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ASK, NOT TELL

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Developing with and through others

Updated: Apr 4

(Photo source: Flora Baker @ twitter.com)

2021 has been a busy year. With the quieter Jan, I am going to catch up with my reflection sharing here. I will start with a few real cases (without revealing any identity) memorable to me. I will tell a few stories and reflect on them.


The first case took place in an open Executive Development program which lasted over a year.  Participants were country top or N-1 level executives of diverse background – e.g. nationality, gender, type of industry.    Among my 4 group members, Daniel (pseudonym) worked in a muscular local organisation.  He impressed me to be smart, reserved, disciplined and content with most things in life.   Jackie (pseudonym) was one of the few Asian ladies who became a regional CEO in a large MNC, and a single parent.   She appeared to be tired, sceptical and confused.


They started rather unmotivated to ‘work’ in the program, but interestingly for different, almost opposite, reasons.   Daniel was happy with everything in life.   It showed vividly in his drawing e.g. loving family, promising advancement in the career which he desired.   When enquired, he said politely he did see anything he needed to work on in the program.


Jackie was the opposite.   Nothing in life seemed to be working – worsening business performance, low morale, deteriorating relationship with boss, lack of support in personal life, etc.   She described herself being in a ‘dark tunnel’.   She was quiet and distracted in our first group session.   When prompted, she said she was sceptical about this ‘coaching’ thing and in fact regretted starting this program!


I do not remember how exactly I responded to such resistance from both.    Largely, I expressed appreciation to their frankness, focused on listening to understand and reserved my challenge later in the session.  After all, in such first encounter, building Working Alliance (with me and among themselves) is most important.   Their expressed resistance may well be out of the typical first-session anxiety e.g. ‘Will I belong?’, ‘Am I good enough?’, ‘Will I lose myself in joining the group?’….    It is important for them to feel safe to share and (thus) open to hear others’ stories.   I challenged them later subtly e.g. by riding on related sharing by others.   For example, as a member expressed reflectively what he wanted to work on in the program, I noticed Jackie being very much drawn into the sharing.   I asked, ‘Jackie, imagine that you were finishing this program now, what would the thing you wish you have worked on in the past 1 year?’


The session ended ok. But the true magic happened a few months later. Jackie shared how she realised her directive style has not worked well in the increasingly matrix environment and how she were working to switch her leadership style. Other members gave her feedback, suggestion and questions to expand her thought. To our surprise, she also shared that she had been going through certain personal emotion challenge, and that how relieved she was feeling in sharing with the group. The room went quiet and the faces became soft….


I still remember vividly what Daniel then said, ‘Jackie, I am humbled by what you told us and the effort you put in working through the challenges.   There is no reason I avoid facing my own….. I have been receiving feedback that I am too distant.   I know it would be better for me and the organization if I can be more engaging to others.    But it is hard and I have no idea how…’


Members joined in to help. The group basically carried itself throughout the session and I just participated as one of them. It was magical.


I subsequently came across a quote which articulated exactly such ‘magic’:

‘…As you experience yourself as incomplete or inadequate…. but still included and accepted ….and experience the capable people around you as incomplete and inadequate… but no less admirable… these experience seem to give rise to qualities of compassion and appreciation that can benefit all relationships and enable deep self-examination and thus development…’

from Robert Kegan in his book ‘An Everyone Culture


This essentially spells out what a coach should work towards in a group coaching setting, which is about developing individuals’ leadership through the group.   Not to ‘enhance trust’. Not to ‘build the team’.  Not to ‘get them through the storming stage’.   

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