We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the question itself.
On Saturday, I attended a day-long ‘coaching retreat’ – a day of self-driven learning intended to underpin my personal development and, in particular, help hone a personal vision for 2016.
The word ‘retreat’ conjurs up a dreamy kind of mental image, one rooted in a countryside location, with a large mansion house staffed by stern-looking people in white coats who insist on confiscating your mobile phone the moment you step inside. Once there, those in search of spiritual or emotional refreshment don hessian sacks or white fluffy bath robes and wander around meekly in silent self-reflection.
The coaching retreat was an entirely different matter. Five of us met in a white-walled room with a large double-glazed window at one end from which we had a view of the back of the National Theatre and a slow-moving crowd crossing Waterloo Bridge, out in support of junior doctors. There was a pile of fresh stationery neatly arranged in the centre of the table. I wore a maroon knitted top that I really should have left at home. Mobile phones were allowed.
The rest of the building consisted of dance studios, some occupied with young people at Saturday school dance lessons, linked by minimalist concrete lined corridors. Somewhere deep inside, a constant beat boomed out like a heartbeat.
This was the backdrop for our day of self-motivated learning.
There was one other component: the magic which occurs when a group of coaches congregate in a room. There is an energy created when like-minded people get together. The space that is created is supportive, non-judgmental and nurturing. It’s also both calming and energising at the same time. It is a space where you the individual can do as much or as little as you please. You journey through your thinking at your own pace promising only one thing to yourself: that throughout the time you’re in there you’ll be aware of your thoughts and feelings.
There is an analogy which might be helpful if you’ve never experienced coaching before. Imagine yourself as the protagonist in a film or book. Your character is an investigative journalist whose proven track record is built on following up stories that instinctively resonate with you. As a journalist you follow an unorthodox path, asking the questions you’re interested in, using quirky methods to get the answers. Sometimes those answers come from unexpected places. It is usually those unexpected answers which thrill you the most. When you come to write up your story, you realise that where you’ve ended up is entirely different from where you started. No one else understands how or why you do what you do and that’s part of the fun.
That is the magic of coaching, made possible in part by the space created by a listener and a thinker. Sometimes the listener asks the questions. Other times the listener lets the thinker uncover some unexpected thoughts. When you’ve all signed up for something on a Saturday, you know there are certain things like listening which are guaranteed. That’s part of the joy of such an experience.
I participated in a number of different group exercises which sought to reflect on achievements from 2015, highlight learnings from the year and identify what I wanted to build on in the coming year. We started with a simple question: what did we want to get out of the day. I said that I wanted a plan for a year which I reckoned be one of great change for me. It seemed like a lofty goal for the day when I said it out loud. How was I going to achieve that in just over 6 hours?
What do you need?
Identifying what you want is a basic coaching question, usually asked early on in the conversation. An inevitable question arises later on: what do you need in order to get it?
One specific question really had a powerful effect on me: if money was no object and you can have anyone (alive or dead) to be your mentor for this year, which three people would you choose? After that, were the questions: what was it about them that made you choose those individuals; what do you need from them; what skills and strengths do they have; and, what would they say to you for 2016?
I love hypothetical situations and opportunities that allow me to let my imagination run free. As instructed, I began answering the question by naming the three individuals. Answering the follow-up questions seemed, at first, quite difficult – What do you need from your mentor? What skills and strengths do they have? What advice would they give you for 2016?
When I got to the question about skills and strengths I realised what the exercise was actually revealing. As I looked over the answers I could see that the resulting list of answers was really a) a list of the characteristics I want to concentrate on in 2016, b) what I need in 2016, c) the skills and experience I think I’ll need in order to achieve my goals, and – this one is the powerful one for me – c) the advice I’m giving myself for 2016.
I won’t name the names I picked out, but I’ll happily share the learnings (reframed from my perspective):
What sort of person do you want to be in 2016?
- to be radical, uncompromising and effect change
- to laugh
- to know more people
What do I need?
- Energy, fearlessness, drive, and determination
- Talent and focus
- A sense of humour
What skills and strengths do I need?
- Connections, understanding and vision
- The ability to collect useful stuff – information, objects, inspiration
- Wit, humility and passion
What advice do you give yourself?
- Make and keep in contact with the kind of people who inspire you, come up with ideas, be aware, keep in the moment
- Find an advocate or, even better, a champion
- Be humble, be prepared and happy to fail, don’t take things too seriously
It’s not the question, it’s the insights that matter
I don’t share these intending to show off or to make bold pronouncements. They are instead an illustration of the kind of unexpected things we end up discovering when we set out on a journey.
The purpose of that journey is to learn stuff. When we turn the key in the ignition, we assume we’re heading towards towards a pre-determined destination. An open mind acts on self-awareness, unwittingly steering us down a path we didn’t initially plan on following. We end up making unexpected insights – not more than what we originally intended, nor less. They’re just unexpected.
We didn’t ask ourselves the wrong question at the beginning of the process, it was just a starting point. The secret to learning is to remain committed to the process, to recognise that where we start will be entirely different to where we end up and to commit to acknolwedge what we discover along the way. All we have to do in between is to keep our eyes open.