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Continuous learning, The Feynman Technique, and why even coaches have a coach.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

I became fascinated with Richard Feynman ever since reading about the 1986 Space shuttle Challenger disaster and the many leadership failures and poor decision-making that resulted in the tragedy. Feynman had the superpower to simplify complex things so the person on the street could understand them. As a commission member investigating the tragedy, he highlighted the issue with the O-ring on the Challenger rockets by putting the part in question into a glass of iced water. During a public commission meeting, This practical experiment powerfully demonstrated cold temperatures adversely impacted the O-rings, which led to the Challenger disaster. There was no need for experts and pages and pages of research. He tested his working hypothesis and generated insights and awareness to identify the single point of failure that came down to a part that cost a few dollars.

Richard Feynman was fascinated by how things worked and driven to understand and gain mastery over them - whether nuclear physics for which he is renowned or his many hobbies such as safe-cracking. I like to think that a great executive coach operates similarly:

  • Form hypotheses to help clients gain insight and awareness by testing them during and between coaching sessions.

  • Ask powerful, generative questions to stimulate further thinking and take the conversation forward.

  • A need for continuous learning and self-development to refine one's craft.

  • Seek to understand and distil complex things such as people's behaviours and relationships.

  • Delve into the human mind and why we do things to bring self-awareness to our clients, leading to enduring changes in habits and behaviours.

The Feynman Technique - One of the best ways to learn anything

Feynman's approach to cut out jargon, vague words and complexity that reveal a lack of understanding has been summarised in four key steps:

  1. Choose a concept you want to learn about

  2. Explain it to someone else

  3. Reflect, Refine and Simplify

  4. Organise and Review

Coaches and coaching by nature are reflective practices. After each coaching session and regularly throughout the year, we reflect on our actions either by ourselves, in groups or with our own coaches and supervisors. Questions such as:

  • What were the highlights and lowlights?

  • What did I learn about coaching and about myself?

  • What decisions did I make about the questions to ask or not ask?

  • Were there any moments of disconnect?

  • What concerns do I have about this coaching relationship?

Help us to reflect, refine and hone our craft. I find the most powerful learnings when I double-click on a client with my coach supervisor to get an outside-in perspective on how I work. One particular example springs to mind, demonstrating the power of outside-in thinking, reflection, and review and simplifying complexity into its essence.

How coaches learn to get better at what we do

When I first started coaching professionals, entrepreneurs and executives, I delivered value just by helping them improve their skills in areas such as teamwork, speaking up, gravitas, and productivity. These were practical, targeted tools, frameworks and techniques that they could practice and hone to make their own. A robust intellectual and pragmatic connection would form between us during the coaching. This approach was comfortable for all involved.

But gradually, as I experimented and developed as a coach, I found that a higher level of trust would form, leading to a deeper connection during the coaching partnership in addition to the intellectual one.

Sometimes the deeper connection from our trusting partnership added to the intellectual and pragmatic connection would combine to create an unexpected result.

At the time, the experience would feel remarkable, a flow-like state for both my clients and myself. They would do profound thinking, gain deep insights, and elevate their self-awareness. On occasions, I would be surprised by how much they would reveal but comforted that they had fully bought into the confidential and trusting partnership and progressed so far. In these coaching sessions, we were unpicking the real reasons they could not overcome an obstacle or make the changes they agreed were necessary to move forward.

And yet, the very clients who'd shared such personal revelations and expressed their surprise in gaining such insights would sometimes disappear and be challenging to follow up with. Having reached such extraordinary depth and having made so much progress, I expected them to be eager to continue. It wasn't until I described this situation to my coaching supervisor that I understood where my error lay.

Paraphrasing my supervisor, "Of course they are difficult to reconnect with. During the session, you created a space for them that took them somewhere, so they shared much more than they normally would and went much further than they had planned."

I was thinking of one client in particular who I had taken to supervision more than once already. This explanation was a perfect fit for our most recent experience. Our time together initially focused on practical skills and techniques to better control their focus and schedule. We rapidly co-created experiments and changes to how he worked and engaged with people. Yet after several sessions, we had stalled and found ourselves going back over the same things. At this point, I probed more deeply than before using the Immunity To Change framework. We explored his competing commitments and that, actually, he was committed to not upsetting people - hence why he found it difficult to separate the person from the decision and say no to people. His self-awareness rocketed, and I thought we would double click to explore further and identify the real change that was necessary. Alas, it was not to be. It was at this time I also came across this phenomenon described in the book "The Charisma Myth" by Olivia Fox Cabane. The author describes coming out of the coaching sessions: "A few hours later, they come out of the trance, their ego wakes up, realises how much they shared and how far they went, and moan 'Oh, what have I done?!'"

And the conclusion:

"Never take people deeper than they're ready to go. It's your job to not give in to the high, not to let them reveal more than they're ready for."

And the essence of what I learned was

Sometimes as coaches, independent and confidential sounding boards and confidants, we need to slow people down when they're in the middle of this kind of experience. Speed isn't always helpful, especially when attempting to change and create new enduring behaviours and skills.


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