May 26, 2010

What was really helpful was to talk to someone who knows nothing about our work

Yesterday, I had a pleasant conversation with Hank, a former coachee of mine and his manager and personnel manager. Two years ago, I had coached this person after he had made some mistakes in his work. The objective of the coaching was to make sure that he would not make anymore mistakes in the future. Because he was working in a hospital laboratory, any mistakes could create serious health risks for patients. The coaching took place over a period from January until October and consisted of six conversations. Three weeks ago I was invited to have one more conversation with him and with his new line manager and the personnel manager. His old line manager had retired in the meantime and his personnel manager would soon leave the hospital to go work in another hospital.
First I talked to Hank. While there were a few issues he would like to work on and would like to talk about with me, it became clear quickly that he was doing very well in his job. After this conversation, we had a conversation with Hank, the new line manager and the leaving personnel manager. The conversation was very open and positive. The personnel manager remarked that Hank looked so much better than two years ago and she asked if could explain this. Hank said the following: 
"At first, I was skeptical. I really thought the real intention of this coaching was to get rid of me in a decent way. And, at first, I thought, well, I might as well play along. What else could I do? But after one conversation with the coach, I knew this could not be true, so I really started trying. These conversations were really helpful. They helped me to organize my thoughts. I learned how to step outside of myself and to observe myself. This helped me to gradually change my behavior. What was really helpful was to talk to someone who knows nothing about our work. I could easily notice the coach knew nothing about our work. That was really helpful. I had to explain everything."


  1. I agree.
    Not knowing about the coachee's work is liberating for us and useful to them.
    Liberating for us coaches: it allows us to ask "dumb" questions shamelessly. Useful to the coachees: it allows them to step out of the box and to re-examine their assumptions and their ways of doing things.

  2. Coert,

    Did you get a chance to ask "What about me not knowing anything about your work was so helpful to you? How did that help you?" I have some ideas about why it might have been based on his last sentence "I had to explain everything." But I'd like to hear more from the coachee though.

    My thought is that him explaining everything forced him to consider details he may have been overlooking in his work. And it kept him from talking in generalizations. It may also have allowed him to put his guard down as he didn't have to prove he knew his work since he was talking to someone who wouldn't be able to rate his knowledge.

  3. Hi Rodney, The time was up so there was no opportunity to probe. In an earlier conversation, though, he had explained the usefulness in terms comparable to how ou described it. He said: having to explain everything helped me to get a good insight and oversight.

  4. OK. More evidence that "not-knowing" is a helpful posture for helping people.

  5. Our colleague Peter Szabó once made conversations in a big company wanting to figure out what supports employees to be engaged and high performing in their work. One important answer was 'being asked'. Maybe this is also how it works when an external not-knowing coach asks: you are addressed in your being a competent employee in your field.
    Thanks Coert for this nice small story (which is probably a big one in life of Hank)

  6. Hi Kati, i agree. this fits very well with my latest article in Interaction in which I describe SF as a motiving approach which contributes to 1) clients feeling autonomous, 2) competent, and 3) related.
    All the best and thanks,


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