Management & Leadership

How to coach: What is helping?

Jun 03, 2015
How to coach

Consultant, Facilitator, Coach and SACAP Educator, Trisha Lord is a member of the Global Faculty of The Thinking Environment – a process that has been designed over the last 30 years to enable clients to achieve their finest, most independent thinking and through that to produce unprecedented results that cannot be thought of for them by anyone else. She explores the question ‘What is helping?’

What is helping?

I’ve been a helping professional for my whole working life. Before that I tried very hard to be a helpful child, because that’s what my mum expected of me!

At the start of my career I did the only thing I was actually trained to do at the time, to be a Personal Assistant. You don’t get much more helpful than that in the world of work. PA’s are, by definition, helpful people.

When I started to think about this blog post, I began to ponder – and indeed I looked up – what we mean by helpful. From its definition in the dictionary together with the examples cited thus far, I have begun to unpack some of the difficulty we’re in when we talk about coaching as one job in the “helping” professionals’ suite.

Buried in these examples, the helpful child, the helpful PA, is the implication that to “help” means to “do for”. The helpful child is labelled thus by her mother because she does things for her mother. Similarly, the most efficient PAs will be women (and sometimes men) who make space for the busy executive to achieve his (and sometimes her) important work by doing a great deal of things for them that would be considered unhelpful distractions if they had to do them for themselves.

When we apply this definition of helping to the work of being a Coach, however, we run into what I believe is one of coaching’s core challenges today. Any coach who is worth their fee will tell you that their job is to help the client to think for themselves. This then, sets up a challenge for the coach. In this instance, to help will be the opposite of doing for the client. If we are not going to think for them, as coaches we then need to learn how to allow the client to do their own thinking.

This is harder than it sounds. That part of us which has learned the art of being helpful can, at the best of times, fall into the trap of doing the work. In coaching, this often takes the form of questions. We know, we coaches, that questions invite the human mind to think and explore, and in the course of our professional development we will learn much on the asking of questions to ignite thinking for the client.

The problem is, that the minute our question ignites thinking, we are then busy thinking about the next question to ask…and the next, and the next.  Often, as they think about their answer, we are busy thinking about where they need to go next. So habitual is our relationship to helping as to mean “doing for”, we may find ourselves, through our use of questions, leading our client’s thinking in the direction we think is the best one for them. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, we do their thinking for them, as our way of being helpful.  We forget that our questions are there to get the client’s thinking, not their answers – we forget that the most helpful thing we can do is to listen with genuine interest to where their thinking is going, as opposed to focus ourselves on what to ask next.

It doesn’t take much to realise that this is NOT actually helpful. A new “helpful” skill needs to be added to the range of what we offer: the ability to let the client’s thinking go where it needs to go – our ability to become more interested in what is real and true for the client in the moment than be focused on where we think they need to go.

This gift – the ability to offer Generative Attention and to trust the intelligence of the client’s thinking – is, in my view, the most helpful we can be. In order to be this helpful we are going to have to learn to undo many of the “helpful habits” we have garnered over a lifetime of “doing for”. It is a rigorous, new kind of helpfulness, and in my view it is the greatest (and most helpful) gift we can offer to another human being.

SACAP offers a range of coaching courses, focusing on the fundamentals through to a postgraduate diploma, that help students develop the skills they need to be  successful coaches.

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