Improv-ing to better coaching skills

I wasn’t sure what I was going to write in this blog article. I had a general idea, and I trust the process of starting to type into a Word Document, with the intention of writing a short article that provides value to those coaches who read it.

I thought of a person I heard speak last week, on his book called, “Not Knowing.” Stephen D’Souza provided a compelling presentation based on his book. I was excited by what he was saying. Yet in this moment, I cannot tell you what I remember from his talk. But I do know that I don’t need to know the details, as something resonated that has stayed with me as a ‘state of being.’ I’ve now purchased Stephen’s book and I’m looking forward to reading it.

Not Knowing doesn’t mean not knowing anything

The concept of Not Knowing is such an important mindset for masterful coaches, and those aspiring toward mastery.  Not Knowing means being in the moment. You have to first ‘know’ how to structure a coaching session, and how to structure coaching questions. The Not Knowing is a mindset, rather than a reality. Of course you ‘know’ a lot. Yet the client will benefit more from your Presence and being where they are, than if you default to bring your ‘knowing’ mindset to the client. I don’t want it to sound black and white. It’s not. We have knowledge, skills…and we don’t know in this moment what is best for this client. Remain curious, present and responsive.

Improv as a way to improve coaching agility

Then I thought of my very wise husband, Michael Stratford, MCC who is a masterful trainer of coaches, a mentor, and a transformative coach. About 18 years ago, he said to me that being in the present moment with your client is the most powerful place to coach from. Not in the past, not in the future, but in this present moment.

Once you know the basic coaching skills and how to structure a coaching session, there comes a time where, in order to keep improving, you need to go beyond using standard coaching questions and expand your ability to fully customize questions and observations to each client. You need to improve your agility in the moment, to go deeper into the client world. 

To practice working with clients in the moment, he recommends every coach take Improv classes. As a trained Actor, he was aware of how Improv supports working with the moment.

Improv is abbreviated from Improvisation, “a form of live theatre in which the plot, characters and dialogue of a game, scene or story, are made up in the moment. An American television show called, “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” was based on improvisation, with four actors working with what the studio audience gave them as characters and a storyline. I believe there is a newer version of the 1998 show still being aired.

I can’t say that Improv is my first love. However, I appreciated what the purpose of Improv is, and how it could grow my capability to be more present, and work ‘off the moment’ with my clients. On Michael’s suggestion, I enrolled in a semester long Improv class many years ago, and indeed I learned a lot about working off the moment. It’s not lost on me that Improv is one letter away from Improve!

Yes and…

One of the first rules of Improv is to “agree and say yes” to the moment. So often in life, disagree first by saying, “No, but” or even “Yeah, but.” Improv teaches us to have the mindset of, “Yes and.” When improvising, you agree with whatever your partner has created. If your partner in an Improv exercise says, “I’m a private chef for a famous couple.” Then you say, Yes. And work from there. You don’t say, “No but I don’t know anything about being a private chef.” You go with the flow such as, “I can smell the lasagna cooking.” Then your partner responds from there. The essence is to work with ‘what is’ being presented, rather than what you think you should be talking about. Lasagna, not Spaghetti.

Improv-ing our listening skills

This is such a great mindset for being present with our coaching client. To work from the moment, what the client is presenting which could be in words, emotion, tone, energy, body language, and more. Listening is not just words, it’s so much more.

To listen to our clients and what is happening in this moment, means we work with the client in their world. If they want to create a new business, the Improv approach is to be where the client is such as, “What do you have in mind?” “What emotions does that evoke in you?” “What’s the experience you want to have when creating a new business?”

The coach who has consulting or personal expertise in creating a new business, might instead default to what they know, cautionary tales, and “Yeah but” type questions. “Yeah but have you thought of what that means in terms of your income in the short term?” The timing is not for these types of questions. We work with where the client is, not from our technique, tool, or approach. We don’t say, “Why do you want to start a business when you’re at the top of your organization and making a difference?” While it might be a good question, being in the moment and going with the flow of where the client is, takes presence and practice.

In closing….

Consider enrolling in a semester long Improv course in your local area. Perhaps through a local theatrical company. Research in your area.

How comfortable are you with:

Not Knowing what question you’ll ask your client next?

Being in this moment with where your client is?

Going with the client flow rather than your flow?

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5 thoughts on “Improv-ing to better coaching skills

  1. Just yesterday I was in a coaching conversation with a client trying to come up with a ‘fat’ goal for himself. When he asked, I shared with him that one of the criteria for this kind of a goal could be something that he really wants but is a little out of his reach at the moment. However, he thought he has already achieved all the goals of this kind out there. So, to him there is not much more that he wants to strive for for now. And I have to say that I was also in a kind of ‘not knowing’ how to help him move forward with this. From what you are saying, it seems that I should have just be in the moment with him, and show curiosity to his ‘story’ and let him discover for himself what that goal really is.

    1. Hi Rahman, thanks for your question. It’s hard for me to say what I might do because I’m not ‘in-the-moment’ with your client as you were. However, yes, in essence I’d be curious about the client. For example, if he doesn’t want to strive for any goal, then what does he want to experience of his life? What if there was nothing to strive for, how would that feel? What would he think? How would he act?

      The Not Knowing is I don’t know what the client is thinking, feeling or experiencing. I can be curious. I can also make my observations, such as, “It seems your life is exactly as you want it to be right now, and there is nothing you want coaching on. Is that a correct assumption I’m making?”

      All of this is to explore, and I often think of it as ‘prodding’ around to see what resonates with the client. It’s my ‘job’ to be where the client is, to be in the moment, and to “Improv” from there.

      I hope that helps Rahman. Thanks for your great inquiry.

      Warmly, Carly

      1. Thanks Carly, for your response. Certainly helps me appreciate coaching presence from another perspective.

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