by Liz Gooster (MC11)
The chance to see the incomparable Nancy Kline in action for a second time in a Meyler Campbell fishbowl demonstration was one I’d been anticipating for some time. She didn’t disappoint. It’s almost impossible to describe what goes on whenNancysits in front of someone, gently asks them what they think, or feel, or want to say – and then listens. She listens powerfully, empathetically, unjudgementally. She doesn’t interrupt, and the client knows she won’t. This knowledge seems to liberate the client’s thoughts so that they dance in the air, even with a room full of people watching, entranced.
The momentum of a ‘thinking partnership’, which is what Nancy calls her coaching sessions, comes from an initial invitation from the coach: ‘What would you like to think about, and what are your thoughts?’. The client talks, until they are ready to stop. The coach then asks: ‘What more do you think, or feel, or want to say?’. The question is repeated until the client is absolutely done. Nancy has a profound belief in the power of her question to ‘ignite the human mind’. The question has been formulated and refined over many years of practice and observation and seeing her deliver it, with a still, calm, grounded trust in her client’s ability to reach their own awareness and solutions, it’s hard to conceive of a reason why it wouldn’t work. As Nancy puts it, the words of the question are the same each time – and in the fishbowl, she asked it eight times – but it’s not the same question. The tone, modulation and emphasis all vary, and neither is the person answering it each time the same, because they’ve changed, however imperceptibly, since the last time they were asked it. By the time the client really has nothing more they want to say, they have often achieved their objective for the session. If not, there is a set of further, precisely structured questions the coach can ask that nearly always lead to a satisfying close for the client.
I asked the ‘fish’ about his experience afterwards. He said he’d felt as though the audience had disappeared, leaving only him and Nancy in the room. He’d felt a deep sense of safety and was very aware of her presence. The repetition of the question had been a powerful challenge to him, and had really stimulated his thinking. The session had been a public demonstration – a fishbowl – ofNancy’s ‘thinking partnership’ in action, yet for the client/fish, it had been a real issue, and the coaching an authentic experience, one which left him with genuine insights and benefits. For the audience, it was a privileged chance to witness the positive impact of engaged attention, a natural, unforced focus on a person which visibly releases confident thinking on the part of the client.Nancy’s silence has a quivering resonance about it which, in a bizarre way, is almost audible. Her listening, at the same time relaxed and laser-sharp, evokes open reflection and deliberation in her client, drawing out leaps of clarity, recognition and decision.
The Q&A session after the demonstration itself was another goldmine of beautiful insight. Asked why she didn’t interrupt, allowing the client to cover and recover the same ground even where the ‘answer’ might be clear to her, Nancy gave the glorious reply: ‘I wouldn’t dare to presume that whatever I would say was more valuable than what the client might have thought if I hadn’t said it.’ She referred to micro-moments in the coach-client dynamic, those tiny specks of time where you might be tempted to jump in and share the benefit of your ‘wisdom’, but you don’t, because what the client might think next is more important. This is the challenge and excitement of Nancy’s approach. It’s a simple methodology, but not an easy one. Nancy does it with what appears like consummate ease, the sign of a true expert. To witness her do it is a life-enhancing experience. Being her client, being given more time to think in such a powerful communion of minds, must be transformational.
Liz Gooster is an Executive Coach with The Alliance and Editor-at-Large for leading business publisher Kogan Page. You can read her blogs at www.lizgooster.com, where this blog first appeared, and http://goosterontheloose.wordpress.com/ and follow her on twitter at @bizclasscoach and @publishingcynic.