Dan Oestreich is a coach I respect immensely, and when he asked to interview me for the March issue of his newsletter, I couldn't agree fast enough. He graciously agreed to let me re-post our interview here, and the results are below. It seems noteworthy that while I've enjoyed getting to know Dan through his thoughtful essays and interesting tweets, this interview reflects our first in-person conversation. That says something to me about how our online networks allow us to connect with like-minded people and develop meaningful friendships when we take the risk to be ourselves. Many thanks, Dan.
Q. Ed, in your blog posts you frequently use yourself as your own best learning laboratory. You are open about exactly what is going on for you personally including experiences both rewarding and uncomfortable. What's behind this level of self-disclosure for you?
A. In part, it reflects how I got started in coaching - which was first by being a client. I'd graduated from business school and accepted a role as the founding Executive Director of a new non-profit with big names on the Board, including people from Microsoft and Cisco. As a freshly minted MBA, I thought that the way I needed to add value as a leader was by having the best ideas and by winning support for them by proving their superiority. As a result I found myself championing my ideas in a way that repeatedly led me into conflicts with Board members. One of them, acting as a mentor to me, took me aside and said, "Hey, we think you're a talented young leader, but you have some rough edges, and we'd really like you to invest in yourself and get a coach." I went back to a professor of mine who had taught a class at Stanford on interpersonal dynamics and enlisted her support as a coach - which, by the way, she still does for me.
Accepting that suggestion from my mentor was a real gift, a pivotal moment, and I was able to act on it because it was offered in a way that made it safe for me. I wasn't told, "Shape up or be fired." Instead, I was told that, first, I was an effective leader with a lot of potential; second, I was leading in a way that was undermining my effectiveness; and finally, coaching could be a means of getting some support and investing in my own development. I had the ability to opt in and to find my own way. It didn't come across as a threat but instead as an investment in myself, and as a result I could engage. When I eventually transitioned out of organizational management to coaching as a career, I remembered that lesson about finding ways to reduce the threat for people in order to help them and support them in their learning and growth. So now I try to model that. I am a learning laboratory, just as we all are, and I don't think coaching is something that is just good for other people. I think it's important for coaches to have coaches, for us to walk our talk.
Q. Ed, where do you think that sense of threat related to coaching really comes from?
A. Over the course of our evolution as a species we've developed a very powerful threat response, and neuroscience research has shown that when we experience a social situation that we perceive as threatening, our brains respond just as they do when we experience an actual physical threat to our safety. David Rock is a coach who's done a tremendous job of studying neuroscience research findings and understanding their implications for coaching and organizational life, and he's devised the SCARF Model to characterize situations that are likely to trigger a social threat. SCARF stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness (the sense of similarity and connection we feel with another person) and Fairness. Whenever one of these values is undermined in some way, we're likely to experience a social threat, and it's clear that the suggestion that we need some coaching could do just that. A suggestion like that is a form of feedback, and we all know what it feels like when someone says, "Can I give you some feedback?" Even if we truly want the feedback, we tend to feel anxious and even uncomfortable -- manifestations of a threat response -- and it's because we may feel a loss of status, we're uncertain about what the other person is going to say, we feel obligated to accept the feedback and thus have less autonomy, and we may even feel disconnected from the other person, or that the feedback is unfair. The same feelings can come up when it's suggested that we could use some coaching, and they all stem from this concept of a social threat being triggered.
Q. I notice, similarly, that you often talk about the role of shame and embarrassment for yourself and for others as a hard-limit on personal learning. Could you say more about that?
A. This is exactly one of those areas where I can use myself effectively as a learning laboratory. I think there's a spectrum of related emotions that range from social awkwardness and mild embarrassment to deep shame. Wherever I am on that spectrum because of some circumstance or event, I know that it's helpful to talk about those feelings. If we don't, these feeling reinforce themselves and can collapse in on us. We are ashamed because we are ashamed, and so we stay ashamed. Or we're embarrassed because we're embarrassed, and so we stay embarrassed. It's a downward spiral. Yet what the neuroscience research says is that by talking about these feelings we relieve them, and so we're confronted with a paradox. I manage my feelings most effectively by acknowledging them, rather than going along with the natural impulse to hide them.
Such strong emotions can be powerfully deforming to us, but as a result can also be powerful points of leverage. What's clear is that they really shape our behavior. Think of the leader who makes a mistake. If I'm that leader and can acknowledge the mistake, the effect can be transformative for me and for those around me. But unacknowledged, shame and embarrassment can feed other negative emotions. I could end up becoming angry with others because I can't handle my own embarrassment, for example. I become deeply frightened that my shame and embarrassment will be seen no matter how I try to conceal them, and this creates a cycle that spins out of control.
A small example: I was doing a presentation recently and I had a slide in my deck labeled, "Ineffective Communication." A member of my audience said, "Ed, you've misspelled the word, 'Ineffective' and it's distracting me." In the moment, I could have pretended his comment didn't affect me, but it did. I was trained as a writer, and I care about things like spelling, and I was embarrassed. In the moment, I had to hold my place and not fall into blaming him for raising the issue. But as soon as I acknowledged my embarrassment out loud, those feelings began to recede and I didn't stay stuck in them or hold onto them.
This example fits into a larger pattern I see when we're not fully clear about another person's intentions. It's typically safer to assume a negative intent -- when we do, we protect ourselves from harm or from unwanted experiences. And so when we don't fully understand another person's intentions, we typically fill that void with negative assumptions about their motives. This is an understandable form of self-protection, and evolution clearly selected for the genes that contribute to this type of threat response. But at the same time this response heightens our stress levels, keeps us at a distance from others and prevents the learning and growth that occur when we question our negative assumptions, rather than follow them blindly.
Q. What does this mean for the role of the coach? What does a coach do for a client experiencing these emotions?
A. A lot of what we do as coaches is to intervene in this cycle. Our point of intervention is to help our clients to step back, reflect, examine, acknowledge whatever embarrassment or shame is there, and in doing so create a different kind of safety for themselves, one that breaks through the self-imposed limits. I help as a coach by accepting the person and their emotions and by asking questions such as: Is this the whole picture? Are there other interactions, other people in the system that should be part of your frame of reference? What assumptions and real data are involved? What is the whole array of choices available to you? Often, driven by negative emotions that seem to make it safer, we reduce the range of options for ourselves just when we need to expand them. And we all need help stepping back from the grip of our negative emotions in order to reflect on them. And just being with a supportive learning partner, a coach, on a regular basis, clients can learn how to give themselves the safety and the time they need, so that they can intervene in this cycle on their own, after our coaching engagement has ended.
Q. Beyond creating safety, "holding the space" for a client's capacity to reflect, what does a good coach do?
A. This certainly doesn't mean the coach does nothing but be there. Often I find that I am wrestling with the tension of how much to intervene. I know that I will step forward when I need to point out some called-for action by the client. But just as frequently, the question is really what's the meaningful kind of presence I can bring. How do I ask an open-ended question that has a little friction to it, but isn't distracting? A question that occupies middle ground. I love laughing with clients and developing a friendly partnership, but if I try to simply preserve that quality in the coaching relationship, I fail the client. I want to maintain that, but not in a way that avoids addressing any heavier issues that a client might be grappling with. And at the same time I don't want to push with so much friction that it becomes an ineffective confrontation because I've actually diminished the safety for them.
On the "not enough friction" side, for example, I worked with a client on her career trajectory in some very concrete ways, but learned later than I would have liked in the coaching relationship that she was actually wrestling with wanting to be a mother. I had to ask myself whether I pursued the right questions and presence, ones that brought the real challenge to the surface.
Q. That's an important question of balance and finding that middle ground. What other dangers or challenges do you notice in your work?
A. A very important challenge for a coach is one I call the distinction between healthy "investment" in the client and unhealthy "attachment" to a particular outcome for the client. I can get so attached as a coach to what I think will be or should be my client's success that I lose my effectiveness. I take too much responsibility for that success and suddenly I can become more directive than facilitative. That certainly was apparent to me--after the fact--in the example of the woman I just mentioned. I was so invested in her career possibilities and my ability to help her with those that I may have missed the deeper possibilities of the coaching process for her. Good coaches are able to modulate their attachment and ownership of the client's results. I make an investment in my client - that's good - but I also need to recognize the point at which that investment becomes attachment.
Q. Seems like a similar challenge could be true for any organizational leader.
A. Yes, that's a nice connection. Leaders are often asked to be problem-solvers, but they can so easily limit themselves, their reports, and their organization by being attached too much to what they think should happen, rather than what can happen when they are appropriately invested. I see that in clients who need to be, for example, a kind of "doer in chief," playing the classic heroic leadership role even though the organization has outgrown the need for that. I've been working with one such client and it's amazingly gratifying to see how he has expanded the definition of his role as leader and stepped into new types of work that are both more fulfilling for him personally and more productive for the organization as a whole. The great thing is he knew he had to change, that his growth is coupled to the organization's growth. And the thing that was been holding him back really has been his self-image. As he has liberated himself from that image, he has been able to see a much greater value in his capacity to connect with people and to truly lead the organization, not just someone who can get more busy-work done than anyone else. It's an intrapersonal and an interpersonal growth process.
Q. Ed, how do any of us make such a shift, knowing as your client did, that we need to change?
A. I'm a believer in breaking change down into bite-sized pieces. My work has been to help my client clarify small steps, celebrate small accomplishments, translate change into a daily practice based on his ability to see his own mental model of himself and his leadership. I help him construct experiments to test a new view of who he is. It's blocking and tackling, practical work based on a structured process.
Q. In the end, how would you define the value you have brought this--or most any--client?
A. Honestly, I don't feel I have added that much in this case except to ask questions and offer the client the opportunity to pause and to look, and to realize that he's already doing it: connecting, operating differently. I believe my role as a coach is both necessary and modest. Necessary in the sense of helping clients know how to get started. And modest in the sense that the goal is for clients to be able to coach themselves after I leave. This isn't about reaching my idea of what some endpoint should be for them. In part, that's one of the reasons I love coaching and why it's a calling for me. It's about their movement toward the most important goals they establish for themselves. It's a privilege for me, an honor, to be of service in the time I have with them. I feel good anytime I see someone commit to a coaching engagement because it's an investment in themselves. It's also a big step that I took for myself, with the encouragement of my mentor on my Board of Directors ten years ago. Today I have the benefit of seeing from the coach's perspective how much people want to grow and improve, how they learn and persist through struggles, and how in the course of our work together they ultimately become capable of coaching themselves, without any further intervention from me. It's truly gratifying, and I feel very lucky to do this work and to be invited into people's lives and careers in this way.