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Breaking the Rules by Sue Knight

“You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.” Richard Branson

At the reviewing discussion of a fishbowl demonstration that I gave to the graduates of a Coaching Associations programme, one of the audience said “But you broke the rules!”

One my exemplars is Moshe Feldenkrais founder of Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement and he regularly said ‘The rule is that there no rules!’ However I recognise that many of the people in the group at this time were new to coaching and this was their first training. And maybe as such it was helpful for them to learn some rules although I would have preferred that they had referred to them as guidelines.  So what are these ‘rules’ and what happens if we break them as I will most certainly be encouraging you to do?

Never interrupt a client

Some years ago there was a documentary about a wife and mother of two small children who had gone missing at Christmas time. Her family were adamant that she would not just have left home but must have been abducted or murdered. Her husband vehemently denied his innocence although he was a prime suspect. He featured prominently in the documentary all the time telling his story. For the following year the case was not solved although the husband remained a prime suspect. At this time a new inspector was appointed to the case who, after watching videos and listening to interviews with the husband brought him back in for questioning. As soon as he started to speak the inspector interrupted him and continued to do so … so that the husband could not tell his story. Within an hour the man had confessed to his wife’s murder.  The inspector had noticed that the man’s story was always the same; there was no elaboration which led him to believe that it was created and not the truth. By interrupting that rehearsed story the man had no alternative explanation and confessed.

So what has this to do with coaching? Well we live our lives by the stories we create by the perceptions we form of our experience. Sometimes those perceptions serve us well and result in ideal or desired outcomes but sometimes they do just the opposite and provide the framework within we keep ourselves constrained. And the telling of the story compounds the situation.

Sue Knight

Sue Knight

Someone I met often would recount their experience in life and it was often not good. The content would change but the structure of the story remained the same. Another new client who had been referred to me by her manager said she would like to tell me her situation. I declined her offer and asked her instead what she would like to have happen. She looked and sounded disappointed not to be able to revisit the situation. The familiarity of it had become a habit.

Breaking a pattern is one of the breakthrough strategies in coaching and interrupting is a specific example of that.

Listen to what the client is saying

Well not necessarily always. What the client says is what they know already and the key to change and learning usually lies in what they don’t know. So on this basis listening to what they know can be a distraction.  However listening not to the content of what they say but the way that they say can be a rich source of clues. The key to the learning usually lies not in the context but in the structure of the experience.

One of my clients consistently talked in terms of what they didn’t want, of what they had not done and what restricted them. Not surprisingly they had not achieved what they really wanted as they had not learned to express that to themselves let alone to others.

Watching Frank Farrelly work with one lady who complained that she was not taken in seriously in business I was amused at how he drew her attention to her fluffy hair style and the floppy fringes on her jacket.

John Grinder one of the founders of NLP said “Treat all conversation as unsubstantiated rumour unless supported by non-verbal behaviour”

let go of the content and concentrate instead on the process. One of the biggest traps for coaches is to be seduced by the content!

Learning what to notice in posture and facial expressions as well as language structure is what you will learn in this book.

Never tell the client what to do

And in principle I accept this. The aim is to make the client independent of you and telling them what to do consistently can make them very dependent on you. However telling them what to do from time to time as an opinion and when doing so enhances the rapport may be the appropriate action. And telling them provocatively with outrageous suggestions that prompt them to come up with their own to combat the crazy ones coming from the coach can work a treat!

In response to a client who was struggling to develop her coaching business Frank Farrelly suggested that she go into the funeral business as there was no shortage of clients there!

Never talk about yourself

There is a huge difference between just telling stories about yourself and telling stories about yourself with an intention of giving to another in doing so. Storytelling is an art and one that is included in this book. It is a way of conveying learning and instructions and has been for centuries a means of communicating messages for the receiver.

One of the strategies in Provocative Coaching is to tell stories/metaphors that embed the learning for the client. The more seemingly unrelated the story is to their issue the more likely they are to go into a trance like state.  This is a state in which the coach can begin to bypass the conscious mind of the client. And in many cases that is desirable as it the conscious thinking that is often the cause of the ‘problem’.

Always finish with an action plan

One of the most used words I hear in the context of coaching (but not of the best kind) is ‘Do’ and in particular ‘what are you going to do?’, or ‘What are they going to do?’. I begin to think that there is an obsession with ‘doing’ especially in the corporate world and I am probably right.

Many of the coaching processes in NLP are designed to finish with a state change and a learning that can be imagined going forward. The aim of coaching is to enable the client to be flexible and congruent so that they can choose the appropriate response at the time and not be attached to a predetermined script.

So what is the alternative if not an action plan. Well one of the most significant indicators that learning has taken place is a state change.

“To this day I remember the feel of golden sunshine on my face, the meadows rolling down towards Santa Cruz in the distance below, the sound of the birds nearby, the rich scent of the pines, and the most profound sense of inner peace than I had known in many years.”
Byron Lewis describing the effect of a coaching session with Frank Pucelik (one of the founders of NLP)

Accept the goals that the client presents to you

No! Most clients do not know what they want. They may think they do but it is often the lack of a well defined outcome that is THE issue. How often have I heard – “I want to be happy”, “I want to change my job”, “I want to change x person”, “I want more recognition” and sometimes (and this can be the honest response) “I want to know what I want”! The whole coaching process may be to enable the client to elaborate on what it is that they really want and to fully associate into that. I am reminded of the book the Alchemist by Paolo Coehlo who describes the man who searched the world for what he wanted and realised that all along it was where he started.

Make regular steady eye contact with the client

This can sometimes be the worst thing that a coach can do. Too much eye contact can involve you too much in the content of the clients issue and can be perceived that way by the client especially those who favour a ‘Victim’ role. (more about this in the chapter Drama Kings and Queens). What is important is to decide what eye contact you make and for what reason. if for example you want the client to associate into their internal memories or imaginings then you, the coach want to be out of the way, out of the line of sight as you presumably are not part of the scenario. Sitting in front of a client and making steady eye contact is more often than not likely to keep them in an intellectual state answering with what they think they know rather than showing what they experience.

Only ask questions

A good coach will do whatever it takes for the client to achieve the change that is needed which may be very different from the change that is asked for. The greater the variety of interventions the coach can make the more likely it is that they will find the ones that spark a change, that stimulate a reaction, that trigger an ‘aha’ moment.  Some of the most powerful moments I have experienced in coaching sessions have been when my coach/mentor told me a truth about myself that I was avoiding, or waited in silence while I explored how to say what it was that I really wanted, or laughed at me (lovingly) when I hung onto an unhealthy habit .. and so often it was the unexpected response that made the difference …that triggered the change.

And a last word on rules

“Hell, there are no rules here – we’re trying to accomplish something.”  Thomas A. Edison


NLP at Work 3rd Edition by Sue Knight© Extract from NLP At Work 3rd Edition by Sue Knight appears with the author’s kind permission.

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