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Episode 093: Designing Powerful Alliances

October 25, 2023 by Coach Training EDU

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

In Coaching to Flourish #093, host Raj Anderson along with CTEDU founder John Andrew Williams dive into the essential practice of designing an alliance for successful coaching partnerships. They discuss how this approach can foster effective communication and growth in various aspects of life, how it creates more fulfilling and productive coaching sessions, and important tips for new coaches. Join us in exploring this foundational coaching concept!

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[Raj Anderson] Welcome everyone to the Coaching to Flourish podcast, and 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. How's it going, John? How are you? 

[John Andrew Williams] Good. Yeah, we're doing great. One of my college buddies is coming into town in about three hours. Certainly excited about it. 

[Raj Anderson] That sounds like fun. 

[John Andrew Williams] Yeah, it's gonna be good. It's gonna be good. 

[Raj Anderson] And so, we're in fall now, like we're in it. And I was just curious, what is fall teaching you?

[John Andrew Williams] What is fall teaching me? I've had a really good botanical summer, like where I have added some grapes in the backyard. And I'm just really feeling like this year, I've probably worked harder this year than any other year of my life. And I feel like reflecting on that, I feel pretty psyched about where things are at. Yeah, just lots of gratitude and gratefulness I'm feeling in the moment. 

[Raj Anderson] Absolutely. Gratitude. And I'm thinking about fall and kind of transitions and change. We don't get a lot of that in Florida, we don't see the colors of the leaves change that much yet. I do like fall and thinking about just celebrating, looking at what we've achieved, and you know, what this next chapter could look like. 

I do have some questions around, though, kind of partnerships and creating chapters, and this very important piece around designing an alliance in coaching. And I know you and I have talked about designing an alliance before, yet these are questions that we often get sent in around, what does it mean to create an alliance? What is the best approach to create an alliance? So I wanted to ask you a few questions, John, and also for us to share and explore a little bit about the importance of designing an alliance. We know that designing an alliance is this foundational piece of a coaching relationship and partnership, and it's about those agreements. And those agreements in that relationship and partnership could be on logistics, it could be the focus of the coaching session, it could be the tone of a coaching session. What would you add in terms of what designing an alliance means? 

[John Andrew Williams] Yeah, I think even the term, even the concept of designing an alliance itself is sometimes revolutionary to a relationship. And the idea of designing an alliance is being able to speak very specifically about what requests you have of the other person. And like, it's not necessarily how to avoid negative things, it's more around, if we could communicate like this, this would be my absolute ideal best ever, this is amazing. Like, that's the whole premise of design the alliance is to, it's design. Like how can we work together in the best possible way? 

So a lot of design the alliance might be very specific or detailed-oriented, where you could say to a partner, for instance in the morning, you know, this is what I need in the morning. This is what I would love to have in the morning time, and that it could be a discussion. And you can really design a way that you can work together in ways that really work for both people. I think a lot of times when people are assuming, oh, we're talking about our relationship, it's because there's something that is wrong, or not working well, or needs to be fixed.

But from a coaching perspective, a designed alliance is a positive. It's a way to make sure that you are communicating and doing everything that you can so that things work out, even optimally. So it's a complete different mindset shift, I think, from when people are looking at the way that they're talking about their relationships. It's a tool, it's a mindset. It's a lot of what we do. 

[Raj Anderson] So I'm hearing you almost, you're talking about an alliance even outside of the coaching relationship - and we're going to talk about why it's so important within a coaching relationship, especially for new coaches, to get used to that approach - but I'm hearing you use it as a tool or talk about it out outside of coaching. So how else do you use it in your life? I know you've mentioned your kids before as well. 

[John Andrew Williams] Yeah. My daughter was saying something to me about a coach, or someone she was working with, and I asked her, well, have you designed the alliance around it yet? Like, you know, you could ask your coach for a design the alliance moment and they will know what that means. And so we talked about what specifically she was even going to ask for. 

And I've been working with this developer and, I love working with him, I love the way he thinks. And sometimes, you know, we'll be looking at something and he'll ask me, okay John, define the problem. Okay. Well, this is the problem. And then it's amazing how, when he does that, we're then able to get to a different solution because of it. And I feel like this is, it's a little bit like design the alliance, where it's alright, define the problem, but also define optimum. Define, if we work really well together, what does that look like? 

So it's almost like define the vision, define the dream, define the - define it. It's amazing when you start to have to define things, and put words to what might be amorphic. 

[Raj Anderson] Some people can find this uncomfortable though, there could be discomfort in having these kinds of conversations, or perhaps not used to adding this, in this way, as part of a service. You know, in this one on one way. If I think about what a new client would get from me if they're on a one on one, they would get a coaching agreement, they have an intake form, the first session where we’re looking at designing the alliance. And then of course I am always using that on a much larger scale when I'm working with organizations. 

Yet I've heard sometimes there can be some discomfort in having this type of conversation in a coaching session, or, how do I transition from this, designing the alliance into actual coaching? What is your experience on that? 

[John Andrew Williams] Well, I know you've heard this too, Raj, where new coaches coach, they sound so formal to me sometimes. Like, so formal. And even the kinds of questions were, okay, do I have permission to ask you about this? You know, a lot of times new coaches will use asking permission as a tool, but they overuse it to add formality to their session. I don't know, the more experienced the coach, I think the more informal I hear the coaching, or it seems like the more smooth it just feels. 

So if I were a new coach, in Design the Alliance, asking permission, all of these tools, I'd ask myself, what's the smoothest, most effective way I can do this? What makes it feel like it's just a natural conversation that I'm having, but I'm still touching on all the bases? I started working with a new coach myself and he is so smooth. Sometimes it's just, you know, we need to do a design the alliance around this, or let's talk specifically about how we want to work together. Define good. Define great. Define mind blowing awesome. 

And so when you're doing these things, it can really be that straightforward. I wouldn't overthink it. I wouldn't try to make it feel like it has to be fancy. I would try to just make it streamlined. I would make it simple over fancy. But it still needs to be present, and it's a really useful tool and avenue to ask a coach, or to a client, and say, you know what, we can design these sessions so they exactly fit what you're looking for. That's a really cool thing. 

[Raj Anderson] I love what you're saying John. You know, just because this is an agreement, it doesn't mean that it has to come across as very formal or very stiff. It can be conversational, it can be approachable. And clear, there's clarity in this, isn't there? Because at the end of the day, the design alliance, yes, it's an agreement, you're creating a framework of how you're going to work together, but it's also about maximizing that coaching experience for the individual. So it's stepping into their world - and you gave us a couple of examples - and asking them, what do you want this partnership to look like? So you're still staying in curious coach mode while you're designing an alliance. 

[John Andrew Williams] Yeah, it can range from the very transactional to the very relational. For example, let's say my seven year old, sometimes he'll tap, tap me. I don't want to be tapped, but he needs attention. So we design, when you say ‘excuse me,’ I will give him attention. So it's a little bit of this is what I need, and this is my current pathway of getting it, but let's design a new pathway of getting what you need. 

And it's not personal. It's not like, because we're doing this that somehow things aren't working or something. It's like, no, it's just a way for clear communication to happen. And when you do it once or twice, you can as coaches, even asking clients, do you want me to ask questions that are more pointed or hard questions? Or do you want me to have more like, more cheering you on and more positive praise, even if it's feels like it's mediocre. You know, how do you want to design how I can react to certain things you bring up as a client? 

I mean, from a client standpoint, sometimes even just asking that question is mind bending for people. Because they sometimes say, well, then are you being authentic? How are you showing up? I mean, I even thought about even us as an organization, when someone brings something creative to the table, and there are obvious flaws or mistakes in it, what if we just designed as an organization that the initial response is, yay! Yay, you put effort into this, like, let's first celebrate the effort. Let's celebrate the idea, and then we can always pick it apart, or say what things are going to be better. But even in designing feedback, you can say, okay, in designing feedback, I'm going to give feedback as a suggestion of, this is what you can do better in the future. 

So you can design literally everything on a coaching session, from how do you even want to answer the phone, to how do you want to be communicated with in an email afterwards, to what kind of questions do you want to ask? LIke very specific pointed questions, or more general open ended questions at the beginning? You can design everything. And when, especially if that communication is open, you can get very specific and effective and efficient. And once you have those things established, they're beautiful. It's like a curated, designed relationship. It's amazing.

[Raj Anderson] A curated, designed relationship. You can design anything and everything in that space. It also allows then in that space, you know, you gave a few examples of being able to clarify expectations. Perhaps set boundaries for both parties, because if you're asking that question, what happens in between sessions? My clients know that we have a portal, now and again they can send a question - yet accountability check in always happens at the beginning of the coaching session, because, and I didn't used to be very good with setting boundaries. 

Yes, we want to be there to support and empower, yet we don't want to create dependency in a coaching relationship either. So it's really good to be able to have those conversations up front, and look at those expectations and parameters as well. 

[John Andrew Williams] Absolutely.

[Raj Anderson] What do you think is the impact of missing out designing an alliance for a coach?

[John Andrew Williams] I think a lot of coaches, myself included when I am coaching, or especially in the beginning, I didn't know how well my clients liked it. And sometimes - I got better at determining it later on, like the power of a session, but I remember those very first few sessions, especially for the first year to year and a half, there were some painful sessions. There were some sessions where I really, really was value hunting, and trying to value - what’s the word, like value-validate. Like, This session is so amazing because you made this decision, and we figured this out, and what we figured out was way more worth the amount you're paying me and the the time we're spending here, so that means I'm valid, I'm good, you know, I've got my sense of worth. 

So I think, anytime as a coach, entering into a conversation with a client so you feel like you can validate your worth and make you feel worthy, that's a slippery slope. If instead you're asking questions to ask the client, and are truly curious, How can you get the most out of this time together? What are your ideas for the way you want to be interacted with so that you feel the most support, that you feel like you're gaining the most opportunity you can for insight, that you are going to be held accountable, like what are the best ways I can help hold you accountable? If you're asking as a coach for the sake of your client and for the sake of the strength of the relationship, then you're on 100% solid territory. You will feel the difference. 

And a lot of times I hear new coaches do design the alliance, there's a little bit of, Oh, I'm doing this tool, I'm making sure it's good. You know, that kind of sense. I don't know of any way around that learning, I did it too. I was there. And the big turning point for me happened when I did my work and trusted myself, trusted the process, trusted the profession, trusted my client, and then got really super curious about what is it going to be for my client that my client really needs? It's amazing. You start doing that with people and your life transforms.

Like, I'll even do it with little ones. Say, okay, what do you really like? You know, they might say some interesting things. But it's usually coming from a place of, they have an idea of how they can have a need met. That's a really valuable idea. You want to hear it. So that that's the perspective I would take on this, and I would not skip it.

[Raj Anderson] So in coaching, it’s for us as coaches about shifting it from ourselves, and our desire or fears of not adding value, and then continuing elsewhere in life in terms of how you partner with someone. I think when I'm partnering with friends or family, or I'm asking these questions even of my husband, it is that back and forth alliance and partnership in terms of, What is it that you are looking for from this vacation? You know, this is what I'm looking for, this is what I need. I'm a bit of an introvert, want some quiet time. You know, how do we meet in the middle? 

And with thinking about the coaching relationship and coaching partnership, as an assessor, often when I'm talking to coaches what I hear is when the design the alliance is perhaps being missed, or there are some questions that could have been included in it, is when the coach is struggling to use direct communication or bottom line. Or you can hear from the coachee's perspective, they're a little bit uncertain of the way the questions are being asked. Or even the use of pause. So I often ask coaches the question, you know, did you talk about direct communication or challenging questions or bottom lining, or how the individual liked to be held accountable? No, and that's why I wasn't sure how I was gonna do it in the session.

[John Andrew Williams] There was one client I was working with, it's a long time ago, one of my first student clients, and we were coaching in a greenhouse at a school, it was a lovely spot. It was connected to the science room and it surrounded by plants, and there was this big clock that had a second hand. And I designed with him that I would ask him a question, and I would allow him 30 seconds to think about the answer. And he absolutely loved it. I mean to me, no, 30 seconds to answer, my brain just goes so fast, I can't - no, that won't work for me. But I remember sitting there and I'd asked him a question, I look at the clock, and then do the halfway point, and you know, quickly just get whatever it was. And then wait for 30 seconds. It was amazing. 

And it took us a couple of sessions to design this, and a lot of trust, you know, because I was just wondering, where are you at? But I could feel him thinking, and then he would come up with whatever he needed to come up with. And he just needed that time. And I get really curious about it, I said, well okay, so when you're in that space, what's happening in 30 seconds? And he says, Well, I'm in there and I'm thinking, well, it could go there, it could go here, could go here, but no, this is it. That's there. And then he'll, you know, say the thing. 

And then what he said to me was, one of the most amazing things. He said, you know, there's no other space in my life where people give me this amount of time to really, truly think about what I really, really want to say. And he got faster at it. And I didn't need to wait for 30 seconds every time, it was maybe a brief period of time that we did this. But then he started going faster and faster with it. And I think what happened was, I think he realized that he could start to learn to trust himself, that given the 30 seconds, whatever he would say at 30 seconds was pretty similar to what he would say, maybe at 10 seconds. So he learned by himself to trust his initial thoughts. Amazing.

How, you know? How and with what would he have gotten there, if not through a coaching session, given that 30 second time frame? I mean, he probably would have matured, probably would have happened sometime in college. But I mean, we're talking maybe like a 15 year old, given this amount of time and space. It’s remarkable.

So I think this is what you can offer as a coach, for clients, really to try out designed ways of communicating that they don't even have - at any other aspect of their life do they have access to this kind of work. It's really important work that we're doing. And this to me is design alliance at its best.

[Raj Anderson] And that's just a beautiful example as well, isn't it? How different we are and how unique we are. And the Designing the Alliance approach, it lends itself to really be able to tailor and customise something to where that individual's at, or what they might need in that moment or from coaching as a whole. 

And as I was listening to you, it made me think about my own relationship with my coach. I have a couple of coaches when I'm working on spiritual things as well. And I have myself given my coach the permission, I said, I want you to call me out. The things that other people are not necessarily telling me, I would love this space for you to really hold up that mirror to me, to give me those prickly questions. Don't worry about being nice, I want you to go for it. Because that's what's going to help me grow to the next level, versus - And I've joked about this in my own sessions before, you know, part of the coaching process is for me to challenge you or to hold the mirror up or to call you out. Unless of course you want to pay me for telling you how great you are. We can do that too if that's part of the alliance. 

But, how would you like me to challenge you? You know, what would you like that to look like? And for me, that's been really important in my own coaching, to say to my coach, I give you permission to go for it. Challenge my blind spots. 

[John Andrew Williams] Yeah, I remember once I was working with a client, she asked me to do that, and go for it. She actually asked me like, I want you to be as sharp and prickly and hard as you possibly can. And so I did, and we recorded it. And I said something to her about, said something prickly, and then I used the recording in another call. Like, Hey, here's an example of what this might look like. The other people listening to the coaching said, no way. And she decided to drop class, because it just was like, no, that was over the line. 

But it's the idea of, that's what the client wanted. So client designed, actually asked for, give me the prickliest questions, the hardest stuff you can bring. And I thought about it, I thought about this a lot. Because you know, a person droppeding, wow, what? That wasn't the intention. The intention was just to show this is the range of how you can design these things, it's not for everybody. I don't coach everyone like that, and I wouldn't coach, not even close.

But it made me realize how different you can be as a coach with different clients and still be your authentic self. And it can look in wildly different ways. Yeah, I thought about that a lot. I don't share that recording anymore. I'm like, okay, we're going to take this one off the show. That's going into the archive. Not to be shared anymore, anyone, all right?

[Raj Anderson] Well, I know we’re at time John, I remember that. So I think the takeaway here though, isn't it, is around continue to be curious, ask those questions, don't skip the design the alliance - ask in that alliance, in terms of how your coachee wants that relationship-partnership to look. 

And we know that we design the alliance at the beginning of a coaching relationship, yet you can revisit it. It might even show up within a session, or you might be revisiting it in the middle of a coaching program. Often when I'm coming towards the end and someone's like, Oh, I want to continue coaching, we will revisit the designing alliance, just to see what worked well, what didn't work so well, what would you like more of, what might you like less of? Those kinds of things as well. Any tips you would add, John, before we close out?

[John Andrew Williams] No, I mean, I know that beginning coaches and beginning clients, I don't recommend doing a Design the Alliance until you're maybe a couple sessions in. Because oftentimes if you ask for a Design the Alliance too early, or just the very, very beginning, neither you nor the client has enough context or experience to know what that means, and so I think a lot of times new coaches will say, oh, I asked the design alliance right at the beginning, check. We've done that, checkbox. Like, you know, we've gone on from this. But it kind of misses the point, because things will come up, your clients will have ideas of what they like, don't like, around session 3 or 4. So I think it's useful to ask around session 3 or 4, like, okay, we've done a couple of sessions now, what's working, what's not working? 

And then even to explain the idea of what a design alliance is, that this is something that - we're doing this so that we can go towards an extremely powerful experience for you. We're doing this so that, like, I don't break things. You know what I mean? So things don't need to be fixed. I think just the awareness of why you're even doing the design alliance, and the frame that you put it in makes a difference in the experience.

[Raj Anderson] Great. Thank you, John. Well, grateful for you as always and grateful for our listeners, and we look forward to connecting with everyone next time.

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