Sunday, November 26, 2017

My Coaching Philosophy: Feel the Learn!

Feel the Learn!

I'll sum up my personal coaching philosophy in three words: "Feel the Learn!"

Physical trainers are apt to say "Feel the burn" as a shorthand for training at a sufficient intensity to challenge muscles and force an adaptive response.

Through my Agile coaching I don't expect your muscles to burn — that would be a surprising and probably unwelcome side-effect! — but you should be burning fresh neural pathways as you learn and improve.

The intention of the snappy phrasing is to act as a reminder that while a wide variety of practices and principles can be brought to play as part of an eclectic coaching approach, they should serve the higher purpose of helping people to actively learn, and to value learning.


In a fast moving world, the fastest learners win. The coaching profession exists to help people learn and perform effectively. Ideally, we teach people to learn independently, and collaboratively: to think for themselves and to play well with others.
Coaching can focus on achieving external goals or developing personal capability. Of course, the two are inter-related: strengthening capabilities makes it easier to achieve external goals, while setting explicit goals help us to focus.

Personally, I lean somewhat to the learning and capability side rather than the goal-focussed side of the coaching coin. With improved insight and capability goals become easier to achieve, and the confidence in one's skills and capabilities tends to be transferrable to new goals, especially meta-skills like knowing how to learn.


How do you know that you've really learned something? I believe a good test is what you fall back on when you are distracted, or when the going gets tough. Then you find out what you've internalised.

For example, when I discovered that (like most people) I had learned to tie my shoes incorrectly and resolved to fix this I ran into a problem: unlearning is typically more difficult than learning. While I only needed a small modification to my shoe-tying routine — loop under rather than over —it took me over a month of conscious and frustrating practice (frequently catching myself in the old habit) before I was able to switch over to the new routine automatically.

Good learners (and coaches) are humble. Not because "they have much to be humble about", but because there is always so much more to learn. The best sportspeople in the world have coaches who the athletes can out-perform at their given sport, but their coaches bring other attributes — typically around, technique, conditioning, and mental training — that help their charges rise to ever-greater levels of performance.


I like to model the coaching engagement on the Tuckman model, also known as "forming, storming, norming, performing".

The forming stage is about getting to know each other and sense-making: where is there room to learn and improve? What are the strengths that can be harnessed? Where are the weaknesses and blindspots that need recognition?

In the storming stage I challenge some pre-conceptions and maybe this is resented: after all hearing that you're not perfect is typically a bit of a blow to the ego. Or maybe we disagree on where the work needs to be done. If I believe that what I'm going to raise is particularly challenging I may prepare the ground by asking, "Would you like to hear the truth, or the comforting lie?". So far people have always asked for The Truth, but this does help them steady themselves!

Having navigated the storming stage we can start to set some norms about how we're going to work together: different people learn differently, and a nice aspect of bespoke coaching is that we can tailor the techniques and style more so than in a mass-production, get with the program style.

Finally: performing. Having built up rapport and established some norms we are set up to engage in the serious business of learning and improving.

My actual coaching cycle looks a bit like this:
  1. Identify an area for improvement
  2. Engage in some targeted learning
  3. Relate that learning to on-job-work, with coaching support
  4. Practice, practice, practice, correct, practice, adjust, practice, practice, ...
  5. Reflect and improve more, maybe identify another area to improve
  6. Profit!

What Else?

One of the great lessons I learned from undertaking a Diploma of Education is that learning should centre on the learner and pretty much every style of teaching works for some (but not all) learners in some (but not all) contexts.

Therefore I aspire to have a wide variety of tools at my disposal, plus the judgement to pick a suitable approach for particular learner(s).

This jibes nicely with my personal desire to keep learning, improving and exploring, both for my own benefit, and to help serve my clients. A few key areas of personal learning that inform my coaching approach are: martial arts (25 years and counting), improvisational theatre (past), Integral Facilitation (current),  and — of course! — parenthood (ongoing ;-).

Key take-aways

In my coaching approach I emphasise
  1. Capability development over fixed goals
  2. A bespoke approach over one size fits all
  3. Reserving sufficient time for continuous improvement (including learning)
  4. Deliberate and repeated practice to internalise new skills
  5. Building self-coaching capability
Or, in three words: Feel the Learn!

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