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Coaching to Flourish #094: The Coaching Approach to Advice-Giving

November 15, 2023 by Coach Training EDU

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Be Curious!

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

In Coaching to Flourish #094, host Raj Anderson and CTEDU founder John Andrew Williams address a listener question about the delicate balance of providing advice as a coach, exploring the nuances of client expectations, how and why to offer advice, and the transformative power of maintaining a curiosity-driven environment. Whether a new or seasoned coach, this conversation will help you deepen your understanding of who you are in the coaching space.

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Raj: We are live. Welcome to the Coaching to Flourish podcast everyone. I'm your host, Raj Anderson, executive life coach and coach assessor. And I'm here with John Andrew Williams, who's the founder of Coach Training EDU. And we were just talking about Halloween, and I love your beanie, John.

John: I'm a person from a cold climate today. 

Raj: What's been happening in your world? 

John: Uh, lots of website revision work, you know, that kind of fun stuff.And getting a little bit more into books, dusting off a couple of things for a couple of classes around business building, leadership, things like that, that are kicking off in January. It feels good. I really enjoy the process of getting into new ideas, getting into new books, and thinking of thinking about these things from a life coaching perspective. That's what's been happening lately. 

Raj: So what should we be looking out for from Coach Training EDU in the new year?

John: A revised leadership program, a revised business building program. I've also been working on the belonging and equity course. New course offerings. Our 1.0, our foundational programs, even 2.0 at this point is very, very solid. Our relationship course is very solid. We're now bringing all of our courses up to that level. These are now, let's say, second, third editions of these courses. So they're starting to come into form. We're getting feedback from people, what they like, what they don't like, what we did well, we can do better, and applying it. So it's, it's moving. That's what we can keep an eye out for. 

Raj: Lots of exciting things in the pipelines there, listeners, look out for all of that to come. And John and I were just chatting before we get into the podcast questions, we're chatting a bit about Halloween. I used this question in a mentoring class this morning and I'm curious, John, since it is Halloween, what fears would you like to release?

John: What fears? Yeah. We have a 16 year old daughter who's in Mean Girls and she's playing Regina, and it's amazing, she's slaying the role, and it's, it's lovely. I think from a larger level, just understanding the message of Mean Girls, the idea of people, the status race. This, who's included, who's excluded, you know, and then when you start to look at it, and you have another daughter who's in middle school. It can be rough. You know, these years can be really challenging. And I think what I fear a lot is how our society systemically puts some people in different categories. And it's, it's challenging to have to work against those. That came up today. And yeah, I would love to release that fear, but it’s part of the work that I feel like we're doing, I know we're doing. And it's the work I feel like in some ways is the most important work that we do as an organization. Maybe a little heavy for a sunny afternoon. 

Raj: Well, thank you, John. But as you said, important work happening around this, isn't it, on inclusion and belonging, and even some new things that are coming, as you said, in the new year. And I think when I'm talking to coaches as well, fears around those kinds of things can come up, around their belonging and what space do they belong in, and perhaps they have the imposter syndrome. The imposter syndrome showed up a few times this morning in the class, around this is a fear that I'd like to release. So I have some questions that potentially connect with that. Are you good with me getting into it? 

John: Yeah, let's go. I love it Raj. Yeah, thank you 

Raj: So we have some questions from new coaches, you know, Coaches send questions into us. So if you're listening, you’ve got a question, send it into us. And a little bit of a discussion today on giving advice, especially if you're a new coach and you're trying to balance this space of what does your value add, and staying in coach mode. So giving advice, and also how much of yourself can you bring into coaching. 

So I'm just going to read this out to you, John, and see what your thoughts are. ‘Is there ever a space in a coaching session where it's okay for a coach to share some advice, if the client has made it clear they hope you shall be sharing advice along the way? If so, how do you determine the appropriate time, and a way of inserting nuggets of advice without stealing agency from your client?’ So it's a two part question, but I'll stop there for now. 

John: I think the answer is the same, whether or not clients ask for advice or not. And I don't, I think the magic of coaching is that a coach doesn't go to giving advice first. That's not the first stop in a coach's profession. The first stop is curiosity. And when you're really over there with the other client, listening in deep level 2 listening, and you're actively curious about the life of the other person, I find the most useful thing is to ask them a curious question that they have not yet considered. And use the advice, the advice giving, as an opportunity even to explore, what is their nudge towards asking for advice? 

And it doesn't have to be like a punitive thing or something as negative, like, Why do you feel like you need to get advice? Don't you have it in yourself? It's not that. You could ask it in a very curious way of, what’s that nudge? What’s that whisper that says, you should probably get another voice in this. Or what's that whisper that says, no, you can trust yourself on this. What's that whisper saying right now? And you can get curious about even the process of asking for advice. So that's where I'd go first, always there. 

In terms of giving advice as a coach, I know that times in training, I've told people absolutely don't do it. Stop, just let it go. And I still think it's useful as a coach to try doing coaching sessions without giving any advice, as a pure exercise of what does that feel like. Because in every other profession in our lives, people give advice. It's a knowledge basis of giving value. And I'm not saying that that's an invalid thing at all. That is useful. It's very useful to give advice, to give knowledge, that's the thing. But is it necessarily coaching? No, it's not what the coaching profession is built on. The coaching profession is built on the idea that clients are naturally creative, resourceful and whole. They have all the resources within them. 

A coach's job is to give them curiosity and space to process what they need to process. That's our job. When you give advice, you short circuit that. And the meta message is, you need an outside person to give you the piece of knowledge that you need in order for you to accomplish what you need to accomplish. Whether the advice is the very best advice in the world or not, that meta message comes along with every piece of advice that we give. 

All that being said, if you as a coach absolutely feel like you need to give advice or else you're going to just - can't take it anymore, give it directly. One sentence, followed by a question. ‘I think you absolutely 100 percent need to exercise. What are your thoughts? I think you absolutely 100 percent need to find a sleep routine. What are your thoughts?’ That's it. It's a sentence and a question. That's how a coach gives advice. And you really do want to limit it, and only use it if you feel like you absolutely can't deal with it anymore. That would be my advice, to giving advice as a coach.

Raj: Great examples and advice there, John. That was very, very helpful. I love that you said the first go-to, really as a coach should be curiosity. And I think what I found, particularly for any coach that's listening who's also a consultant or a mentor, it could be an easy go-to if that is your occupation, to just fall into that. Yet, is the client really even looking for advice? That's why curiosity is great, isn't it? 

And I may have shared this example before, yet I had a client come into a coaching session, who I've worked with on and off for quite a long time. So she knows exactly how coaching works, and we've designed an alliance and we've revisited that alliance. And she came into the coaching session, we did the check in the accountability and said, what would you like to focus on today? And she said, I just need you to tell me what to do. And it could have been quite easy to slip into that mentor mode. Because I am a mentor and I am a consultant, and I have some clients where I play a dual role - half the session’s this, or half session’s that, or I work with them in different capacities. Yet what I asked her instead was, what's different about today? And that shifted everything. 

John: I love that question.

Raj: And the answer that came forward, she was tired. She's fed up of being the leader and advisor for everybody else, and she just needed somebody to have her back. She didn't really need advice at all.

John: That's lovely. That's so lovely. 

Raj: Where could it have gone if I hadn't asked that? Or sometimes we can want to give advice because we want to fix it. or maybe we're in our own ego. Oh, somebody's asking me for advice. What do you think about that, John?

John: Yeah, I agree. I think everyone who gets into the coaching profession, it's to help, it's to be a helper. We all want to help. It's human. It's this ability to connect with another person, to feel like you have worth, to feel like your ideas are loved and appreciated. That's a very real desire. And I think when you're in a coaching session, and you get the training to not give advice, to stay in curiosity, to be open, be only a sounding board - a lot of people, their minds are blown. It's the biggest myth of coaching. 

A lot of people get into coaching thinking that you're an expert in life and you have really good expert life advice, that's what a life coach is. Because that's what people think a coach is, and a sports coach, someone who knows the sport tells you what to do, you do it, and it goes. But the thing about what coaches do is when you deliver that kind of curiosity, like you just did with ‘what's different about today,’ it opens everything. It opens up the whole thing. 

And in order to give really good advice, you have to have all the pieces of information that the person has, or at least a lot of those things. And then there's the ecology of their life. When you change one thing, well, what impact does that have on everything else? We can't predict these things. So if a coach wants advice, they can go to an advisor, they can go to a consultant, they can go to a therapist. These are all very valid, useful professions. This is a useful thing. But our society has these things already. What our society doesn't have is listening, open, curious listeners. 

Imaginative - I'm going to imagine I'm you for an hour, and ask you the kinds of questions that come to my mind based on the vast amount of experience and knowledge of, these are some of the cutting edge theories in positive psychology. These are some of the, what thought leaders are playing with. Like this idea of instead of work-life balance, work-life integration. This idea of, okay, so how is your purpose aligning with your strengths, aligning with what you're doing on a day to day basis? How are you connecting and doing self maintenance, doing self care? Even your inner voice, how are you even supporting your inner voice right now?

This is amazing stuff, but it's an inside game. And we're all solo in our own inner worlds, you know, working this out. Having a coach and the curiosity of a coach disrupts the usual patterns of whatever that internal world is thinking. And so when you get a coaching question into that internal world, it shakes it up a little bit. And you go, wow, what is the difference today? Okay. And then what do you want to do with that? It's just this continual curiosity. You will get someplace amazing if you continue that curiosity. 

In my perspective, advice tends to shut that down. It shuts down that process. So if you absolutely must, as a coach, feel like you have to give advice, I would try to hold off. And if you need to at the end of a session, then pile it on. Like, that was a great coaching session, and this is what I was literally wanted to tell you the whole entire time. Like, these are the things. Or you can say, these are the things I want to tell you - good, I'm done, now let's focus completely on you again. Like that. Either one, that works. But I would do so only, only after you've exhausted all of your curiosity.

And I would also encourage you to record these conversations you're having with other people and then listen to it, and then listen what happens to the energy after you give advice. That's what I do. 

Raj: I really love the way you said, imagine I'm you for a moment. And that's the key, isn't it there as well? Because one of the things we want to be mindful of, what I'm hearing you say, is when we're giving advice as well, that can be from our own lens, our own map of the world, our own perspective, our own values, in terms of what we think would be the right outcome for us. Versus imagining what that outcome could be for that person. And that's where we have to be curious about that person and step into their world. Because otherwise you are bringing yourself into it, and perhaps distorting it, their journey in that way, if you're bringing that advice in. Because what's right for me is not necessarily right for you. 

We've talked about when I've had a fitness coach before, who was not coaching me, was advising me on the things that I should have been doing, ‘should’ in that session. And I remember feeling frustrated when I was in that session, because those are the things that the coach valued, not what I valued, hence why I wasn't doing them. 

John: So funny. I've had coach, I've had different people tell me, I mean, different coaches I've been paying tell me, Oh, do this, do that. I even hired a business consulting coach - on purpose, like, spent hours putting all the numbers, all the ideas, all the plans, everything on paper. And then he goes in and goes, so this is my advice, this is what I do. And it had very little to do with what I had spent all this time putting on paper. And my business instinct was saying, do these things. He said, Nope, don't do those things, these things come first. 

And what he said was about half true. He had something there, but it wasn't completely there. And I wasted around two months and didn't get to the thing that I wanted to get to until two months later, when I realized no, it's actually quite critical. And I feel like that is the danger of advice, is that you're giving advice to somebody, it's almost like you take the responsibility for the outcome of what happens too. It's just not what, it's not best practice.

Raj: Yeah. This is a space where you don't have to carry that responsibility. It's actually beautiful that you don't have to carry the burden when you're in coaching. 

John: It's way better. And you can ask, it enables you to be bolder. What he could have done is said, where's this instinct coming from? What does your business instinct say? What are the steps that you know that you need to do? Why are you not doing them? What about this step doesn't fit into your narrative of your life? What excuse do you always tell yourself? These questions are so, I mean they're just, they're so snappy. They're so just there. Yeah. That's what I say about that. 

Raj: So thank you for that, John. The second part then is, we've kind of explored, you want to stay away from advice, yet there are a couple of tips in there if you really can't. Now this is a new coach who said that they weren't able to fully clarify in the design the alliance, although they said coaching is not about giving advice, they didn't feel that they fully clarified to this client that there would be no advice. So now they're concerned about, how do you backtrack? Now what, when you're in it? 

John: And a client says, just tell me what to do?

Raj: Well they're expecting that from that partnership now going forward. 

John: Oh, like they're expecting advice. I mean, it's a lot like a first year teacher. Your first year is just horrible. Like, you have no idea how to manage a classroom for real. A lot of first time teachers are pretty intense on the rules, and trying to be all hard. Your own buttons come to the surface, things that get you. 

I feel like this is one of those, where coaches - new coaches, myself included. This is 20 years ago too, when the field was brand new, less than 10 years old. The ICF was less than 10 years old. And the idea of, what is a coach? When I tell people I was a life coach, people look at me like, what is that? You don't get that as much anymore, but you do get the myth that, Oh, okay, you're a life coach. I've heard of this, do you give advice? So that is the prevalent myth of coaching. 

And the best thing to do is, again, just directly tell people, look, you know, fundamental to coaching is curiosity, and questions, and space. I am trained to ask you the most interesting questions in the world. I will ask you the most interesting questions in the world, and I will listen to you with the same passion that I would love to be listened to myself. That's what I do. And I will go toe to toe with anybody for the most interesting question in the world competition. You know, let's do it. 

And in that space, people's inner worlds are disrupted. They are given opportunities to explore avenues, areas of self, that they will never in their life have the opportunity to explore unless you ask them these kinds of questions. So whatever you have to do to help your clients experience this - and my recommendation is give them a sample session. Let's do a sample coaching session, 20 minutes, 30 minutes. And let's experience what it's like for me, not to give you any advice, but just to ask you the most interesting questions in the world, and see how it affects your inner world, and see what happens. See how you like it. If you don't like it, that's fine, but at least you get to experience it. That's what I would do. 

And I wouldn't spend too much time in design the alliance at the beginning. A lot of times people don't even know what it is they want from coaching. I think design the Alliance is best if someone has already worked with a coach in the past, or they know what coaching is about, or you're maybe session three or four into a 10 session series. That's when I think design the alliance is the most powerful. 

Didn't Henry Ford or someone say like, you know, if you ask people what they wanted, they would have said, I want a horse that just ran faster or something, rather than like a car? Coaching is the car. It's a completely different way of communicating. People don't even know how to handle that yet until they experience it. So yeah, I think design the alliance in the very beginning is a little bit challenging. I would go with doing sample sessions, giving people the experience. Asking them, how was it, how would you fine tune that? What was the best question? What did you like,cwhat did you not like? I think design alliance at the beginning is an after-coaching conversation.

Raj: And you bring people along anyway. Because if they've not experienced that, they're not used to that level of curiosity, they're not used to being curious about themselves. Actually, what I found with people who haven't experienced coaching at all, they start to really love it. And you bring them along, their desire for wanting advice starts to wear off, actually. You'll notice it when you're working with somebody. It does, doesn't it? It starts to wear off. They stop asking. 

John: That's a great way to put it. That's a great way to put it. That's exactly it. It wears off. Yeah. 

Raj: So for us as coaches to continue to be patient with ourselves and have grace, and be patient with the process. We've got the three trusts, haven't we? What else would you add John to close us off today? I can't believe how quickly it's gone today. 

John: I love that idea of wearing off. That to me is exactly what it feels like. It wears off. And I think the idea of even the temptation - no, it's just the urge, the urge to give advice also wears off. And if it doesn't, then you know, okay, then there's something here. Then that's important. 

It's almost like it goes full circle. Where people when they start out, the first stage of a lot of coaches, myself included, is I want to make sure that my client in every single session is getting so much value, that whatever they're paying me per hour and the time they're giving me in a session is so worth it to them that I can almost prove logically that this session is worth it. And with that, I want to find a problem, give advice that solves the problem, and prove that the advice I gave them is worth the amount of money they're paying me. Even just saying that out loud feels like an Ugh. That's an ugh. And I did that, Raj, I did that. 

Raj: Me too. 

John: I think almost every beginning coach does that. And then there comes a certain point in time when you release that, and you realize I don't have to do that. That's not the game, that's not what we're here for. What I'm here to do is to again, listen, and be curious, and ask you the most interesting questions I can possibly ask you. And listen. And allow you to come up with insights that you have no other opportunity in your life from gaining, except in this kind of interaction. Which would you rather participate in, both as a coach and client? And so that's where it goes full circle, right? 

And so here's the mind bending thing. Is once you know as a coach you are a hundred percent capable of staying in curiosity 100 percent of the time, and then you have the urge to give advice, you know that advice probably needs to be said out loud. And then you can use the advice as a prompt for curiosity. You almost get curious in yourself, thinking, Oh my goodness, I cannot shake this advice. I have to say it out loud. Say it out loud, and then ask a curious question. So that's the three - that that's when you know, okay, you know you're breaking the rule, but you're breaking it on purpose. And you're breaking it not because it's the easiest thing to do, but because it's the most interesting thing to do. That's when you know that advice on that level is in play. 

Raj: That's very powerful, John. Thank you for leaving us with those powerful thoughts. Let's all continue to get curious, curious about our clients, curious about ourselves. And I'm grateful for you, John. Thank you for sharing your perspective. Thank you to our listeners. And enjoy your Halloween, whatever you're doing or whoever you're dressing up as tonight. 

John: Thank you. Thank you, Raj, you're amazing. Appreciate the space you create and the questions you bring. I appreciate this community. Happy Halloween, everyone.

Raj: Happy Halloween. We'll see you all soon. Thanks, bye.

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