Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Don’t Just Have the Soup ~ How analogies support coaching

We are pleased to share an article entitled  “Don’t Just Have the Soup ~ How analogies support coachingwritten by Alan Heymann.

Since beginning my career as a television journalist a quarter century ago, I’ve come to know that humans make meaning in their lives through stories. As coaches, we help our clients unpack and see through their own stories, achieving more success as a result.

The frame of a story matters. Coaches often help clients reframe their thoughts around a universal or familiar story. And analogies are a simple way to weave that story together.

What’s an analogy? It’s a story that includes a comparison to make a point. Analogies are similar to similes and metaphors, but they don’t just explain. They illustrate.

Why use them in your coaching? I’ve identified three main reasons:

  1. ANALOGIES ARE SIMPLE

In our ever-complex world, we coaches tend to reach for intricate frameworks to apply to what our clients are facing. Adult development, polarities, VUCA and other models belong in the toolbox, but they’re not the only tools we have. Coaching can also be about toothpaste, transportation and topiary! Analogies help us meet clients where they are.

  1. ANALOGIES ARE EVERYWHERE

Provided two people were raised in the same language, they’re almost certain to have analogies to share. For example, I have yet to meet a coach who can’t apply the adage, “secure your own mask before helping others” in the work of coaching leaders – especially after making our way through most of a pandemic.

  1. ANALOGIES ARE A POWERFUL REFRAMING TOOL

IFC Core Competency #7 (Evokes Awareness) states: “Facilitates client insight and learning by using tools and techniques such as powerful questioning, silence, metaphor or analogy.” In short, analogies are a way to use your imagination to help your clients use their imaginations.

Here are some examples of analogies that have come up in my coaching practice, either from me or my clients.

THE PRESIDENT DOESN’T DO LAUNDRY

An elementary school student’s sense of fairness can be legendary. So it was that I had a fun conversation with my daughter a few years ago. She was at the age where she was starting to be helpful around the house, instead of needing to be distracted or entertained while her mom and I did all of the chores. There’s always a lot to do, from making the bed to feeding the dog to doing the dishes to laundry.

My daughter was outraged … OUTRAGED … when I happened to mention that the president of the United States doesn’t do his own laundry. “That’s not fair!” she cried. “Why do I, as an eight-year-old, have to help sort, fold and put away while the most powerful person IN THE WORLD doesn’t have to do so?”

I explained that the presidency is also likely the most complicated, most impactful job in the world. Having a staffer do the president’s laundry helps free up the president’s mind, and schedule, to do the job better. And the person doing the laundry instead of the President is performing an act of national service. 

I think she got the idea. In the years since, I’ve asked a number of clients to consider when they might be unnecessarily doing their own laundry at work. You have a strong and capable staff. You trust them. You depend on them.

When was the last time you took a look at your routine, necessary tasks and figured out what you could delegate more? It may feel like a privileged off-loading of work, or even like a shirking of responsibilities if you’re a doer by nature. But it frees you up to do the things that only you can do as the leader.

My daughter has yet to come back to me with the suggestion that she needs to preserve her energies for homework, or some extracurricular activity, and should therefore be able to staff out her laundry. I suppose it’s only a matter of time.

Coaching Prompts:

❒ Is this task, project, meeting or conversation the highest and best use of your time and attention?

❒ How can you help others understand that your time and attention are your most valuable resources and should be treated that way?

DON’T JUST HAVE THE SOUP

A nonprofit leader had a direct report who wasn’t following her instructions. The leader couldn’t figure this out – was it stubbornness, incompetence, something entirely different?

During our coaching session, I was able to help her crack the code. She wasn’t expressing herself clearly or forcefully enough to be heard, or perhaps to be taken seriously. Being more direct made her uncomfortable, and correcting the mistake or misperception after the fact made her more uncomfortable.

I asked my client to imagine having a nice dinner out, and making her choice of a complement to the main dish. Let’s say it’s a hot day and you order a salad, I suggested. A few minutes later, the server comes back from the kitchen with a bowl of piping hot minestrone and offers to grind some fresh pepper on it for you.

Do you remind the server that you asked for a salad? Or, do you think to yourself, “It’s fine. Someone took the trouble to make this soup and pour me a bowl. I don’t want to waste it. It’s not that important. I’ll just have the soup.”

My client smiled. “I would totally do that,” she said. “And I hate soup!”

When you’re the leader, you must express your preferences for others to follow. If you don’t, nobody on your team will have a sense of direction or know how they can grow in their roles. So how do you ease into this after a lifetime of avoiding what might seem like a conflict?

A good server will often repeat everyone’s order before leaving the table to eliminate any ambiguity and make mistakes less likely. I asked my client what might happen if she suggested that her employee read back their understanding of the request before an interaction is over.

The client said this readout would probably help make her instructions more clear. She also pledged to build a practice of reiterating and reminding …instead of just living with the soup.

Coaching Prompts:

❒ Are you making requests, or giving directions, clearly?

❒ What do you do if you get something that doesn’t meet your standards?

THE JIGSAW PUZZLE COACHING SESSION

I love a good jigsaw puzzle. In fact, I probably put together a couple of puzzles a month on average when many of us were spending more time at home during the pandemic. It’s a physically tangible process. It can be done a little or a lot at a time. It’s a creation, but a temporary one that involves someone else’s vision.

Some puzzlers are meticulous in their preparation. They’ll spend hours turning over all of the pieces and sorting by color or shape before they even start assembling. But despite being a generally methodical and tidy person myself, I never do this. I like to dive right into a box of unsorted, unflipped pieces and make sense of the chaos.

This is also one of my favorite ways to hold a coaching session.

If a client comes in without a clear agenda, or without a clear starting or ending point, we’ll spend the hour sorting and flipping ideas. We’ll explore connections and themes together. It’s quite impossible to build a large and complicated puzzle in the course of a single hour, so we might take something small and resolve it, or start the process on something more ambitious and return to it the next time. Unlike an actual jigsaw puzzle, the puzzle coaching session has no picture on the box. You might think you were assembling a picture of Venice, and end up with a spice cabinet or a montage of kittens.

But who doesn’t love an unexpected montage of kittens?

Coaching Prompts:

❒ How might you draw connections among seemingly random thoughts in your head?

❒ Can a thought partner help you sort and connect, leaving a clearer picture more quickly?

If you’re interested in assembling your own stack of coaching analogies, your personal history and your clients’ imaginations can be great sources of inspiration. Remember to keep it simple, especially if you’re coaching across cultures, languages or generations. And enjoy the journey!

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