One client is an architect who wants to create his ideal firm.
Another is a business development executive searching for his next career opportunity.
Another is a creative writer and designer mired in self-doubt about the upcoming marketing campaign for the new product launch.
My first intention is always to understand the story my clients are weaving. I become inquisitive, drawing them out, and demonstrating my understanding by summarizing what I’m hearing.
I listen carefully to the language they are using to describe their situation. I listen for how they see themselves, what they believe, what they value. In the telling, they reveal their schemas, their way of organizing the world, making meaning. I listen for where they place themselves in their story.
I ask the clients what they’ve thought of or tried. The answers aren’t the answer (if they were, they wouldn’t be asking for help), but I think I can build on them.
I have extensive experience helping other clients move through similar problems, and I’m not a coach who shies away from giving clients advice when I think it’s appropriate and would be helpful (more in a future post).
I offer a few suggestions.
I can tell they’re not landing.
If you can’t find the answer to a question, ask a different question.
I say to the architect, “You’re an architect. If your ideal firm were a building, what would it look like?”
Without hesitation, he pulls out a pen and a clipboard stuffed with blank paper. His hand dances over the page. He pauses, turns the clipboard, the pen hovers in the air, he tilts his head, then glides the pen around the page like an ice skater.
When he’s finished, he shows me the diagram. I can’t understand it, but he does. He describes it to me. It’s clear as a blueprint in his mind.
I say to the business development executive, “How does that work? How do you go about finding partners for your company? Lay it out for me.”
He pulls out his notebook. He draws columns down the pages, labels each one. Each column is a stage in the process. Down the columns, he lists the steps. He writes intensely. Finally, he looks up, turns the notebook around, and walks me through the whole process, pointing with his pen.
I’m not ready to go out and do business development after this brief tutorial, but I can tell it makes sense to him and that it lights him up.
“Great,” I say, “That’s how you’re going to find your next career opportunity.”
With a little translation, he has an action plan.
The creative writer and designer is more challenging. I can tell she’s feeling down. She’s full of self-doubt, doesn’t feel supported by her manager, and is struggling to find a voice that feels authentic. She’s almost pleading with me when she says, “I’m stuck. I can’t create. Nothing comes out.”
After a moment of sad silence, I say, “Do you have a piece of paper and a pen?”
She’s sheltered in place in her bathroom for our Zoom call, the only place she can escape her kids and find the quiet to talk, but she scrounges around off-camera and returns with a sketchpad and a couple of markers. She looks expectantly at me.
“Can you draw what it feels like to be stuck?” I ask.
She picks up a marker, looks at the sketchpad for a long time with the marker suspended above the page, puts the marker down, picks up another one. Then, without hesitation, the marker dives down to the page, and she’s drawing, pressing so hard I can hear it scratching the paper.
When’s she finished, she holds up the drawing. It’s a face with bars across the eyes and ears and mouth.
“It looks like see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” I say.
“You’re not blocked,” I tell her. “It’s not true that you can’t create. You have the evidence in your hands. You just had to pick up the right marker. Then you didn’t even hesitate, you just did what you know how to do. Do that.”
There’s a faint smile.
It doesn’t matter that the drawing is all about how she’s blocked. She knows that she decides whether or not she can create.
We talk about how she can approach her manager. We talk about how she can find her authentic voice. I have a few suggestions, but mostly I don’t have to say very much because she already knows. She knows herself and her manager better than I do.
I have a way of talking about my work that clients find valuable. I often share a few essential models with them in the first few sessions (A to B, Futurosity Continuum, and so on) to create a shared language about how we will work together to create what they are longing to create.
Sometimes, the easiest way to help your client solve a problem is to reframe it as a problem they already know how to solve.
Leave the tools in the toolbox.
Let them speak their native tongue — architecture, or business development, or design. Ask the question in the language they know how to speak, and they will find their answer.
I’m an executive coach and the founder of Futurosity. I coach leaders and the coaches who coach leaders.