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Reflections on Coaching: Transformative or Flashy…?

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My friend Stefanie Schmidt once made the comment that the kind of coaching sessions she finds most valuable are the ones that give her a concept or a technique she can go away and work on. These may not on the face of it look like the most impactful sessions, as the results aren’t immediately audible, but rather emerge later, and over time. But they make the greatest difference in the longer term.

She contrasted these experiences with those she termed ‘flashy’ coaching. The latter make major changes to the group’s performance, generating great enthusiasm and emotional energy, but not necessarily leaving the group with the wherewithal to recreate the same effect when the coach has gone home and left them to it. Flashy coaching’s legacy can actually to be to undermine the self-belief of people who have been given a glimpse of greatness but find themselves unable reach it again by themselves.

I recognised her description of ‘flashy’ coaching in my earlier years as both coach and recipient of coaching. I can remember the delight of hearing the modestly-skilled chorus I sang with develop a rich and ringing sound over the course of the day, and the disappointment as it leaked away over the next three weeks, leaving us about where we had started.

I can also remember being sent by LABBS, as part of the organisation’s educational offerings to its membership, to go and coach some of less-skilled choruses, and finding it pleasingly easy to make a huge difference in a few short hours. And then going home and wondering what, if any, longer-term impact I had had. I rationalised my efforts with the thought that at least I had given those people who had given up a Saturday for their singing a pleasurable experience.

I hope I continue to give people who give up time for their singing pleasurable experiences, but as I have developed as a coach my focus has increasingly been on finding the right amount of stretch for the group I’m working with. People need to come out of their comfort zones in a coaching session, and do things differently from how they have been in the habit of doing, if the coaching is to have any effect. But they need to remain enough in control of the process that they can continue to apply, and indeed adapt, what they have learned afterwards.

The director is of course key to this. If they get it, the chorus will have the opportunity to practice and embed their new skills; if they don’t, individuals may retain something, but the ensemble as a whole won’t.

But sometimes you find yourself working with people who are at a place where the next step they need to take is not an increment, but a stride. They are operating at the peak of their current level, and need to find a way to leap out into space towards the new musicians they can become. In terms of the Dilts Pyramid, the behaviours that constitute their capabilities are as good as they can be with current belief-systems and self-identities. These moments call for more disruptive interventions, activities that challenge people’s habitual ways of relating to themselves and to each other.

I started this reflection on what constitutes transformative coaching in a class discussion when teaching a Coaching Techniques class for Holland Harmony. We were talking about profiling and prioritising, and how sometimes people resist certain coaching activities. When this happens, I suggested, all you can do is find the area where they will let you work and be useful there. It may be that they’re not ready emotionally to take that next step, or indeed that they just don’t know you well enough to let you into the vulnerable places you’d have to touch to reach belief and identity issues.

As I’ve continued the reflection, I have realised that when people have allowed me to undertake transformative coaching with them, it has almost always been in a context of a long-standing relationship with a well-established track record of trust. Part of the reason, indeed, that they’ve got to a point of needing to leap to another level is because they’ve already let me help them fulfil their current potential.

I started to write about how I’m always careful to keep these kinds of coaching moments safe, and my first example was going to be that we’d only approach them through familiar repertoire, so nobody had to deal with issues of musical under-confidence at the same time as taking personal risks. They I realised that this implicit in what I’ve already written: if people are still struggling with musical detail, they’ve not yet reached that moment when they need to go into their chrysalis. But I’ll always make sure to leave them with a useful technique or two as well, so they’ll have something to cling onto safely should they find themselves daunted by their new-found powers.

But, now I know Stef’s category of ‘flashy’ coaching, I’m always wary not to mistake making a difference with my skills for effecting an upgrade in the skills of those I work with. It would be very easy to imagine oneself to be making a fundamental difference to how people relate to themselves as musicians when one was in fact just creating an amazing experience that actually needs you in the room to happen.

And of course you can never guarantee that what you have worked on with someone will continue to be useful to them, even when taking more orderly, incremental steps. The learning always ultimately stays in the learner’s hands to do what they will with. Still, it remains important to me that they feel good about themselves and what we have done together afterwards, however much they decide to embrace. The coach needs to adhere to their own version of the Hippocratic Oath: above all, do no harm.

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