition. I’m scared that his behaviour will get worse if he thinks I’m weak and unable to manage team meetings.”

Understanding the conversations we avoid can help us understand our fears. Sometimes these fears are deeply rooted in previous bad experiences of difficult conversations. Appreciating how we’ve come to perceive certain situations as difficult and unpleasant (and therefore actively avoid them!) will remove some inertia against taking action.

Working with a coach to either role play difficult conversations, or work out a framework/script in advance, can alleviate the anxiety associated with having difficult conversations. Feeling more prepared can also help to manage our own emotions during these difficult conversations.

4. Perspective taking

Perspective-taking is the ability to put ourselves in the place of someone else while recognising their point of view, experiences and beliefs. You don’t need to agree with someone to “live in someone else’s shoes.”

“So what made your team member act the way that he did?”

Paul reflected that having only joined recently, this team member may feel the need to grab attention amongst a closely knit team. He may feel unsure of his role and his contribution to the team. It’s possible that he wanted to “act like the smart one” by putting others’ opinions down and always having the last word.

These are just hypotheses, of course. But appreciating that his team member may have had different reasons to act the way he did, rather than just being deliberately disruptive to the team, was sufficient for Paul to appreciate that as his manager, he ought to take action to find out why.

5. Looking forward

“So, looking forward, what do you intend to do?”

Through 1-1 coaching, Paul appreciated how his negative thought patterns contributed to an unhealthy “lense” from which he evaluated his team member’s comments in meetings. He is yet to feel confident in his role as the team’s leader and started to interpret most feedback as criticism of him.

Paul realised that there were some immediate actions. Not only did he need to have a 1-1 conversation with this team member, he also needed to address his team, sooner rather than later, on his recent behaviour.

He needed to better address his own boundaries with his team; feedback is always welcomed but it needs to be given in a productive way, with potential solutions and changes to be made, rather than just dwelling on what’s gone wrong and lost opportunities.

He also realised that his team will benefit from best practices training on providing feedback and he’ll reach out to his HR business partner to arrange that.

“And what would you do differently in the future?”

In future sessions, Paul and I worked together to identify his triggers using the “Window of Tolerance” Model and how he typically reacts when he is triggered. We agreed on a few strategies to give Paul the “time-out” he needed when he’s been triggered.

In addition, Paul took up mindfulness practice, which has been proven to improve a leader’s resilience to a “great” or “very great” extent – as well as ability to collaborate and lead in complex situations.

Insights drive behavioural change

Coaching can help you discover different perspectives, offering you the opportunity to reflect and evaluate leadership situations through different lenses, in a supportive and safe environment.

But insights alone are futile, unless they lead to action; and eventually insights need to drive lasting behavioural change to be useful.

That’s why I rarely let my clients “off the hook” with just gaining insights. In each session, I endeavour to challenge my clients to turn insights into actions, both in the short term as well as longer term behavioural change.

Note: Consistent with the ethics of our profession, the case study above is a composite of cases and does not contain any identifying information. While the case was presented using 5 distinctly different “lenses”, in practice, coaches would utilise multiple perspectives in a single conversation in a way that best serves what the client would like to achieve from the coaching session.

Further reading:

If this article has sparked your interest in how coaching can help to improve your leadership skills, here’s a few other articles True Partnership has published recently to demystify how coaching works: