Learn to watch. And watch to learn!

In my work very often I stress the role of the observer: it’s a vital one when practicing coaching techniques and it’s an incredibly useful tool to use in every coaching activity.

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In the workshop I delivered at the Turku Agile Day together with Mike Sutton, we stressed the importance of the Observer role in coaching, giving also some instructions on what this role is about. But while reflecting on the workshop, we got the impression we should have spent some more time describing it, so here we go…

1. What is an Observer?

Easy, the Observer… observes. But… what exactly? The Process!

With “the process” I mean how a certain communication/interaction/procedure goes.

Let’s clarify in a specific context: in one-to-one coaching we have the Coach, the Client and – you guessed already – the Observer.

  • The Coach coaches. The Coach is involved in understanding the model of the world of the Client, in preparing the right questions, in analysing his internal processes, in trying to keep his reactions as free as possible from what the Client does and says (ever had a Client open up fully and pouring out all the emotions from inside? It’s a remarkable effect and very important in the coaching process, but that’s also the place where the Coach needs to guarantee his own independence from all those emotions, in the interest of the Client as well!). With all these things to do, the Coach will not always be able to follow everything that’s going on.
  • The Client is focused inwards, getting the benefits of the session, is in the “flow” of the coaching and should very much stay there. As such, the situational awareness of the Client is close to none. A Client could (and should) give feedback, often very important, but still very much incomplete and focused on his internal state.
  • The Observer has, instead, no stakes in the process. He is free to watch, analyse, learn. No active role in the process, all of his bandwidth is focused outwards on one thing: make sense of what happens, understand the interplay between Coach and Client. Understand the structure of the process.

You can guess the Observer is then very well placed to to get a more independent view on what happens in a coaching session.

2. What does the Observer do?

A few things…:

  • Is there rapport between Coach and Client?
  • What are the key moments in the coaching?
  • What has worked well? What has worked not so well?
  • Has the Coach been able to keep his independence? Or was he emotionally on the leash of the Client?
  • What other tools/techniques/interventions could the Coach have used in this scenario?

The important thing in this process is to give detailed and sensory-based information.

Example: “You did great” does not help: too imprecise, too generic, not circumstantiated.

Example: “When asking for his emotions in subject X, you framed the question implying the Client should have felt bad for what he did: this worked well as it helped the client open up but it also caused the discussion to fall back to talk about the problem instead of searching for solutions. It was immediately visible how the Client became uncomfortable and showed signs of nervousness by moving on his chair much more”. Now this is a fairly defined feedback we could work on! With this feedback we can learn. If we have recorded the session we could go back to that place and check what happened, relating it to what we did and look for alternatives.

A good Observer, the one giving feedback in this format, is your best friend in practicing coaching!

3. In real life: the Coach as an Observer

One of the most important characteristic of a coach is the capability of providing qualified feedback to the team, i.e. the coach himself acts also as an observer of the team’s behaviour, a mirror of how they act. All we said before for the Observer’s role in a one-to-one coaching belongs to the observation the Coach can do when working with a team. Some of the aspects are related to the way the team works:

  • Is there rapport between team members? Between the people around the team and the team members?
  • What are the key moments in the group processes? How effective are the group processes?
  • What has worked well? What has worked not so well?
  • What are the typical behavioural patterns in the team?
  • How do you recognise one or more team members are becoming stressed? What behavioural patterns do they take in this case? (Think, for example, about Satir categories!)

Some are related to the way the coach interacts with the team:

  • Is there rapport between Coach and the team?
  • What are the key moments in the coaching?
  • What has worked well? What has worked not so well?
  • Has the Coach been able to keep his independence? Or was he emotionally on the leash of the Team?
  • What other tools/techniques/interventions could the Coach have used in this scenario?

For the second group of questions: if you are lucky enough to have the luxury of working with another coach on the same assignment, one of the two should take the Observer role and provide this qualified feedback to you: there’s possibly no better learning experience than de-briefing with a qualified Observer to support you.

What? You don’t have that luxury? Cool down, you’re not alone. In this case it’s important for the Coach to be able to “step out of himself” and take the Observer’s role from an independent Meta-Position. With a bit of experience this is possible and helpful. Though not as effective as having an external observer, it might be the best option available. in this case, when you are de-briefing a session, either with yourself or with other colleagues, remember to specify from what perspective comes what you’re talking about: the You-Coach or the You-Observer.

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4. How can this possibly be important?

Duh… How can you possibly decide for the right interventions if you don’t understand what happens? IMO there is no need to go for a complete and complicated systemic analysis – that would anyway be incomplete and useless as we’re working with complex-adaptive systems, but a basic understanding of the dynamic involved in the interactions, a clear understanding of what the goal should be and a fair dose of experience will make it easier to decide for a handful of interventions that might be useful in a situation.

5. How do I become an Observer? What skills do I need?

The basic skill needed by an observer is the capability of calibrating himself on the reaction of the others: how do you understand exactly when somebody is happy or sad? Knows what he is saying or makes things up? Talks about experience or about theory? Try practice a bit and you’ll realise each of us behaves differently in these situations and that it is possible to learn how to “read” these situations!

A second very important skill is the one to remain “out” of the process. As Observers we’re “just” observing, we have no active role in the session, we have no right to intervene. A typical mistake of the practicing Observer is the entering in the discussion to “support” the Coach – think “pair coaching” somebody (“ping-pong coaching”?): believe me, this goes badly!

It’s also very important to remember that an Observer is anyway a part of the system and will influence it, so try to stay out “of the scene” as much as possible, though you will still impact the coaching no matter how hard you try not to.

A final remark: being an Observer requires a lot of discipline, but it’s an incredibly powerful tool to improve your listening and observing skills and it’s a great investment I recommend to every coach!

So, in summary, the role of the observer is a crucially important part in coaching, the part that will give you a fresh view on what you’re doing. Get an external one if you can, if not, practice your observing skills as much as you can!

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2 thoughts on “Learn to watch. And watch to learn!

  1. Hi Pierluigi,
    very useful post. I was just starting using this role, asking our new recruit to /observe/ during a presentation to a potential customer. I like that you give an operational list of “how” to observe.
    Could you please expand a bit on the meaning of “being emotionally on a leash”?

  2. Hi Matteo,
    Fact: emotions are contagious (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotional_contagion). As such, whenever we communicate we pass emotions to each other like viruses.
    Some people are unconsciously more skilled than others in passing these emotions, some are more keen than others in receiving and resonating with these emotions, so sometimes we are “on the leash” of somebody’s emotions.
    You might have had the experience of hearing a story so involving that you could almost feel the emotions of the characters in the story. Films are very much into this business, in fact. A typical example is some friend telling you about some sad situation they are in, how bad this is and how they try to find a solution but can’t. Almost everybody would like to help this person and will start suggesting solutions.
    There are two dangers in that:
    1. While being capable of understanding emotions is important, it is also a characteristic that make us less free of choosing other options. As a coach not a productive situation to be in. I had a period when I did one to one coaching for several hours in a row per day: here you get all sort of clients telling you about their problems. If you identify yourself with them you’ll get such an overload of emotions that you won’t be able to help them at all.
    2. By getting entangled in their emotions you’ll be less likely to think structure and process and more likely to discuss about the content. Again, not good as a coach. Here’s an example: person X tells you her boss is an a**h*** because of blah, blah, blah… You can take this statement as a structural information: X says she doesn’t like the boss, so there is a conflict situation: open? hidden? what is the nature? what are the possible hypothesis to check? … Or you can take the information at the content level and start discussing about how nasty the boss is. You’ll understand perfectly X’s point of view, but it will be a single point of view to base the coaching on. Again, not productive!
    Let me know if you need more details.

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