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Scrum Master's Toolkit to Coach the Person, Not the Problem

August 26, 2020

One of the key stances of the Scrum Master is being a Coach. Often coaching is perceived as the art of asking powerful questions. How many times while taking a coaching stance do you ever feel like you’re chasing the coachee? Have you ever felt that the coaching sessions are going around in circles, and your coachee keeps resisting the main issue?

As a part of my journey of Accelerating Coach Excellence, I came across Marcia Reynolds. She is an amazing Coach and has written many books. After reading her books I got so inspired that I committed myself to share my learnings with the larger community.

In this blog, you will explore 3 common myths of coaching and how you can switch gears as a Scrum Master to get on track with your coaching conversations.

MYTH 1: Coaching is synonymous to asking powerful questions

Have you ever observed a coaching session, what do you remember the most?

Observers often highlight the best questions asked. They don’t recall the reflective statements that prompted self-reflection. The powerful question gets the glory. Coaching as a series of questions can sometimes feel like an interrogation, damaging trust and rapport.

Coaching is a reflective inquiry not a series of questions. In 1910, Dewey defined the practice of reflective inquiry in his classic book, "How We Think". The intent of inquiry is not finding solutions, but to provoke critical thinking about our own thoughts. Inquiry helps coachee evaluate their beliefs and clarify fears and desires affecting their choices. Statements that prompt us to look inside our brains are reflective.

Reflection includes:-

  • recapping
  • labeling
  • using metaphors
  • identifying key or conflicting points and
  • recognizing emotional shifts

Inquiry combines questions with reflective statements. Questions seek answers; inquiry provokes insight. When you are racking your brain trying to find a good question, you are in your somewhere else but not present.  Being present is more important than being able to ask a perfect question. You need to create a safe space where their creative brains are activated, safe enough to explore their own thinking, and take action. People are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole, this concept was first seen in the work of psychologist Alfred Adler.

As Daniel Kahneman says in his book " Thinking, Fast and Slow", we resist self-exploration especially when emotions are involved. We don’t change well on our own. To stop adverse thinking patterns, someone outside our head needs to disrupt our thinking by reflecting our thoughts back to us and asking questions that prompt us to wonder why we think the way we do. 

TIP: In your next coaching conversation, instead of asking questions like "what have you tried so far or what else questions", first reflect words and expressions and then ask a question with curiosity, not memory. You may try mirroring, summarize what you hear, don't hesitate to share inconsistencies or contradictions. Label an experience for clarification like "I noticed..." or "I heard ..." or "I sense ..."

"Be the powerful mirror for your coachee".

MYTH 2: Coaching is about asking Only Open-ended questions, not Closed.

Open questions that start with what, where, when, how, and who will get more than one-word responses. Open, exploratory questions incite a deeper look at what is prompting behavior or inaction. One-word answers to questions shut down instead of open up a conversation. These moments can make the coach uncomfortable, feeling there is nowhere to go in the conversation. 

The purpose of questions is to disrupt a pattern or flow of thinking and prompt deeper exploration. The focus of a question should be on whether it opens or closes the client’s mind. As long as the question furthers the conversation, it shouldn’t matter how it is structured.

Closed questions are effective in at least three situations:

  • To help clarify what coachee want to resolve in the coaching
  • To affirm if a reflective statement is accurate
  • To prompt coachee when it is clear they have had a startling insight but they aren’t speaking

Closed questions that follow summaries, such as, “Is this correct?” or “Do you want to change this pattern?” or “Do you know if your expectation is realistic?” can help crystalize thoughts if asked with sincere interest.

Closed questions can be used to test the validity of a reflective statement. For example, when you summarize what is heard and expressed, notice shifts in emotions, or identify underlying beliefs or assumptions, you might ask if the coachee agrees with the summary, observation, or inference. 

TIP: You need to create a bond of trust that deepens over time. This trust-based relation is key for being a coach and an effective thinking partner. When the coachee trusts you are there to help them achieve something important to them, they will accept the discomfort of an edgy closed question.

For example, if they realize their actions have been sabotaging their desires, you might ask, “Will you ever be content with the situation as it is?” or “Will you regret not taking action a year from now?” You might follow up on these closed questions with an open question about what they want to look at or do next.

Give up knowing, Be Curious. Mastery is the deepening of presence not the perfection of skills.

MYTH 3: It is easier to give advice than to take the time to coach others to find their own solutions.

Are you providing suggestions or advice taking an outside-in approach or invoking your coachee's potential by taking an inside out approach? Is your coaching transactional or transformative?

When you tell people what to do, you tap into their cognitive brain, If what you suggest relates to or affirms their current knowledge, they are likely to agree with you. They might have needed outside confirmation to fortify their confidence before acting. Offering ideas might sound like an efficient way to guide people’s actions. This is true, however, you also run the risk of making them dependent on you for answers or approval before they take action. The results are often counter-productive and lead to lower levels of self-organization.

Transformational coaching works from the inside out. Reflective inquiry is a powerful way to create disruptions in thinking that lead to breakthrough transformation and change. When coachee attaches new meaning to themselves and the world around them, their capabilities, their limitations, and what they define as the right and wrong shift. The shifts cause changes in their choices and behavior.

Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga says we spend our days in automatic thought processing, rarely stopping to question the reasoning for our choices. Someone outside our brains is needed to break through these protective devices with a transformational approach.

TIP: Practice the art of non-interference by refraining from giving advice or suggestions. Don't try to be a healer, fixer, or expert in order to be the coach. Consider asking yourself what triggers a breakthrough or self-awareness?

Summary: Here is a small self-assessment for you to know if you are ready to Coach people.

Do not coach if you can’t do the following:

  • Let go of how you want the conversation to go. You want coachee to resolve their problems, but you can’t be attached to how the conversation will progress or what the outcome will be. If you can’t detach, you will end up forcing the conversation in the direction you want it to go.
  • Believe in the Coachees’ ability to figure out what to do. Do you have any judgments about your coachee that could get in the way? If you doubt their ability to find a way forward, then choose to mentor instead.

  • Feel hopeful, curious, and care. If you are angry or disappointed with the coachee, they will react to your emotions more than your words. If you are afraid the conversations won’t go well, do what you can to let go your fear so you model what courage and optimism feel like.

Not all conversations can or should be coaching sessions. Figure out what people & teams need and then choose to coach or take appropriate stances like teaching or mentoring.

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