Everyone needs a coach...
Bill Gates says so. As does Atul Gawande and Roger Federer. And a dozen other best selling authors. I agree with all of them. But, and this is important, I also think their prescription -- everyone needs a coach -- is too simple. My experience suggests we don't need a coach, we need at least four coaches. Or, if possible, one coach who's capable of offering us four distinct coaching presences.
Everybody who’s launched a serious learning effort of one sort or another has inevitably encountered at least four distinct inflection points along the way. Each of these inflection points is a moment when the learner comes face to face with crucial decisions and important challenges.
For example, for every prospective learner who’s standing at the start of their particular learning journey, there always seems to be an inflection point, if you will a "fish or cut bait moment," where the prospective learner is faced with the need to decide whether or not to actually step out into their journey. This is the point were they must actually embrace their hopes and dreams, control their fears, trust their inner resources, and simply “go.”
Then, shortly after their learning effort is getting started, a "comprehension moment" emerges where this novice learner must both comprehend and come to terms with all the tasks and challenges they're seeing in front of them. This is the second inflection point.
There always are crises to face along the way, “risk-laden moments” in time when the learner must accept the fact that they'll need to risk meaningful things if they're going to finish their journey. Here the learner encounters the anxieties and fears that come with these risks, and this experience creates for the learner their third inflection point. It’s the moment when the learner must feel, frame and face their worst fantasies, whatever they might be.
Near the end of every learning journey, when the learner’s almost finished their journey, there is a fourth inflection point. This is the "moment of truth," the point in time when, for the learner, what it takes to finish their journey becomes painfully clear. The decision as to whether to move ahead that first showed up at the start of the journey now returns. In full force.
Alongside each of these four “inflection points,” I’ve discovered that there are a variety of “coaching presences” that a learner needs. If the learner is going to actually work through each of their inflection points, they need certain kinds of support, encouragement, and guidance. Accordingly, there are specific types of support that effective coaches need to be provide their clients so that they can successfully move into and through each of their inflection points. Essentially, at each one of these four inflection points, a learner needs to have available to them a coach who’s able to provide the specific kinds of support, encouragement, and guidance that each new inflection point requires.
For instance, at the "fish or cut bait moment" mentioned above, there is an inflection point that always shows up well before a learner actually steps out into their transformational journey. This first point appears in anticipation of every launch. It shows up at that moment in time when a prospective learner realizes they actually will have to change big time, and that they will need to do this sooner rather than later. Here, at this first inflection point, the learner needs to have available to him or her a coach who has the skills to become a Companion for their clients.
The Companion that’s needed at this first inflection point must be someone who’s able to listen with a deep receptiveness to the soundings of their client’s unspoken worries and their vague whispers of hope. This coach needs to be the kind of companion who can listen without comment, and then ask, “Is this what you’re trying to say?” They need to be a coach who can offer the steady companionship a novice pilgrim needs as they're walking up to the beginning of their transformational journey.
The second inflection point comes with every learner’s “comprehension moment.” This moment is that point in time when the learner needs a coach who can be a Thought Partner. At this stage, when a learner is just stepping out into their journey, is where the learner needs a coach who can help them consciously comprehend what lies ahead. This type of coach is someone who talks in concrete, practical ways about the steps, back alleys, and way stations found on all transformational journeys. It helps, of course, if at this second transition point a coach like this has lived the transformational experiences they’re describing. It’s OK if they haven’t. What matters is that whoever the Thought Partner is, they are able, without arrogance, to use all the knowledge and experience they have to frame for their client, as a possibility to consider, a map of what the learner’s’ first steps ought to look like. It's at the beginning of every transformation, where the learner is taking their first few experimental steps, when having a coach present with some sort of guide book to share is way better and more encouraging than having no map at all.
In the middle of every learning journey, the third coaching presence a learner needs is that of Witness. The third inflection point emerges when the learner needs someone who’s able to offer them spirit and confidence. A coach who’s capable of being a Witness will be someone who can be with their client as their cheerleader, someone who’s present and prepared to recognize and applaud their learner’s accomplishments and their efforts, as well as their lapses of judgment and loss of nerve. At the third inflection point, the presence a coach who can witness brings to bear involves the ability to recognize when the learner is feeling displays of doubt, courage, despair, and/or determination, and, in the face of whatever risks emerge, be able to offer nothing but encouragement. At this third way station, the coach needs to notice, describe, and offer words of encouragement in response to the all the crises of confidence that are plaguing his or her companion. Here, at the third inflection point, the coach needs to have a presence that explicitly appreciates both a client’s courage and their doubts in ways that illuminate for them the idea that both these qualities are strengths they need for the steps yet to be taken. Research suggests that very few coaches have themselves reached a learning journey’s fourth inflection point. Few coaches have ever been this deep into their own transformational journey. Their own or someone else’s. So, it’s hard to offer a specific term that fully describes the coaching presence that a learner needs at their fourth inflection point, what, experienced mountaineers climbing Mt. Everest call THE push to the summit.
In 1914, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a poem that for me seems like it comes close to describing the presence that a coach needs to be able to offer a client toward the end of their learning journey. Rumi describes this presence like this:“...there is a boundary to looking, for the world that is looked at so deeply only wants to flourish in love. Here the work of the eyes is done; now go and do heart-work on all the images imprisoned within you.” For us, the word that best fits this type of identity is Shepherd.
Start to finish then it seems like there are at least four distinct coaching presences needed at the four distinct inflection points are found across the full length of a transformational journey; Companion, Thought Partner, Witness, and Shepherd. Our experience supports this hypothesis. Does yours?