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Coaching to Flourish #086: The Structures of Powerful Coaching

August 18, 2023 by Coach Training EDU

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Raj Anderson and guest experts answer your coaching questions each week!

In Coaching to Flourish #086, host Raj Anderson and guest John Andrew Williams go back to coaching basics! They investigate the framework of coaching sessions, the value of structure, and overcoming the awkwardness of setting an agenda. They also discuss the inspiring theory of your intentionality of having major life goals being the guiding light of personal and professional development. Join us for this rich episode!

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Raj Anderson: Welcome everyone to the Coaching to Flourish podcast. I'm your host, Raj Anderson, executive life coach and coach Assessor. And I am excited to be here with John Andrew Williams, who's the founder of Coach Training EDU. How are you doing, John? 

John Andrew Williams: Good. I just had to turn off the AC 'cause it's loud. It's a little hot in Oregon, but it's been that way I guess everywhere this summer. Yeah, just feeling like doing our life's work. Trying to make the world a better place. So here we are. How are you doing Raj, how are you? 

Raj Anderson: I'm good, I'm good. I'm excited. And yeah, same, attempting to make the world a better place, one moment, one interaction at a time, I think. 

John Andrew Williams: Yep. It's happening. And it's amazing to feel the movement grow as well. To be in the space of, you know, being on the cutting edge of coaching and seeing it develop over the past 20 years, it feels like the moment is just gaining momentum. So here we are. 

Raj Anderson: We are gaining momentum. With that in mind, before we go into some of the questions, what would you say to anyone who is interested in coaching right now?

John Andrew Williams: Find a coach and get a couple coaching sessions. I think it's relatively low investment, and you'll experience what it's like to be coached firsthand. And make sure that they are accredited through the ICF or Health Board, and experience accredited, trained, professional coaching. 

And then from there - 'cause that's how I got into it. I got into it as a practice client from some of the people who were going through with Amoise. And I got a firsthand experience of it. And after that, it really helped me to know what I liked, what I didn't like, what the nature of the conversations were like. And when it was really challenging, when I was coaching and learning how to coach, I knew the value of it just based on my experience as a client. That became invaluable for me to keep going in the field, until eventually I knew that I could deliver value consistently. 

It's a big deal to get a coach. I know it's a step, somewhat scary, but interview three people, make a decision, experience it, and then we'll talk. 

Raj Anderson: Absolutely. It's life changing, I can say that. So if you are listening and you are interested in coaching, then as John said, find a coach, experience it, and if you're interested in becoming a coach, I would definitely advocate for, come and visit the Coach Training EDU website, maybe get some sample training, get a taster, and you won't regret it.

And now we're gonna shift gear. So for our coaches who've sent us some questions in John, we've got some questions today around coaching session structures and agenda setting. And I know that when you and I have talked, and I've heard you share this before, you do say that great coaching can sound like a great conversation. Yet it isn't just that, is there, there is a method and a framework to it. So why is having a structure important in a coaching session? 

John Andrew Williams: Yeah. This goes back to when I was just learning to coach. I mean, so my journey to coaching and working with teenagers in this space, I now look back and think, my understanding of coaching has evolved. And because of the unique way that I got involved in the coaching field, the way that I structure coaching sessions is unique. I had to learn how to retrofit it to the ICF in a way. You know, setting the agenda, the idea of having a time model, where you really outline the topic, the importance, the measurement, and the echo, and sticking with that. That's a relatively new idea, in my history of coaching, because when I got into coaching, my training did not emphasize setting an agenda or a structure for the call.

And really, when you're looking at structure around coaching sessions, there's a lot of different philosophies out there. You can get as structured as you want using neuro-linguistic programming, which is almost like a recipe. Like, do this first, do this so many times, you test it, you do break states, you do the next thing, you do checks for understanding. You go through, it's almost like a checklist. And then on the other hand, you have very free form coaching, which is, I'm just gonna ask curious question after curious question, and trust my client and see where they go. And then at the end of the session, ask them action steps, and we'll call that good.

Those are two, both ends of the extremes. I was trained in both, and then I was working with teenagers. And the interesting thing, when you're working in the - we'll call it just curious question model, you do get value. You get a lot of value from that. And so the only structure of that coaching session is your client, their life. And you can follow the client's thread, and ask them curious questions and curious questions, and you can trust your client we'll get to someplace useful. Absolutely. 

But then you add a little bit of structure, and that structure looks like setting a strong agenda for the call that comes from the client. That to me is the foundation. You have that structure, you are good to go. Like, you can then go into curious question mode, and then check back in on the structure and check back in on the question, the agenda, on a very specific, measurable way. 

Now, I know the training that I took, it has evolved, and they would probably say, well wait a second, we have whole things on setting agendas and structures and things like this. Sure. But it's the emphasis of, like Coach Training EDU, every single session has a structure and agenda, and the agenda is very, very specific. So that five minutes is almost scripted, I would say, of a 30 minute call. And I encourage coaches to view it as scripted. Like, you don't need to be clever about it. It doesn't have to be unique. You can just say the same thing every time, almost every time you're coaching. 

I think where it looks like a conversation is - I've just done it and you've probably done it like 5,000 times Raj - it just feels so smooth. It just feels like, it's just a conversation that you could be overhearing in a coffee shop. But the coach, the trained coach, the experienced coach, makes it feel like a normal conversation. And so that's where I feel like coaching can feel like a normal conversation, but there's all this structure that has been used as a foundation for a very simple setting-agenda process, that then uses just curious questions to go wherever you need to go with it. 

So I feel like that's how I got to where I got. And then working with teenagers, I used a textbook to set agendas for high school students and college students, simply because they didn't have enough life experience to know, or really to use coaching sessions the same way adults did. And so that was the very clear structured agenda that I used working with students. When I started working with executives, I realized I need to have a similar structure. They benefit from a similar structure. They don't need a workbook, they look at workbooks like there's some sort of carrier of bad things, you know, like there's no way. 

But when you're looking at that kind of structure, when I started adding in a very strong structure, even when I was working with executives, they liked it. They liked having the consistency of knowing, okay, this is what I wanna focus on, this is why it's important, this is how we're gonna measure our success. And okay. You echoed back to me, your check that we're on the same page, we're off and running. That was surprising to me, cause I thought the executives liked more of the loose, curious questions. I'm just gonna start with, you know, we're just gonna dive in, it's gonna be a great conversation. They like the structure of the agenda. That was a surprise. 

And I think with the evolution, where I see it going, the field of coaching going, I can see having some sort of structure being baked into the idea of, this is what you need to do if you wanna be a trained and certified coach recognized by the state. Like, you have to be able to like meet these kind of structural things in a coaching session. I think they're gonna become some of the basis of what happens when coaching gets regulated.

Raj Anderson: So you might as well start to befriend it now, really, if that's where this is going. And I would say, and I think this is what you are sharing, especially when you are new to coaching, I think it provides a bit of a safety net as well. It gives you that framework, cause it can be easy to get lost, can't it? Like, where are we going with this, or what is the client coachee really looking for? 

And so I heard you mention, and talking about agenda setting and the time model, which is a specific framework created by Coach Training EDU to help with agenda setting. And you know, we know all coaching sessions really should have an agenda. Yet I find sometimes when I'm talking to new coaches or I'm assessing them, it can feel awkward to new coaches, to think that they've got to set an agenda in a coaching session. So what advice do you have around that awkwardness?

John Andrew Williams: It is so true. This is where I avoided it too, because you know what I mean? It's a sign. I would start with this. If you as a coach are feeling that setting an agenda is awkward, and you have enough confidence in your question asking, that's a good milestone. That's a useful milestone in the sense of - I feel like it almost should be like a recognized milestone of, there's a confidence in your ability to ask curious questions, so you don't really need an agenda to have a value-created session. That's big. 

Now I would view setting an agenda, you add in the idea of setting an agenda, it's an opportunity to provide even more clarity for what clients want to get out of the session. It's very similar to the difference between understanding gratitude is useful, and then going to bed thinking, okay, I'm thinking of grateful things. That's nice, that's useful. Even more useful is writing them down. And the difference between writing them down and just thinking them in your head, you think, oh, I'm thinking, that's good enough. There is a difference when you're forced to actually put the thumbs to the keyboard, or the pen to the paper, and putting down what you really are grateful for that day.

Similar to when you're setting an agenda for a coaching session. When you have to ask the tangibility of what you wanna get from the session, you’re forcing your client to do some deep work that will have a positive impact on the rest of the coaching session. So while not absolutely a hundred percent necessary, I would view it as an opportunity to gain that clarity. The structure of it, you can play with it. You can, just make it smooth. Keep it awkward until it's not, and then make it smooth. But do it, is what I would say. 

Raj Anderson: Be awkward until it's not, and then it will become smooth. I was having a conversation with somebody even a few months back, as to this awkwardness around the agenda setting. And I think sometimes new coaches, or I still hear coaches, tending to be little bit clever with it, or as though it's something we need to hide. And my question is, why do we need to hide in a coaching session that there is an agenda setting taking place?

John Andrew Williams: Oh yeah no, I'll tell clients straight up, I will do this every single session, and, Do you like this or not? And some of them say no, I want to go back to just curious questions. Okay. We can do that. But 90, I mean all of them said yes. It's actually quite useful, especially when you start to document them too. Because a lot of executives, they need to have a documented ROI, if they’re looking at ROI, or how is this impacting my work? You know, I need something tangible to tell leadership that this is what I worked on. You start getting into questions of ethics and confidentiality and things like this, but a lot of my clients liked taking notes for themselves to use, so they could then, I don't know, justify the time and expense that they're paying. 

Raj Anderson: Absolutely. And people get used to it, don't they? I build it into the design the alliance. I say, this is what a coaching session is going to look like, every time we meet I'm gonna ask you, what do you want to focus on? We will set an agenda together. So people that work with you for a while, they come themselves, right? This is what I wanna focus on. Or you ask the next que- I knew you were gonna ask me that!

John Andrew Williams: I feel like we should do this for the podcast. What's today? What's our measurable? How do we measure success today?

Raj Anderson: Let's do it. I love setting agendas. And if you're doing an overview with me, you know I'm gonna ask, and we’re gonna look out for the time model and agenda setting, aren't we, because it's part of that process. 

John Andrew Williams: I have someone - I have one, it's rare, but someone sent me a message directly, a question, and I really want to answer it and I wanna answer it in the podcast. Do we have time? 

Raj Anderson: Yes. Go for it. 

John Andrew Williams: The message is, ‘Hey John -and my quote - “the quality of your leadership skills and personal development depends on the quality of the project you choose to undertake. If you want to become a better leader, pick better projects to accomplish.” End quote. I feel like I understand this, but please explain this. Blessings.’ Sweet. So I wanna explain it, I wanna go into it. 

This idea comes from Laura Whitworth and Rick Tamlin, who created ‘the bigger game.’ Laura was one of the people who is responsible for the founding of the ICF. I went through a leadership program that she was leading in 2007, and I went through a weekend workshop with Laura and Tamlin, talking about the idea of playing a bigger game. 

And the theory, the hypothesis of it, is if you want to become a better leader, then choose a higher quality project to undertake. So then you can allow the project to inform who you need to be, the skillsets you need to develop, the help you need to ask for. You can really allow the project to be a compass that guides you to your own personal and professional development. And that's the whole, that's the theory. 

And so here I am, you know, in my mid twenties experiencing this. Thinking, like, it changed the course of my life. Because it really helped me understand, okay, if I really wanna have this impact in education, 'cause I see this huge opportunity for education to become more impactful, more empowering, more able to navigate those inner landscapes, and give young people a better internal sense of their own geography, then I need to - then this is the next step. This is what needs to happen. I need to develop a program that has agenda setting built into it, because you need that if you're working with students. Oh wow all this is happening in executive coaching, I need to stay on the cutting edge of what's happening in executive coaching, I need a foot over there. Okay, then this needs to happen, then that needs to happen. 

The project, if you think about it, it's amazing that the project you choose always has another to-do that needs to get done. It's like life is just an endless source of to-do packets heading your way. And then you can use amazing things to be up to in this world, as a guide. It's a question. I'm doing this for the sake of the mission. What does the mission require? What does the mission require of me? How can I use myself as an instrument to do this? Okay, there's an uncomfortable emotion here. That's fine. It's for the sake of a larger meaning. What's the information of the emotion, and what's the information from the mission?

And these are really useful questions. And when you start to design your life around them, and then you start to think, okay, how can I use this mission? How do I need to make money so I can be sustainable in this mission? Even the relationship to money changes, because it's for the sake of you to be able to continue doing what you need to do for the sake of the mission.

And so, if you wanna become a better leader, if you want to become someone who has a legacy that you want to be proud of, then choose a project and allow the project to inform you. It's been a guiding principle ever since Laura shared, and that's where that comes from, where we are today. 

Raj Anderson: Thank you John. Thanks for answering that question.

John Andrew Williams: I'm excited! I get to like, share with video. Here's the video. It's happening. It's amazing, I love it. It's such a useful way of seeing the world. And it feels like it's also counter to where - school does this somewhat, but it flips it. 

What school says is, let's equip everybody with all the skills, and here's all the things you need, and we'll grade you. That's useful to some degree, but can you really have project based education with a group of 13 year olds? Yes you can. And what does that do, what does that teach them about themselves? But it requires a whole different way of, I call it, of testing that. The idea of a multiple choice test doesn't, it's incongruent with a multiple choice test. And so then you're asking yourselves, okay, so do we as a society have resources in order to sustain this kind of education?

Alright, what does that look like? Seriously, what does that look like? And if it's possible, if the value's there, then I believe the society that gets there first on a large scale is going to be the society that can lead us to where we need to be led as humanity moving forward.

Raj Anderson: Some really great questions there, John, thank you. So you see, your questions do get answered live, so send those questions in, pause this as well. There's some really great questions that John was putting out there. And in terms of kind of, how can this inform who you are, I was also hearing some of your own legacy pieces there, John, in terms of playing that bigger game. And then what words of wisdom would you have to our coaches listening around, how would befriending the basics help you to play a bigger game?

John Andrew Williams: Like, befriend the basics of coaching?

Raj Anderson: Yeah. There's the structure, and I guess sometimes we wanna jump to the bigger game, don't we, as well? 

John Andrew Williams: Yeah. I encourage people to look at training like you really are going to a gym, where you're going and you're getting trained like an athlete. And trying to do something in a gymnasium that you would never really have to do in real life. You know, you don't walk around in real life and you know, you're required to do pushups before you drink coffee. You know what I mean? That doesn't happen. But pushups are good for you. 

And it's something that, in the same idea of coaching and some of the things that we do in the coach training, you're putting yourself in situations where you're like, let's say you have to ask 10 why questions in a row. You would not really do that in a coaching session, but it just gives you additional stamina to be able to do that in coaching sessions wherever you need to go. So I'm not saying coaching and the coach training is the end answer for all of this, it's just a useful skillset and a tool set to have as you're implementing and doing your life's work.

And the people who really use the training as a playground for their own understanding, I feel like that's the best use of training like this. It's to understand yourself, your most compelling self, the self that you feel like is doing your life's work, and you have that feeling in you that you're doing the work that you were born to do. When you have that feeling, you can't shake it, you just feel it, it's electric, and it starts to inform you on what needs to happen next. Like, what gets me back to that feeling state. Your body knows.

Raj Anderson: Thank you, John. And I heard you say, it certainly can help you build that stamina, can't it? All of this can help you build that stamina. So I know we're at time, yet if there was one thing that could help people move towards perhaps discovering who they are, or building that stamina, what would you say it would be?

John Andrew Williams: One thing? Listen to your coaching sessions. That'd be it. Just record them and listen to them. If you need to do that alone, just know, I don't know if I'd recommend alone. You might wanna do it with another coach listening with you, if you can. But if you really want to get there, you have to find ways to get as much feedback as you possibly can, as often as you can, in ways that feel useful to you.

Raj Anderson: Absolutely. I concur. I definitely do. Listen, listen back to yourself. And it's always great to listen with someone, another coach, or one of your mentors, one of your trainers, one of your assessors. So thank you, John. Thank you for your sparks of inspiration as usual. 

John Andrew Williams: So fun. It's so fun. Thank you, Raj. You're amazing. Thank you. And thank you listeners, bring the questions. Bring ‘em.

Raj Anderson: Yes, please send us your questions. We're grateful for all of you. Grateful for you, John. And we'll see you again soon. Bye bye.

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