This post is about coaching, the power of unexpected questions and the alchemy of metaphor.
I have just completed the first two days of a Diploma in Intermediate Executive Coaching, run by AOEC. I’ve learnt loads, including realising once more the power of metaphor. The striking thing I’d like to share is an insight I had about a project I discussed, as part of a practice session run by one of my fellow trainees. Hats off to Simon!
The project had been bugging me. It’s enormous and complex, and I’m a relatively small cog in a very large consultant / client team. Things have been rushed and not all the plates have been spinning smoothly. It had been on my mind the previous evening, and I knew I was angry about how out of control it was feeling.
I came to the coaching session with a metaphor already in my mind, that the project was like a semi-wild cat, which was currently spitting and using its claws. I wanted to speak calmly to it until it was pliable and tame enough to coax back into its box.
My focus was on the cat: wild and capable of causing a lot of pain, in its anarchic panic. It was afraid and it could smell my fear.
I saw my own role as needing to move from being angry with it or afraid of it, to being the calm person who could ‘cat whisper’ it back to being tame, for just long enough to get it where I wanted it.
And anyway, this was only training: I felt I probably wouldn’t get much out of the twenty minute session and I – wrongly – thought I knew already what my learning would be.
The training partner who was coaching me in this practice surprised me. He didn’t ask about the cat, he asked about the box.
That was definitely left-field for me. I hadn’t paid much attention to the box until he asked, and it stopped me in my tracks. I described the box that I was picturing: small, carboard with a hinged lid and a padlock.
As I got a clearer picture in my mind of this box, I had a revelation. I was trying to play a terrible trick on the cat. I wasn’t serving the cat, I was only trying to deal with my feelings. And what a disrespectful attitude I had towards it. I was looking at it all wrong. This project is hard because it is ambitious and complicated and taking place in difficult circumstances. If it wasn’t hard, it wouldn’t be worth working on.
I care about it, and I am proud of its ambition and the attempts the team is making to keep things going and to realise that ambition.
I shouldn’t be trying to turn it into a pussycat.
Pride of a lion
Without really understanding how, my attitude to the project was transformed – and it has stayed transformed (at least so far).
This project is a lion, and I am proud to be walking alongside it in the open air, head up and back straight, not flinching when the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune assail us.
So the original metaphor was powerful in enabling me to raise this subject matter in the session, but it was the unexpected question from the coach inviting me to explore an aspect of it which I had overlooked, which really transformed my perspective. I had gone into the session with the explicit aim of ‘sounding off’, and I emerged from it with renewed pride and purpose.