Being genuinely interested in you: My pathway into coaching by Simon Dennis (guest)

Learning to step back from the solution

It begins with understanding the individual in the room, the individual that’s present in the room, as opposed to the individual you might have read about or the individual that you might have seen the last time, or the individual that you may have read up on in your notes before you go into the room.

In my coaching conversations it’s very easy to be prepared. By prepared, I mean, having an understanding of what happened last time and actions taken and a little bit about the background. The danger is if you are too prepared for the moment then you’re not open as a coach because I think we’re less ready and available. The idea of being a coach is to be present for them, not necessarily prepared for them and I love that surprising element.

I like to be surprised by coaching.

To me — it’s great, and that’s why I think when you coach people where you have little or no understanding of their world, we’re more inquisitive. And I think one of the great skills of coach, if you like, is to be genuinely inquisitive because it matters. If it matters to the client, it will always matter to me. I find myself saying things when they say to me, “Oh, do you want me to tell you more about that?” My response to that is, “Well, do you want to tell me more about that because actually, if you don’t want to tell me more, that is equally fine. But if you believe that I need to know more, you want to share more, my job is to be there and be at the moment.

I think that element gives you real insight into what people are, and understand the context that you work with, the intent. It’s a genuine desire to know the answer rather than just to make conversation. And I think as adults, we learn this wonderful venerability to feign interest in order to make conversation.

Being genuinely interested and disarming: the early days

I try and be - both in my body language and in my approach - disarming (something which cannot easily be captured in written words because of the way in which they put emphasis and tone and the way in which the words are expressed)

I learned that very early on in my radio career because it came genuinely from the heart. I was working for people whose job I’d never do or even after trying didn’t do as well and wouldn’t be pursuing. Yet it was literally through my appreciation of these experiences that drove my early conversations in coaching. One was a genuine interest in what they did and how they did it.

Whenever I looked at these radio presenters I thought, “How do you actually do it?” Literally, I have no idea and couldn’t imagine what it’s like to be one and so I was genuinely interested in knowing more.  With that curiosity I spotted things that they might be doing that could be improved upon yet I was really careful in giving feedback because you’re dealing with supremely confident individuals and colossal authorities. So all the time, I would go and just be more disarming in my approach and inquire, “Well, actually, could you have done that any better?” Whereas, the previous companies said to them, “Oh, I think you could have made that better. I think you could have done that thing better.”

Let me share an example early on in my career where this approach proved valuable. Very early on in my managerial role in a new station with a very experienced, professional radio presenter, whose first comment to me was, “Well, what is it you’re going to tell me about my job that I don’t really know?” As I took a step back I thought, “I need to help him see that I’m not a threat because he clearly feels threatened by whatever the bosses have decided to do to bring me down there.” So I was very quiet and all I said to him was, I said, “I’m not sure there’s anything that I can tell you that will make me a better presenter. You know, there might be some stuff, I’m not sure, but what I want to do is understand what makes you good help you to become great.

It was being present rather than being prepared in those first few moments, and continuously delivering on my intentions, it opened up a whole avenue of possibilities. He also became one of my biggest advocates in the industry.

At the time none of what I was doing would be called coaching because it was literally in the moment. Yet that’s how I operate and it’s been about letting the person on the other side know, and fully convinced, that I am interested in them which isn’t the same as being able to answer all of their questions. And there is some point in your management life, you do have to take action and decide.

Understanding the context and really caring about the intent: My approach to coaching effectively

I think, as coaches, we have a role to take that childhood approach to say, “Actually, I’m genuinely interested in you, as an individual, in your moment and in your world. So if you talk to me about fishing, and actually, I might not like fishing, but if I’m really—if I show a genuine interest, then you’ll open up to me about everything else.

As a coach, you learn from different courses to build rapport and listening, two key skills yet how do you do it? You might summarize what the other person has said to demonstrate you’ve really been listening. But the problem is, I think as a rule, as adults, you learn all these techniques - to show rapport, to show interest – and it’s a continuously important reminder to every coach, “I’m not just asking you this because I know it will help build our rapport, I’m asking you this because actually, I’m genuinely interested.” Otherwise you’re playing the game if you’re not careful.

For me, my approach in demonstrating listening and from the feedback I have received from a number of my clients is that when they’ve met me for the second or third time, they find it really warming to know that I still remember what I said in the first meeting. I take very few notes but I remember loads of detail.

They’d say to me, “You didn’t write any of that down. You didn’t take any notes.”
I’d respond with, “But you told me when we met that you were doing this and you were involved in that.”
They would ask, “How did you know that?
And I would honestly say, “Because I was genuinely interested.

Note taking for me is a way of helping me to remember is one of the ways of genuinely being interested, rather than using your notes to kind of prepare yourself for the moment. It’s about,

  • OK, so what is it that you’ve told me before and what is it that you’ve told me now?

  • What’s changed?

  • What’s the addition?

Bringing altogether all that I bring from my experiences has led me to the two key elements as being the basics of effective coaching: understanding the context and caring about the intent. I can best demonstrate this with an example.  

I was in a meeting one day when one of my senior managers came up to me afterwards and said “I noticed in the meeting that you didn’t contribute. Can we talk about why that was?” Now this senior leader is very perceptive and hadn’t forgotten to follow up and said to me later on, “We had that meeting and you weren’t normal self.” And I said, “What do you mean by that?” They responded with, “Well, normally, you would contribute. But we were in a couple of fairly heated debates and “You just stayed out of it. Why was that?
Both the intent and approach they took to have this conversation with me informed me that they weren’t beginning by making assumptions nor thinking there was something wrong me. Instead, with such an open question with a disarming tone allowed me to answer, “I wasn’t prepared to have a fight. It wasn’t that important. So I let it go.” They then went onto explain the value I offer, “But I want you to debate. I want you to contribute.” And from this genuine interested I shared what I needed, “OK. But then you need to give me something that I care about to contribute. We were having this discussion but I didn’t think it was worth the effort.” They then empowered me to intervene in the conversation with, “But you shouldn’t have said that. You should have said, “Why were you debating this?” Following this conversation, I agreed for future meetings if I thought the topic of conversation wasn’t worth debating I would just say that.

Being able to have these type of conversations outside the meetings is because from previous conversations it needs to have been demonstrated that one’s intentions are completely clear and aligned with theirs. And in my example this senior manager and I had contracted with each other that our intent is to get the best out of me and that is reciprocated with trust. You might call this their coaching approach, and in fact, I find myself doing it now with my team. They know that my intention is always to include them but I’m also respective of their context which is where they’re coming from. I think, the whole bit about coaching almost kind of maintains as though it’s about correcting some defaults in purity or issues that you’ve got. I always find that I’m lucky that my coaching journey started from a position of coaching strength all the time.

Sharing my reflections of my coaching journey so far

I was very fortunate that I started coaching from a position of strength all the time because my clients are good, and they know what they’re doing. My job is to make them great and exceptional because I am dealing with quality.

To be perfectly honest, when I first encountered coaching for kind of remediation, and remedial behaviour, I was astounded and it was a whole new area for me (something I hadn’t considered). And so when I sat in the room and they go, “Right. I’ve been sent here for coaching.” My first opening number is, “What makes you so good in your job?” And they go, “Well, because I do this and this.”

It’s being prepared not to have your starting point focusing on around what things they have been told to work on. It’s starting from almost—well, a no-win situation. And so my first experience of coaching people for improvement when they’ve been identified as weak in certain areas is always talk about their strengths. When I have someone come to me and say, “So I’ve been told by my boss that I’m not very good at presenting. I’m not very good in senior meetings.” So I start by saying, “So tell me what things you are good at.” And that’s always my natural starting point because that is where I come from.

My world has come from working with really good people, and I’m here to help other people get a good look at what they are really good at. For me it really starts with being genuinely interested in the other, a way of being, and with my coaching and disarming approach to interactions this helps me to achieve what I’ve shared as being the two key elements for effective coaching: intent and context that requires those who are party to these coaching conversation to have worked together to build.

The element of context helps with setting the boundary for having coaching conversation, and in those conversation you can then be implicit in your context. This is because it’s in that moment that the recipient needs and so the intent is generally accepted because from previous interactions their desire to come and ask you wouldn’t happen if they didn’t already think that you are going to add some value.

Question: Through this piece I have shared what’s really important for me in understanding the added value my approach to coaching brings. I’m always learning from other’s approach in the moment, and I’d be interested to hear how what elements are key to your practice?

To connect with Simon Dennis

Simon has over 20 years’ experience of service delivery and continuous improvement in a variety of roles and industry sectors. He trained as a coach and coach supervisor and as Head of Coaching at Fujitsu UK & Ireland he established a Coaching Community utilising internal and external coaches to meet the business need for performance improvement and provided a basis for establishing a coaching competency for the organisation.

He has continued as a coaching ambassador for Fujitsu, presenting at conferences and contributing to publications and professional bodies in order to promote the use of coaching for performance and particularly internal coaching as a valid and valued approach.

He is married with 2 daughters and lives in Manchester, North-West England.