Flipping the Question (or searching for where the real learning lies).

An interesting breakthrough moment happened for one of my clients this week. I thought I would share some of it with you (while maintaining confidentiality obviously).

She and her team work closely with young men in custody. Their job essentially is youth engagement and preparation for release. A problem occurred with the team’s contract renewal, resulting in a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety among team members. I asked my client what she wanted to focus on in our session. She said she wanted to explore how she could provide them with reassurance about their jobs and the ongoing work they all did, as she was sure that the issue would get resolved.

I rephrased the question somewhat, and asked again, what she ‘really’ wanted. I followed up by asking what she was really hoping for, what a successful outcome would be, what that would mean for the young men in prison, and what learning opportunities might be created. The more she played with and examined the dilemma that she and her team faced, the more she started to see it from the point of view of their client base.

Her stream of consciousness went something like this. “The young men in custody experience uncertainty and anxiety every day, so perhaps her team could learn something from them. But that would require them to display some vulnerability to the young men, to share the fact that they are experiencing concerns. Is that allowed? Is that professional? Perhaps it would be good for them to see that people ‘on the outside’, and who are employed, are also experiencing volatility and a feeling of lack of control around their lives. Perhaps it would be empowering to be asked about how they have developed strategies for coping in difficult situations. After all, she knows that some of the young men she has worked with have remarkable resilience, are street-wise, know how to negotiate, have developed qualities like patience and tolerance.”

We talked about the importance of sharing vulnerabilities and how vital it is to building trust, the foundation for any effective or successful relationship. In that moment, my client changed her focus for coaching. She pivoted from “giving reassurance to her team”, an inward-looking and dis-empowering objective, to “helping her team to refocus on what the job they do is really about, and to use the current feelings they have as opportunities to build stronger more trusting relationships with the young men.”

She plans to meet with the team to share her thoughts on this, to point out the opportunities for learning and personal growth, both for the team and their clients. The way she plans to do this is to ‘model’ being vulnerable herself, to share her own anxieties and concerns, to invite others to share theirs, to reflect on what they can learn from each other, and to remind everyone that their clients are the real reason they are a team in the first place.

She firmly believes that being open with their concerns and uncertainties, accepting their personal lack of control, and demonstrating just a fragment of understanding of their clients’ daily challenges, will make them even more effective in the vital work they do.

I wholeheartedly agree.


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