I never knew a conference can be this intimate…until now by Nicholas Wai

Not even a month had passed since my last trip to the US, and I was on my way across the Pacific again, this time to attend the ICF Advance: Forward conference in Portland, Oregon. Having no preconception and thinking this will just be like any other conferences I have been to, it turned out to be one of the most intimate and enjoyable conferences I have ever been too. Part of it was how it was set up and facilitated, but most importantly, what I can still feel strong, were the amazing participants and the deep connection you were invited to build with them. I came off it with a deep sense of community that we all have a deep belief in the value of coaching, and a commitment to see it move forward for the greater good of the world.

I first realised this would be quite a different conference when we started the pre-conference warm up activities on the first day when we were asked to form a line according to how long we have been a member of ICF and how long we have been coaching. What immediately struck me was that this would be a small conference, with no more than a hundred people (eighty something in fact), and more surprisingly, that 60 something of whom were MCCs (Master Certified Coach, who are very experienced coaches with over 2,500 hours of experience under their belts) with quite a few having been coaching longer than the existence of ICF (where we were celebrating 20th anniversary as part of this conference). I felt like a kid at the adult table, where I saw old friends catching up with each other. And these were not just old friends, these were the pioneers in our field of coaching. They were there when the ICF was first set up and who have contributed to the development of the field and paved the way for us relative newbies at the back of this line to join when we decide to become coaches. I was in awe, and a bit intimidated, to be in a roomful of coaches with this caliber and status, and wondered how the conference would proceed so that everyone would get something out of it.

What happened next was also a surprise for me. The doors opened to a big circle with 2 rows of chairs facing each other. We were asked to sit wherever we were inclined to, and after everyone sat down, have a conversation with our partner sitting opposite us (who would be changing after each round). We told stories of how we got attracted into coaching, some memorable experiences along the way, and where we hope our journey would take us. The bonding and connections were immediately felt by everyone (my perception), where we shared so many similarities in why we have chosen to become coaches, our triumphs and challenges, and the common wish to contribute to our clients, our field, and the betterment of the world. We were then asked to join one of the "campfires" of our choosing, to talk more deeply about the topics and insights we just had. To wrap up, we all stood in a big circle where we could see each other, to share how we felt at that moment. I loved the metaphor of the circle, where we were all equal, where everyone were important, and where we could feel each other's presence. What feeling of awe and self-consciousness were gone, replaced by a great sense of warmth, energy, and dare I say, love.

With such an extraordinary start the day before, we launched into the next two days of conference with such bond and interests to get to know each other better that I felt it did not matter what the sessions were. Of course we were treated to some amazing speakers,

  • who challenged us to look outside the box (Dr. Bhaskar Chakravorti talked about how important it was to think like a surrealist artist such as Rene Magritte in imagining the future as it would not probably happen as we expected, and more importantly, what sort of a future we would want to see given our view of the human condition and what we would prepare to do about it),

  • who challenged us to look inside (Gretchen Rubin talked about changing habits and how rather than just doing it with the “right way” we could look at who we are in following rules and expectations to choose ways that would work for us), an

  • who challenged us to get ourselves ready for the future self we wanted to be (Mark C, Thompson talked about the importance of examining what got you here and as how they were helping or hindering you as you create the future you).

With all the exploration and matrix of conversations both during the between sessions, we finished with an extended facilitated session on what's possible for coaching in the next 20 years, where we all contributed our views and insights as dialogues starters into helping chart the course for our field with our collective wisdom. To sum up, this has just been the most amazing conference I've ever been to – it was the conversations that have sprung up, the lasting friendships and connections that have been formed, and the warmth and energy that are still welling within me. I hope there will be another conference like this, where I could feel so much a part of, where I feel I could contribute so much, and where I feel like it's still continuing.