The Benefits of Coaching Conversations

Deborah S. Willis gives advice on how to incorporate such conversations into your graduate school or postdoctoral experience.

January 14, 2019
 
 
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As a graduate student, I did not have coaching conversations with my first adviser. They had their own idea of why I was in graduate school and what was best for me, and I followed their path rather blindly.

Until one day I didn’t. I made an independent decision that did not fit the narrative they had drawn for me. I thought they would be elated, but instead they were irate. Let’s just say that did not work out very well, hence … my second adviser.

Fortunately for me, that adviser provided more coaching, although at the time I did not classify our conversations as such. Those discussions were not easy or comfortable in the beginning. In fact, I did not like them. My adviser asked a lot of tough questions. At one point I literally cried out, “Just tell me what to do to get out of here!” He remained calm and simply responded, “I can’t tell you what’s important to you. Only you can determine that.”

It took me quite a while to get it -- both the value of coaching and my doctoral degree. In the end, I realized that I had never reflected on what I wanted, what I truly valued or what success would look like for me. I had not asked myself the deep reflection questions that were necessary for my success, and I erroneously made a lot of assumptions.

Fast-forward to the present. About a year ago, I was assigned a coach as part of my participation in a national leadership development program. After just one conversation, I had profound clarity, a slightly different focus and a renewed sense of purpose. It was invigorating and led to immediate and actionable steps.

That coaching “session” did not happen as I envisioned in my mind. In fact, one of the most insightful conversations of my professional career happened while sitting at a table during lunch at a conference, with forks clanking against plates and loud laughter and talking all around us. The coach had done his research on me, shared a few observations and asked some thought-provoking questions.

The experience really piqued my interest in coaching conversations and how I could incorporate them more intentionally into my work. I began researching the topic and could clearly envision how having these types of discussions with graduate students could be especially productive. I began practicing a few simple techniques that made a great impact.

The concept and practice of coaching has grown rapidly over the last couple of decades and is now a fairly mainstream practice in many industries. But despite its increase in popularity, there is no unified definition of what coaching actually means. For the purpose of simplicity, I will use the International Coach Federation's definition: “Partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” And since my focus here is not a formal contracted coaching agreement, I’ve replaced the word “clients” with “another person” in my discussion below about what I’ve learned about the process -- and my advice for how you can you incorporate coaching conversations into your graduate student or postdoctoral experience.

Start with yourself. Self-reflection and self-awareness are vital for meeting your personal and professional goals, and it is a step that is often skipped. You should first experiment with self-assessment tools like Gallup's StrengthFinders, myIDP or Imagine PhD. Such tools allow you to assess not only your skills and talents but also the underlying values and passions that help motivate you, drive your behavior and, ultimately, sustain your efforts. After examining the results of your assessments, try experimenting with self-coaching.

The key is to ask yourself the right questions. Marilee Adams speaks to this in her book Change Your Questions, Change Your Life. She posits that our success begins with our thinking -- the questions we ask ourselves and how we answer them. Using a fable, the book demonstrates how we can consistently choose the questions that can increase the chances of both personal and professional success.

Adams presents a Choice Map and encourages the reader to stay in learner mode as opposed to judger mode, and she then explains how we can use switcher questions to guide us back to the correct path when we stray. Even when we find ourselves in circumstances that are not ideal, we can stop to ask ourselves: “What can I learn from this?” “What can I do to change this situation?”

Pay close attention to the dialogue that is occurring in your head. Coaches are encouraging and motivating. Are you being especially self-critical? Are you responding as you would to a friend? The ability to intentionally shift our internal dialogue to be more positive and productive can be difficult but gets easier with practice. That is also one of the reasons why it is helpful to partner with someone else.

Practice coaching conversations with a trusted confidant. After you have done some deep self-reflection, find a partner and agree to serve as a coach for one another. Peer coaching is growing in popularity and can be a powerful tool to help you obtain your goals. The 10 Benefits of Peer Coaching, which include accountability and an emphasis on questions, can be especially useful for graduate students. With a shared goal of completion and no power dynamics present, the stage is set for a mutually beneficial and reciprocal relationship.

Do not get distracted by what it means to be a coach; focus instead on having consistent coaching conversations to get to the root of what success means to you. Brainstorm ways to address the challenges that surface or barriers that can distract you.

One book that I found especially helpful in demonstrating how to effectively incorporate coaching conversations is The Coaching Habit. The premise of the book is that coaching should be question oriented and does not need to be long or complicated. The author presents seven coaching questions, including a focus question, a strategic question and a learning question. Video explanations and other helpful resources are located on his website. I have used these seven questions with graduate students and several of my professional colleagues, and I’ve been astonished by the results. The conversations have been more focused and optimistic, and have yielded an increased efficiency in the task we agree upon in our discussions.

For example, in a recent discussion I had with a student, they began to share numerous issues occurring in their department. They went into lengthy detail about how students didn’t have access to the data needed to do their work and how that was such an injustice. I agreed and immediately asked if they had access to the data. When they responded affirmatively, I then asked, “So what is the challenge for you?” They paused for a moment to reflect and started to tell me. Now the focus was specifically on them, and we could address their particular concern.

As they were talking, I began to think of all the ways I could help or jump in to rescue them. I stopped myself to truly listen. When they were finished, I asked, “What can I do to help?” -- in other words, “What do you want from me?” As it turns out, their response was very different from the ideas that I had in my head. Those two questions began a more productive and focused conversation that led to a directed plan of action.

It’s important to keep the emphasis on questions. Change Your Questions, Change Your Life introduces Questions Thinking (QT), a technique that uses questions to stimulate innovation and accelerate productivity. In those sessions, your colleague can ask questions that generate new ideas that are useful in helping you achieve goals. You can find a more comprehensive list of robust open-ended questions that encourage deep reflection in the book Co-Active Coaching. The authors dub them Powerful Questions and provide many sample conversations between the coach and coachee. They also introduce different levels of listening.

Peer coaching also allows you to practice being coachable. Don’t get angry if you aren’t getting the answer you want. Recall how I was so frustrated with my second adviser, a great coach, because he was asking difficult questions and not saying what I wanted to hear. Be ready to deal with the difficult questions, accept feedback and expect to be held accountable when you are not progressing toward your goals. The coaching sessions with your partner provide the opportunity to build skills and insights that will help you shape your success.

Incorporate coaching conversations in high-stakes situations. After practicing your coaching skills in less intimidating situations with yourself and a trusted peer, you will be more comfortable and prepared to have coaching conversations with your dissertation chair, adviser or supervisor. In an ideal world, our mentors and advisers will initiate those conversations, but unfortunately that is not always the case. Students may inherently expect advisers to coach them on their professional journeys, but that is not always the standard practice, even for advisers with the best of intentions. While many people may advocate for a coaching culture, the reality is that conducting proper professional coaching may not be one of your adviser’s strengths.

Therefore, it is in your own best interest to diligently look to have coaching conversations in a variety of places; they are vital to your success. You are probably surrounded by coaches. Many people that work in the professional development field at higher education institutions and in university career centers have coaching sessions with graduate students.

These coaching conversations are not cure-all solutions, but they are a step in the right direction. I am not minimizing power dynamics and the fact that some graduate students and postdoctoral scholars are in less than ideal situations -- with some things out of their control. My experience with my first adviser was painful, and while I won’t condone how the situation was handled, I now realize that I had not reflected on or articulated what I valued most. I encourage you to do this now. Perhaps you can shift the quality of your conversations and your graduate school experience to have a positive impact on your professional career.

Self-coaching, peer coaching and simply having more coaching conversations challenge the mentality that a formal professional coach is the only option. Yes, connecting with a professional coach can certainly be valuable. The content expertise, professional training, certification and experience can indeed be helpful. But professional coaching may not fit within the average graduate student budget. If you do choose to invest in a coach, your experience will probably be enhanced by conducting some self-coaching and peer coaching first. In sum, coaching conversations can come in a variety of forms. Give them a try.

Bio

Deborah S. Willis is program manager for professional and academic development at Rackham Graduate School of the University of Michigan and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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