The following is a conversation between Marcia Reynolds, Author of Coach the Person, Not the Problem: A Guide to Using Reflective Inquiry, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Dr. Marcia Reynolds, Author of Coach the Person, Not the Problem

Denver: Coaches rely far too much on asking open-ended questions, says my next guest. She maintains that reflective inquiry to complement those questions can help provide insights and potential breakthroughs. All this and much more is captured in a fascinating new book called Coach the Person, Not the Problem: A Guide to Using Reflective Inquiry. And it’s a pleasure to have with us its author, Dr. Marcia Reynolds.

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Marcia!

Marcia: Yes. Thank you, Denver. Thanks for asking.

Denver: Do you think that coaching is still misunderstood by a lot of people? And if so, what would some of the major misconceptions of it be?

Marcia: Yes. Oh, definitely. Yes. At least people have a word for coaching, and they don’t just think you’re coaching a sports team. But, everything from what you said, they think it’s just asking questions, which it’s not. There’s a lot of sharing… “when I heard you say, you know,” and “I noticed that you got really excited about that.”  I mean, there’s a lot more to coaching than asking questions. Just asking questions will annoy people.

But even in the workplace, people still think giving feedback is coaching when it’s not. It could lead to coaching, but you’re still doing most of the talking when you’re giving feedback or mentoring, you know, which is still telling people what to do based on your experience. And that’s not coaching either.

Denver: What is coaching?

Marcia: Well, coaching, as it’s defined by the International Coach Federation, it’s a conversation between two people where partnering is the main concept– that I’m partnering with you to help you think. So I’m not telling you what to do. I’m not advising. I’m not fixing you. I’m not healing you. I’m your thinking partner in this relationship. So we’re at equal status in that regard. I’m not talking down to you.

And it’s about: when you want something, and you’re just not quite sure how to get there, or you’re stuck, but I know you are creative, resourceful, and whole.  And again, you don’t need me to tell you or to fix you, but you need me to help you see what’s keeping you from moving forward toward what it is you really want to achieve.

Denver: I like that idea

Marcia: So, it’s a partner conversation.

Denver: I like the idea of “thinking partner,”  and I get that sense of walking alongside, which is really quite sweet. Now, is there any science behind how coaching affects the brain, the heart, the nervous system?

Marcia: All those.

And so when I reflect you — what you’re saying — and you hear yourself… it can trigger a new thought, a new idea. And then I ask you the question, and it takes you deeper. Again, in the middle brain where we have long-term memory and where we lodge the stories we live by, and once I change you at that level, it’s permanent. You’re rewired because it then embeds in your long-term memory. 

Denver: Yes.

Marcia: What’s interesting about coaching, now, I look at coaching as a learning technology. That’s where I came out of– the training world. My second Masters is in adult learning. I went on to get my Doctorate to understand coaching in the brain. And when we tell people what to do, we’re activating cognitive brain, which is short-term memory. So they’re not likely to remember what you said. And even when they recall it, they’ll distort it, and then we argue about what I really said and what you remember. And even if I really like what you told me to do, I’ll try it. And if it feels awkward, I’ll quit.

So we’re only operating up here, where coaching operates in the same part of the brain as the creative process, which is in your middle brain. It’s where you have those “Aha” moments. “Oh yeah. That’s what it is I’m supposed to do.” It’s like seeing beyond where I saw this morning; then I now see something new. This is what’s called a breakthrough, is that I break through the frames of how I see the world and how I see myself, so I can see a new possibility.

And so when I reflect you– what you’re saying– and you hear yourself, you know, it can trigger a new thought, a new idea. And then I ask you the question, and it takes you deeper. Again, in the middle brain where we have long-term memory and where we lodge the stories we live by, and once I change you at that level, it’s permanent. You’re rewired because it then embeds in your long-term memory. So it’s a far more effective use of time…

Denver: Yes for sure.

Marcia: …if you’re trying to help people change, not just to see new things, but to change their behavior.

Denver: Yes. Yes. Good explanation. Well, the first part of the title of your book says: Coach the person and not the problem. And you know how many coaches fall into that trap of getting caught up in the story and coaching the problem. How do you make that shift, Marcia?

Marcia: Well, it comes back to remembering that who you’re with is creative, resourceful, and whole, and something’s getting in the way of them seeing what to do. So it’s not about us finding what’s the right solution to this problem, which they could do without you, but why can’t they see the solution? Or what’s stopping them from doing what they know they should do, which is usually the fear of taking risk.

So I want to know what’s stopping you– smart person– and knowing what to do or taking action. So that’s what I’m going to explore with you. I’m exploring you in relation to yourself and your problem, not what’s out there and what are the possibilities and the consequences and the risk and reward, which again you can do on your own.

Denver: Yes, yes. They are the experts on their lives, not us. We have to really believe that in starting out. Second part of the title of your book is “reflective inquiry.” Tell us about that. What is it?

Marcia: You know, I’ve been using this terminology for a long time. And I said, I better go back and see who coined it. And I went into all my reading, my research, and they’re in psychology and consulting conversations and couldn’t find it. So, I went back decades ago in that second Masters, and I found it, and it was a guy named John Dewey who was an educational reformer in the early 1900s.

And he wanted teachers to get students to think more broadly for themselves by sharing their thoughts. When they would talk, the teachers would say, “Okay, so here’s how I see you” framing the situation. “Here’s what I hear you saying and how you feel about it” and then would ask them questions. So it was reflective inquiry, and he defines it as if you were helping someone to step out of their head… because we get stuck in our head…but to step out and climb a tree and look down on how we think so we could objectively observe our thinking.

So when I’m helping you as a thinking partner, by just reflecting, you know, summarizing your words, pulling out key phrases, and then asking you questions based on what you said, out of just being curious. Like, “Is that true?” “Is that how you see it?” allows you to think about your thinking and to see it in a way you can’t do for yourself.

Denver: It’s almost like you’re outside of yourself, and you’re a third party looking at that person when somebody with a different voice says it, as opposed to the voice inside your head. That’s really amazing. 

How can you practice reflective inquiry? …let’s say beyond saying the words of the client back to them.  Are there other ways of doing it?

Marcia: Yes. Yes. And even if you are saying the words, don’t parrot exactly.

Denver: True.

Marcia: You know, I always listen to the key points, and these days people are so like overwhelmed with anxiety, about the future and all the things that are going on; and they have multiple problems, and they come and they blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

I pull out, you know, I might say, “Okay, so I hear three things that are your challenges right now.” And I’ll summarize the three things and say, “Which one is most critical for you to work on?” Boy, it helps them clarify where they’re at now and kind of settles them down.

And then as they talk about, you know, I want to hear the story around that one challenge. And as I’m listening to their story again, I’m going to pull out what I hear them saying is what they believe about the situation based on past experiences, or assumptions about the future… like the worst is going to happen, and I’ll just share back. So it’s the belief I hear, or the assumption… the prediction they’re making, you know. And I will ask a question about it, but frankly, that’s all they need to hear…

Denver: Yes. Yes.

Marcia: …for them to say, “Oh yeah, that’s a crazy belief. I’m still saying that.” or “You’re right. I am thinking that it’s the worst, and maybe something else will happen.” So we start just with assumptions and beliefs, and that’s so powerful right there. Just helping people see that’s how they’re framing their story.

Denver: You know, in addition to being effective, it also sounds like it’s easier for a coach than maybe looking…

Marcia: So much easier.

Denver: …for the perfect question, but it simplifies it and gets the end result.

Marcia: Absolutely. I get coaches from all over the world that say, “Wow, you made it simpler and more powerful. My clients are like, just amazed at how quickly, you know, so it’s not just simpler, but it’s quicker because once they see it, then they see what else, you know. They have that awareness, and then they know some other actions they can take.

And so it’s powerful, and there’s other things. Sometimes just painting a picture using a metaphor, or just stating one word that stood out like, “Wow, it sounds like you’re really struggling because you’re loyal to the company, but you want to do something else?”

“Yes. That’s it, loyal? You’re right.” You know, again, it’s just easy. And then the key thing is notice any emotional shifts. You know, when they sigh and look away, ask them, “what’s going on there? What’s coming up for you? What are you thinking right now?” Yes, just little things. To be able to articulate it is so powerful.

Denver: Yes. And picking up what you just said about using one word or picking up one word, some of the words you say a coach should listen to are “really,” “but,” “should,” “always,” “never.” What are the significance of those words?

Marcia: Well, “should” often indicates a conflict of values. You know, it’s either my family’s telling me I should, or I think they want me to… and oftentimes, we make it up. You know, “my spouse doesn’t want me to do that, thinks I should do this.”  It’s like, have you talked to him or her? It could be, in China, I get “my parents” all the time. Could be society says I should be doing that. I’m a woman. I should be doing that. And it could even be in our own head, you know, “I just think I should.” Well, who defined that rule? You know, and is that real? So “should,” is huge.

And, “but.” The word “but.” Whatever they say after “but” indicates the fear that they have of moving forward. Those are two big words. And then the other ones you stated too all have significance. Always. Never. It’s like, “always?” You know, “Are all the people?” You know, just stating that back to them is so powerful.

Denver: You know, one of the things I liked that you did in the book, Marcia, is you drew some comparisons and contrasts that helped me make the points you made more memorable. One of them was the difference between a transactional and transformational coaching. What would that be?

Marcia: Well, you know, when you look, just look at the word “transactional”  and “transformation.” “Trans” means crossing over into something new. So transactional would be changing behaviors, you know. “I’m going to take different actions”; that’s solving the problem. But transformation would be to move into a new formation, a new thought, a new way of seeing.

And so when we coach this way, we’re doing transformational coaching because we’re helping people to expand their perspective, to see new possibilities. So something else has emerged. Okay? And sometimes we have to let go of the past in order for the new to emerge, which also allows for the transformation to occur.

Denver: And another contrast you drew was between solution-based coaching and awareness-based coaching.

Marcia: Right. Well, and I know different people have different definitions for solution-based, but for me, it’s like, we’re not focused on the solution. We’re focused on: What is the outcome you want to create? What does that look like? And to help you to see, you know, here you are, and here’s what you want to create. What’s in the way? Which hopefully, then you’ll have an awareness of what’s stopping you is something you can resolve. So I’m not solution-based focus. Sounds more like problem-solving to me.

So, in a moment of knowing…there’s a discomfort, and the coach feels that. We always sense that with each other, that energy exchange…and so I always say, just hold the space. The moment that you notice their discomfort, breathe out your own tension, and just allow them to process.

Denver: Yes. Yes. How do coaches get more comfortable when the conversations they’re having with their clients get into that discomfort zone?  We don’t like that, you know what I mean? What do you do to stick in there? Because, you know, people just aren’t good in that discomfort zone.

Marcia: Yes. Yes. You know, so that was my last book, The Discomfort Zone. And that was based on that, I saw, you know, I do a lot of mentoring with coaches all over the world and how many times they would take their clients just to the edge, you know, the possibility of a new awareness, but they’d back off because they sensed that there might be an emotional reaction here.

Well, in my research, the whole thing about seeing something new, you know, there’s a moment where you have to let go of what you thought you knew. And in that, even if it’s a nanosecond of not knowing, it’s quite uncomfortable for people to not know. The brain wants to know. The brain needs to define meaning for everything.

So in a moment of knowing, like we’re living in right now, there’s a discomfort. And the coach feels that. We always sense that with each other, that energy exchange and it’s, “Oh, I can’t make my client uncomfortable” when actually that’s the most powerful moment, you know? And so I always say, just hold the space. The moment that you notice their discomfort, breathe out your own tension, and just allow them to process. 

They will come through this, and what they get to on the other side will be that new awareness. So, that’s part of the process, is allowing your clients to be uncomfortable, maybe to be embarrassed, maybe even to cry when they see what they had not been facing before. And that’s okay too. Just to allow them to go through that, and they’ll come out in a more powerful place.

Denver: Yes. Yes. Great point. During this pandemic, Marcia, are you finding leaders turning to coaching for something a little bit different than they were pre-COVID?

Marcia: Yes. Well, we’re all kind of different.

Denver: Aren’t we though?

Marcia: Coaching is really exploding partially because, you know, there aren’t classes to attend, and so the one-on-one conversations are critical. But because of the shift and the restrictions we’re dealing with, it’s causing an intensity of emotions. And most people don’t know how to deal with that. I struggle with this. You know, at the end of the day, I’ve been sitting here all day, and I don’t like it. And, you know?

Denver: Oh, yes.

Marcia: So, executives that may not have wanted to talk about emotions in the past are talking about it now because they don’t understand what’s going on. And they’re lashing out at people like they hadn’t before, or they’re anxious about, you know, there was always a certainty before even if it wasn’t real, and now there’s not.

So they’re bringing up topics that weren’t on the table prior to the pandemic, which is great because it really helps bring out their full humanity and helps them to learn more about themselves, which makes them a better leader.

Denver: Yes. So what can a coach do to establish a safe and trusting connection with a client when everything is being done remotely? That can be tricky.

Marcia: Well, that’s an interesting belief… that we can’t set up a rapport and safety remotely like we can face-to-face. I don’t know, sometimes it’s even easier because I’m not right there with you. That maybe this technology gives you… enough distance.

Denver: Yes. A little buffer.

Marcia: Yes. It’s still in the energy. It’s still in the energy that I’m with you. I had one coach I was mentoring, and she was so glued to the belief that “I can never establish the relationships online, that I could live.” And I said, “Well, you won’t if you believe that.”

Denver: Yes.

Marcia: But I watched her, and she’s such a caring person, and it so came out in the conversation, even online. So she’s changing her belief. We can. We can do this.

Denver: Yes. It took a little while to get used to, but I think we all are beginning to feel a little bit more comfortable with this, that’s for sure. Marcia, if a client gives you permission to tape them just for your own use, what should a coach be looking for, listening for when they play that tape back or read the transcript of it?

Marcia: Oh, so you’re saying like in a mentoring situation?

Denver: Yes. Let’s say I had a client, and I was coaching them and they said, “Sure, tape this if you want.” And then when I listen back, are there any things that, if you were a coach, would you advise that they really pay some attention to when listening to that tape?

Marcia: Oh, you mean your client?

Denver: Yes.

Marcia: Listening. Wow. You know, I rarely do that, but that’s an interesting idea that they would sit and listen to their own interaction after it’s over. You know, the thing is, years and years ago, in my initial degree, I was studying the use of video and actually in therapy, they were saying that it takes two to three times for us to truly watch ourselves and listen to ourselves and get over that, “Oh, look, my hair’s out of place.” And “Oh, my makeup’s off.”

Denver: Yes. Oh. Especially I hate my voice. I mean, everybody hates their own voice.

Marcia: I hate my voice. Right. Well, we used to just use recordings. So yes, you may need to watch it a few times before you can get over that and really hear what you’re saying and to catch those moments that you had an insight.

That’s what I would look for. And maybe patterns, if you kept going backwards, you know, talking about something that’s still bothering you. You might catch yourself doing that.

…when somebody is kind of wrapped up in emotions at that moment, they don’t need you to tell them what to do. They’re not going to really hear it anyway. So no matter who you’re talking to you, to be able to use a little bit of reflection, just to say, “Let me get it straight. I just want to make sure I understand what you’re saying,” and then you summarize and share back with them what they said, they then feel heard and valued in that moment, and confirmed that they’re OK. 

Denver: Finally, Marcia, in what ways do the insights you provide coaches in this book serve all people and the kind of conversations that they’re having?

Marcia: You know, especially when somebody is kind of wrapped up in emotions, at that moment, they don’t need you to tell them what to do. They’re not going to really hear it anyway. So no matter who you’re talking to you, to be able to use a little bit of reflection, just to say, “Let me get it straight. I just want to make sure I understand what you’re saying.” And then you summarize and share back with them what they said. They then feel heard and valued in that moment and confirmed that they’re okay. So, using a few of these techniques can help in all conversations, not just coaching.

Denver: Tell us about your website. You got some great information on it. Tell us about what’s there, and where people can go to find it.

Marcia: Sure. Thank you. It’s and I’m constantly putting on more videos and articles and resources. So there’s a blog post, but if you look, click on the books, especially the last two books. There are pages of tips and videos and visualization to open the head, heart, and gut. We were talking about that. You mentioned it earlier, the nervous system.

Denver: Yes.

Marcia: So there are all kinds of resources all over the website that I just love to share everything that I create.

Denver: You can spend a worthwhile day there. I have done so. The book again is Coach the Person, Not the Problem: A Guide to Using Reflective Inquiry. When a coach can thoughtfully reflect back the words and expressions of the client, they then can see their world through new eyes.

Thanks, Marcia, for being here today. It was just a delight to have you on the show.

Marcia Oh, Thank you, Denver. I really enjoyed the conversation.


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