Coaches! Put away that Toolbox!

In training and supervising hundreds of new coaches I notice how many are preoccupied by what we might call Toolbox Syndrome.  At coaching conferences, where as a rule beginners predominate, I guarantee that you will find that the workshops which offer new wonder-techniques are the ones that fill up first. I’m quite sure that when I was a beginner coach I was just the same. A new technique? A new psychometric? Bring it on!

Listening recently to the recordings of two brand new coaches, both with a lot of natural aptitude, I found that both had deployed a complex technique in the very first meeting with their client. It would not be unusual to find that a newly trained coach was using several such techniques in every session. I define such a tool as anything that needs a diagram, a form, a change of seating, or a lengthy theoretical explanation.

How does it feel as a client to have a plethora of Tools/Techniques used in your session? I sometimes inherit clients after what they will describe as ‘failed’ coaching assignments. When I discreetly enquire about what has gone wrong, the client will invariably tell me that the coach seemed to be obsessed by ‘techniques’. Don’t ever fool yourself that clients will not notice: they do. So there was the coach who always imposed 10 minutes of mindfulness on his client, there was the one who loved visualisations, another who insisted on ‘anchoring’, yet another who reduced every problem to Robert Dilts’ Logical Levels pyramid. There is nothing wrong with such techniques. It is wonderful to be familiar with them and to know how to use them, but not if every session comes to be about which technique you can use. Preoccupation with the Technique can easily mean that you misread what the client wants, or fail to explore the meaning that is below the obvious surface of what they are saying.

When I listen to the recordings of coaches who have fallen prey to Toolbox Syndrome, there is a common pattern. In every case the coach has failed to establish or clarify the client’s goals for the session. Very soon the session begins to have a round and round feel. The coach gets desperate. What can I ask? To regain some sense of control, the coach reaches into the toolkit: bingo!

What does it do for a coach to use tools such as the Meta Mirror or the MBTI? The answer is that as a new and inexperienced coach you don’t quite trust the power of questioning alone. You feel you always have to have something up your sleeve if some awful silence descends.  It boosts fragile confidence. It gives you some control. It’s why so many coaches feel a lot more confident about the first session than the second because in the first there is an essential set of rituals to be gone through: the what-is-coaching conversation, contracting, quite often looking at 360 feedback or action plans from a course. But then what?

I think those of us who run training courses and write books about coaching must take some responsibility here. Naturally we want to show people how these useful tools work. I recently read a charming book on coaching where every chapter has an extensive list of such tools all helpfully cross referenced at the end: many dozens in total. Somehow I think we are giving the impression that every coaching session should have its little tool embedded. I think the truth is the opposite: using these tools should be the exception. You deploy them only when nothing else will do.

Here is my challenge. Close the toolbox. Spend the first five minutes reconnecting, encouraging the client to unburden, telling you what has happened since you last met. Spend the next five minutes getting clear what their goals are for the session. Then ask coaching questions. Trust the process. And see what happens.