By Loi Lye Eng

Are you listening, Coach?
Or are you busy thinking about the next question to ask?

If your coaching journey is anything similar to mine, it could probably be depicted in three stages of growth like this:

Stage I – Learn Up on Coaching

Study and memorize by heart the eight ICF Core Competencies, 3-stage Coaching Model, Human Behavioural System, Adult Thinking Styles, Reframing, Outer & Inner Game, Buckets & Balloons, Coaching Protocol, Professional Coaching Conversation Structure, and more. 

Believe me, studying was the easiest part, although the 3kg of printed materials would intimidatingly make you believe otherwise. I have always been a minimalist in my daily life, and brevity was my signature when it comes to notes taking. I broke the rule. I took notes on the intent of the content, the tell-tale signs of specific frames, the quotes of wisdom, and ah, all those powerful questions! All these intensive and excessive scribbling in the training materials made me feel invincible, or so I thought. Although my first taste of reality came when I move on to the next stage, i.e. peer coaching practice, these heavily scribbled materials remain my treasured confidence-seeking gem to this day.

Stage II – Doing the Coaching 

Practise with peer coaches, attempting to apply all that you have studied systematically, and are still not quite there yet. 

This was meant to be the fun part, but it had often turned into a stressful experience for me. I have had sessions filled with long moments of silence because no questions came to mind – kind of like “writer’s block” if you know what I mean. I have had sessions where peers felt that the conversations were aimless and “not tight”. Knowing more about the structure and the process of coaching was supposed to make me a more effective coach, except that it didn’t.

Truth be told, I have never been at my best when I am conscious that I will be assessed. I needed to be liberated in my head to unleash a better version of myself. If only I knew how.

My “a-ha” moment came through a chance occasion. Two weeks after I received the Certified Associate Coach certificate, I volunteered for an event organized by Corporate Coach Academy. During the event, I was paired with a peer coach with 20 years of experience. Being the rookie I was, feeling small & intimidated would be a natural reaction. My mind went blank when it was my turn to coach my super- experienced peer, & I could not remember most of the coaching stuff that I have learnt. Panicking inside, I took a deep breath & said to myself, “OK, if I can’t be a good coach, I can at least be a friend who listens empathetically.” So I listened, and I got curious, and I asked a question, and another, and another… When the session ended with the

agenda achieved, my super-experienced peer said to me, “This is by far the best conversation I’ve had with a peer coach. I haven’t had this feeling for a very long time.”

I felt an instant relief. It was my first sneak peek at the coach in me. A good start, but not quite enough in the bigger scheme of things.

Stage III – Being the Coach 

Releasing control of the conversation, listening, staying present, & succeeding contentedly, at last. 

Looking back, the shift from “doing the coaching” to “being the coach” is an evolution that happens progressively, certainly not an overnight transformation. In the coaches’ lingo, “doing” is extrinsic, while “being” is intrinsic. During my early days of coaching practice, much of my focus was spent in the search for the next question to ask. As a result, I asked problem-solving or “technical” questions instead of awareness-raising questions. This had often led to more extrinsic solutions rather than the desired intrinsic realization. I knew I needed to overcome this barrier.

It was not until I came across the Improvisation Technique that I found the way to transcend from “doing” to “being”. Improvisation is a form of theatre, often comedy, in which most or all of what is performed is unplanned or unscripted. In its purest form, the dialogue, action, story, and characters are created collaboratively by the players as the improvisation unfolds in the present time, without the use of any written script. It is often used extensively in drama programs to train actors. However, the skills and processes of improvisation are also used outside the context of performing arts.

Simply put, improvisation is theatre without a script. On closer inspection, it is kind of like coaching, leadership and well, life. The most difficult task for a coach is being 100% present in the moment with a client, listening deeply, and responding in the moment. Improvisation helps me achieve that and improve my coaching with three techniques.

  1. Listen Purely. Improvisation is spontaneous, unscripted and with no lines to You create your line by listening attentively to the previous line. You cannot plan or think ahead. To create a response, you have to listen carefully and wholeheartedly. In coaching, we must stop thinking ahead and just listen purely instead. Forming questions in our minds while the client is still talking will cause us to miss what the client is saying, and not saying.
  1. Follow Together. No one leads in an improvisation scene, no actors know where the scene is heading. They are following together. Everyone follows and leads the other simultaneously. It requires presence in the moment. No individual has sole control over the conversation and it is organic. In improvisation, actors listen and respond with “Yes, and …” building on what was said. Coaches can practise follow- together by listening purely and responding with “Yes, and …” followed by their Ask questions that flow from what the client just said, and witness how each question builds the conversation organically.
  1. Explore In improvisation comedy, the actors set the scene by following together. As they do so, they explore the scene to discover what is funny. The “funny” moment comes from the dialogue. They let it flow and explore naturally. As coaches, we tend to be helpful, wanting to solve clients’ problems. Often the first problem we hear, we are off and running to solutions. Prescription without diagnosis is malpractice. To be effective coaches, we have to take time to explore deeply the client’s scene, discover an opening and continue exploring together until a solution presents itself.

These three techniques of “listen purely”, “follow together”, and “explore deeply” are concise and easy to remember. Applying them over the taught coaching structure and underlying ICF Core Competencies has been a game changer in my coaching experience since. By using these techniques in every coaching conversation, I listen more and I listen better. It trains my mind to stay present in the moment with the client, so intense that it overpowers the fear of being assessed, thus unleashing my better self from within. Not only are these three techniques practical, but they also serve as a powerful reminder for me to stay the course of an effective coach, authentically.

For the avid learners, check out The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual.

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