The Three Gateways to a Powerful Coaching Engagement: getting unstuck, growing confidence and uncovering possibility by Robbie Swale (guest)
The more and more I have coached people, the more I have started to see patterns emerge in that work. As I reflected on my work for this article, I realised I have seen three of these patterns strengthen into three of the primary effects of powerful coaching. These patterns are the gateways to three changes for my clients:
growing confidence, and
developing the sense of what’s possible.
They don’t always happen in that order, and there are plenty of things which happen around them, but these are three of the most important parts of the work I do as a coach, and the most inspiring to watch.
1) Getting Unstuck
My coaching engagements often start with a single session, a gift from me to the client. We do some real work, I serve the client as powerfully as I can, and we decide whether we are going to do more work together. The pattern in early work with clients, especially in this first coaching session, is of meeting people who are feeling very stuck. Usually – but not always – clients come to me because they aren’t able to solve a problem they are facing. They have tried, they have thought about it a lot, but they have not been able to move. They have reached a level they can’t transcend, or a wall they can’t get around or over.
I have come to see the feeling of stuckness here as a lack of agency. This lack of agency, in the worst cases, leads the client to see immovable barriers in front of them, and this can lead to a lack of hope. It’s a sense that this person’s life, and what happens in it, is out of their control and there's no way for them to change it. And as we move through that first session, my role is often to move people out of that state: taking them to the place where they realise or remember that their life is within their control. They can affect it. They can create the change they want.
This is about connecting them to the action that they have taken, or the action they can take, to create change. Sometimes it’s about reflecting to them the evidence from their lives as they share it with me. At the end of this first session, clients leave with a sense that they can change things. Often I can literally see the difference in them at the end of the session, and that sense of positivity, of energy, is palpable. And then, once they start to take the actions – actions they design and choose in our work – then they really see the change they can create in their world. And that is the beginning of developing a sense of agency, seeing that they are the protagonist in their story, choosing their own adventure. And there begins (and sometimes even ends, too!) the dissipation of that feeling of stuck.
The more each of us sees that we can affect change, the less hopeless, the more hope-full our life becomes. We can change things for the better.
How to get people unstuck: the power of listening, reflecting the truth and coaching from possibility
I don’t have a single, specific approach which helps me shift clients from that initial state – no one trick or powerful question. But what I see making a difference are three things. The first is listening. Not just any listening, but listening from a place of utmost high regard for the client. We start wherever the client wants to start. I take it at face value: they need to share where they are.
In this space of exploration with high regard, I acknowledge and validate their experience. These two skills are right at the core of my work: acknowledging and reflecting back to clients the truth of their world: the bravery and strength they’ve shown, the challenges and fears they have faced; and validating what they’ve been through as a real, human experience that many others would have found just as challenging, and faced in much the same way. They aren’t stuck because they are stupid or failing in some way; they are stuck because it is human to sometimes not be able to see the wood for the trees or the power they have in their lives. I sometimes share if their experience resonates with my story, or with the stories of other clients. Even without specifically drawing this out – although I often do that – what is more acknowledging and validating than real, deep listening: having someone give you the respect and care of hearing you speak? This is where allowing the client to tell their story, in their way, often in a way they have never told it before, is incredibly powerful and beautiful. Real listening is automatically and deeply validating of a person’s experience. It is something many people haven’t experienced before, or at least haven’t experienced often. What a gift to give.
This becomes even more powerful as we move into a sense of possibility (of which more later). I believe in the clients, I believe in the unique and deep strength, the creativity and wonder in every human being. Being stuck usually involves two sides: a sense of what has happened, what has come before, and how we have got to this point; and a sense that life could be about something more. That something more may be clear to the client or it may be hazy, but for a person to end up sitting with me, they almost always hold at least a hint of what they want to come. Once a client has shared their journey to their meeting with me, I often invite clients to move into a space of exploration around where they want to go to. I have a variety of ways I do this, but perhaps the most powerful part of this is to listen, and to believe. One of our deepest fears in speaking about our dreams and aspirations is that we will be laughed at, that someone will say ‘yes, but…’ or ‘that will never work’, that the until-now hidden dream will be dashed forever. When I listen to those hopes and dreams, I don't laugh at them. I don't say that they're not possible or expose the ways they might not be practical. Because I don’t see them as not possible or not practical. I believe, often more than the client does. I validate and acknowledge what they’ve hidden away, perhaps for a long time: their hopes and dreams. And there continues the shift.
When you are in this state of stuckness, then where you want to get to can feel like an enormous distance away: an impossible cliff to climb. It seems to me that so often, in the place of lack and scarcity in which many of us find ourselves, we always feel like the place we want to get to is a long, long way away. We never remember that it starts with steps. Then we give up because we feel like even those steps are out of our control. And that is what needs to shift first.
An Aside: Does the Work Continue?
One interesting side of this particular pattern – getting people unstuck – is that the people most shifted by this first session are not always the people who want to do more coaching. Sometimes all people need right now is to be unstuck. And away they go. At first this used to stress me out… a lot. I would think, "What?! You’ve just had this amazing shift, from victim to player, from Life Happening To Me to Life Created By Me. What do you mean you don’t want to have more of this? Are you a fool?" Much of that came from my own scarcity mindset – the feeling that creating clients, and growing my business, was out of my control and I needed every last one to say yes. Now, through my own growth and personal development, and of course experience, really made my peace with it. It is actually one of my favourite parts of my work, being able to offer that shift, as a gift, to almost anyone who comes my way. What an amazing thing to be contributing to the world.
2) Growing a Client’s Confidence
For those people who I don’t continue to work with at that point, perhaps having that shift once is all they need. For others, there is more to it. Sometimes they feel they need more help to get them out of the situation they are in, to truly become unstuck. At other times they want more help, to make sure they get to where they want, or get there faster than they could on their own. Sometimes the rush of realising that life is within their control is intoxicating, and they want more and more of that feeling over time. What I see happening with the people who work with me over a longer period is that the sense of hope and agency is grown, embedded and solidified through our work. This, I believe is a growth in confidence. Indeed, perhaps, the definition of confidence is really a deeply held belief that the actions we take will lead, in the end, to the outcomes we desire.
This view of confidence came when I was asked by another coach, "What do you do with people who want to increase their self-confidence?" I thought about that, and then replied, "Well actually pretty much all coaching, if it's done right, grows people’s confidence. It involves reflection followed by action followed by reflection. And that shows people the control they have, which gives them the confidence they need." In coaching, once you follow even the barest definition – find an objective the client wants to get to, reflect on that and create action related to it – people see that they can make changes to themselves and their world, and then they reflect on that, and then they take action again, and then they reflect on that, and then take action again. This is the power of a coaching engagement, and why two coaching sessions is far more valuable than twice the value of one session. Over the course of a coaching engagement – my typical engagements are at least four months long – the client increases the evidence, externally and internally, that the actions they take will lead them towards the outcomes they desire. And over time – an amount of time that varies from person to person – this confidence becomes embodied, and that sense of hope and agency becomes more and more a part of who they are. As Rich Litvin says, ‘Confidence is a result, not a requirement.’
So if coaching, as I believe, is a story about belief and confidence and hope versus stuckness and limitation and scarcity, then so far we have two acts: first, showing someone that there is hope in their situation, that they can change things and that these things are possible; and then second, building in them that capacity to embody belief and confidence through action and reflection.
These two together take people a long way. They move them into control of their life, into a sense of confidence and empowerment. But there is one more act to go. And whilst the first two acts include so much bravery on clients’ behalf, and include some of the most inspiring moments of my coaching, it is often in Act Three where the magic happens. Act Three is about the growth of possibility.
3) Uncovering Possibility
Here’s the last part of what I’ve noticed in my work with clients, the last thing that gets developed as they receive coaching from me. They start to truly understand what’s possible.
We humans aren’t very good at that. Perhaps we have been conditioned by society, as Seth Godin might say, not to aim too high. Perhaps we are just deeply scared, as Marianne Williamson might say, of succeeding beyond measure. But whatever the reason, extending a client’s belief in what is possible for them is the final part of this story.
“You’re a magician,” said one client. “We’re magicians. It’s magic.” At the start of our engagement, as I do at the start of many engagements, I had asked the client to consider what would have to happen by the end of our work together to make it truly extraordinary. “I’ve been back to our objectives, the extraordinary picture, and it’s all happening,” she said.
This isn’t the first time this has happened, but this client’s reaction made me smile a deep smile. Because there is something really magical about this. This is a picture she had created of what she would want her life to look like, and it felt like it would be truly extraordinary if that happened in four months’ time. And then, because of her creativity and commitment and discipline and general awesomeness – and because of the coaching she received – it had happened.
Here’s how I often get to that point: first, once we’ve decided to work together, the client and I create objectives for our engagement. What does success look like, and how will we know we have got there? This is a sense of what the client would like to happen. A useful model to consider here is The Futures Cone in this NESTA report, which splits the future into Probable Futures, Plausible Futures and Possible Futures. The answers to these initial questions are usually, for the clients, somewhere in the Plausible. Next, I will often push them a step further: “And what would have to happen to make this work extraordinary?” This takes us further away from the Probable, perhaps right to the edge of Plausible. Maybe even into the Possible.
But there’s still further we can go. I learnt through my own coaching the power of stretching a client even further. At the start of my second engagement with my coach, Joel Monk, last autumn, he asked me as part of our intake, ‘And as a bonus question, what’s the impossible goal?’ It took me a few minutes before the answer came to me: ‘It would be to be full-time self-employed by the end of the engagement’. This was something that I hadn’t even realised was my goal until he asked, and something that felt impossible to achieve in only six months. And it would change everything in my life for the better. And here’s the magic: I got there in five months.
I’ve now added that third level to my work with clients, and invite most clients to go there. Now that we have built our objectives in the Plausible. Now we have pushed that to the extraordinary, right at the edge of the Plausible, perhaps even into the Possible. Now, let’s go further: ‘What feels impossible, but if it happened would change everything?’
I sat with one of my clients just a few months ago, three quarters of the way through our engagement, reviewing our objectives as we moved into the last quarter. And here’s the thing, not only had all our objectives already been achieved or transcended, but the “impossible” goals had been achieved, too. It can happen. And it’s magical.
Building the Client’s Possibility Muscle
Now I know what some of you are thinking – these three stories are great, but there’s no way this always happens. And you’re right. But here’s the thing: it happens way more often than I thought it would. Way more often than I would have thought possible. I often start sessions by diving into what a client wants to have by the end of the session. And I sometimes follow that up with, ‘And what would have to happen in this session to make it truly extraordinary?’ And these things happen too. Not all the time, but far, far more often that I would have thought.
Why is this important? Because without asking the question, without stretching the client’s possibility muscle, I don’t think these things would ever happen. Often a client doesn’t even know what they really want until I invite them into the space of what is Possible in the session, in the engagement. And even when I do invite them, it’s not always easy to go there. We aren’t used to considering what would be genuinely extraordinary. It’s a muscle we need to develop. Just like a belief that we can affect change in our lives. Once we see it in action, once the extraordinary becomes real before our eyes, once we achieve the ‘impossible’, then we begin to believe. Then our sense of hope and agency multiplies by ten; then our confidence triples. And if it doesn’t happen right here, right now for a client, then ‘all we have done’ is helped someone understand and articulate some of their deepest desires. And that is extraordinary in itself.
What do I do to help this along? Well, first, I ask. I invite them to dance in that space. And then I believe. I believe in the person in front of me: in their creativity, their resourcefulness, their courage, their commitment, their genuine awesomeness. Their ability to achieve the extraordinary, to create what seems impossible to them. This belief comes from three places: it comes from my experience in my own life of creating what seemed impossible to me; it comes from my experience with clients, from stories like the ones above; and it comes because I have decided to believe in good in the world, to believe that amazing things can happen, to believe in a sense of possibility.
I am relatively early in my coaching journey – I have only been a practising coach for just over two years – but I believe that these three aspects of coaching: getting people unstuck, creating confidence and uncovering a sense of possibility are at the centre of most great coaching. They are deeply pleasurable and deeply important parts of my own work. They are things which I have seen contribute, for myself and my clients, to a happy life, a life well lived. And if you consider the challenges that the modern world is facing then the results of this work – increased hope, confidence and possibility – take on even greater significance.
Almost every coach reading this will be doing this work with their clients, giving them these gifts of agency, confidence and possibility. Some will be doing this in the ways I have described, but many others will be using their own gifts, tools and techniques. Each individual client will need a slightly different balance to unlock their stuckness or grow their confidence or build their possibility muscle, and each coach will dance with their clients to find the mix of things which support that specific client.
As our experience as coaches grows and develops, our instincts for what clients need develop further, and our ability to unlock these three gateways for more and more people grows. This is the importance of a reflective practice for ourselves, of continued learning and of taking the time to share our experience with others. I’m looking forward to the next phases of my learning, and I hope you are to yours, too.
A Gift For You
If you have read this far, then before you go I would like to invite you to remind yourself of how amazing your coaching really is. Remind yourself what an amazing gift you give to everyone who you are able to help get unstuck. Remind yourself of everyone who you have helped develop an embodied confidence which they almost certainly carry with them today. And remind yourself of each person you have believed in as they shared their dreams with you, each person you have stretched and challenged around what is possible.
And I would like to invite you to continue that work, to stretch what you think is possible, and to help us all make this world the place we know it can be.
To connect with Robbie Swale
I am a career and leadership coach. I work with clients to help them to find their path and be extraordinary as they walk it. I have led a varied career in the private, public and charity sectors, including five years of working in arts and culture, as a venue manager and then subsequently in training, career and leadership development. Alongside my coaching work - for my coaching business and for other organisations like Coachingpartner and the Coaching School - I write a regular blog on LinkedIn and occasional longer posts.