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HR-as-coach: unlearning to be a more masterful coach

Clare Norman - Coaching Federation

Unlearning.  Yes, your eyes do not deceive you: this article is not about learning to be a great coach, but unlearning to be a great coach.

You might wonder what you need to unlearn to be a better coach.  Or maybe you remember your coach training and all of the unlearning of old mindsets you needed to do there, before you could replace those mindsets with new ones.

For example, replacing the mindset of “HR knows what’s best for people” with “individuals know what is best for their lives and careers, given their unique set of circumstances”.

My life as a coach started in a corporate, twenty plus years ago.  I get what it’s like to be an internal coach, especially when it is not a full-time role.  And I have experienced the need to switch off my worker-bee mindset and switch on my coach mindset, for the benefit of the thinker with whom I am working.

I call my client the thinker (per Nancy Kline, 2002), because that is exactly what they are there to do: think. This immediately sets the tone for coaching, that indicates that their job is to think and my job is to create the best thinking environment within which they can do that adult thinking.

If we don’t throw off the worker-bee cloak before walking into the (virtual or physical) coaching room, we turn up to coaching with unhelpful mindsets, which drive unhelpful skillsets.  Skillsets which disempower rather than empower, skillsets which minimise the thinker’s capacity to think rather than maximising this capability in them.  I am sure that isn’t our intention, to disempower or minimise, but it shows up in micro-behaviours that embody our deeply ingrained mindsets.

In the course of my work as a mentor coach, observing hundreds of hours of coaching, I have observed first-hand 83 mindset shifts that are imperative for us coaches to unlearn and reframe, so that we can change our habitual patterns of coaching.  These mindsets come from the introjections of our parents, our teachers, our peers, our work and managers, our coach training even.  These scripts served us well at the time we learned them, but they don’t serve our thinkers well now.

One example of a mindset shift that is necessary for more masterful coaching is about interrupting.  Our parents or carers likely taught us that it is rude to interrupt, and in normal conversation, that may be true.  But if we carry that voice into our coaching, we may allow the thinker to tell us story or context that they already know, which is not as valuable a use of their time as enabling them to get to new thinking.  So we need a different mindset, that interrupting new thinking is unhelpful, but interrupting known thinking to check how useful it is, is masterful if we have asked for permission to do so as part of our session contracting.

We (coach and thinker) are co-travellers, travelling into the unknown together, designing the map as we go, because there is no map for this person’s unique journey.

That might be a big mindset shift in itself, leaving the map that you know to one side in favour of drawing a new one with this particular traveller, to suit their personality, their needs, their desires; though if you are a proponent of Human Centered Design, this will not be new to you.

Can you see now how the worker-bee mindset might get in the way of this?  As an HR specialist, you see yourself as an expert in people, you have plenty of maps with predefined destinations that have worked for you and others, you perhaps think you know what is best for others.

But coaching is ‘a joint endeavour to move beyond known thinking to discover new thinking that energises the thinker to change.’ (Norman, 2022). Spelling this out, one phrase at a time:

  • Coaching is a joint endeavour, so everything that we believe, do and say should reflect that partnership – what I often see in coaches though is evidence of an expert/apprentice, mentor/mentee, parent/child mindset.  They come to coaching with answers, knowing, expertise.  Not always knowingly, but it shows up in the way that they behave as a coach.
  • The purpose is to get to new thinking, not go over old ground – what I often see in coaches though is using the time to get the complete picture of the “as is” situation, when the thinker may already know this so this is not the most valuable use of the coaching time.  Some coaches listen ad infinitum, when interrupting in service of new thinking might be more useful. But this requires a different mindset in order to follow through with the skill of interrupting.
  • New thinking leads to transformational change, now or in the long run. Pushing too hard, too fast creates short-term wins but long-term falling-back to old ways (Koroleva, 2016). What I often see in coaches is action- or task-oriented questions rather than exploring the territory of beliefs, values, mindsets, meaning-making. With the worker-bee hat on, this is understandable, as employees are paid to move at pace to solve problems and get to action.  But with a coach’s hat on, your aim is to ask questions that take the thinking vertically deeper rather than horizontally forwards.  Sustainable, possibly even life-changing actions will naturally fall out of this kind of exploration, in the last few minutes of the coaching.  But you have to believe in this possibility, if you are to experiment with it.
  • Like a personal trainer, your job, as a coach, is not to do the heavy lifting. The trainee lifts the weights themselves to build their own body muscles. The thinker does the hard thinking in order to build their thinking muscles for a future independent of the coach.  You can let go of trying so hard to do the work for them, truly demonstrating in your actions that they are “creative, resourceful and whole” (Whitworth et al, 1998).

Just as Yoda said to Luke in the Empire Strikes Back, “you must unlearn what you have learned” from societal programming.  Listen to recordings of your coaching to identify the micro-behaviours that are disempowering or minimising the thinkers with whom you work, and identify the ingrained mindsets that underlie these behaviours.  Look for ways to make marginal gains in your coaching, by untangling yourself from those now unhelpful scripts.

If you would like help with that unlearning, seek out a mentor coach, who can listen to recordings with you, shining a light on your blind-spots. Ask your mentor coach to enable you to look underneath the surface of competencies at the mindsets that are informing the way you show up.  This is what we do with the thinkers with whom we work, making changes at the level of beliefs in order to make changes at the level of behaviour.

Kline, N. (2002) Time to Think, London: Cassell.

Norman C. (2022) The transformational coach: free your thinking and break through to coaching mastery. London, SRA Publishing.

Koroleva, N. (2016) A new model of sustainable change in executive coaching: Coachees’ attitudes, required resources and routinisation, International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, Special Issue 10: 84–97.

Whitworth, L., Kimsey-House, H. and Sandahl, P. (1998) Co-active Coaching, Palo Alto, CA: Davies Black Publishing.

The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Dir. I. Kershner, LucasFilm.

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