What is expertise? Years hunkered over text books, astute observations in the field, looking for patterns that make sense and can be sourced and used as short cuts to solve problems. After much practice of the above, an expert’s practise may even be described as intuitive. Interventions are made without pondering, they come effortlessly. This is as true for naturalists such as Darwin or Dian Fossey as it is for traders, doctors, and even parents – occasionally anyway.
When it comes to coaching, what is expertise? And how does this fit when the coach is often encouraged not to be the expert. We are meant to sit in the unknowing and make space for the client’s expertise. It is like we are asked to become experts in not being experts. Even the word “expert” has a rigorous connotation that many in the field of coaching shy away from. So what are good coaches if not experts? Or if we are to be experts, what in?? And if we are not experts, what are we doing???
We are experts, experts in learning and passing our learning on to the client. And it’s a bit like computing… That is, we need to understand our client’s “code” and help them redesign it. You may recoil in horror as many of us pride ourselves on being the anti-dote to programmed thinking and helping people to “get outside the box.” But in many ways, we are just like computer programmers, or “hackers” if you prefer. So forgive me if I now begin “to push a few buttons”.
Coaches, like computer hackers, are experts in uncovering the client’s operating system, the programmes they use to navigate life. We observe, listen, probe, look for a few chinks and begin to enter into the client’s world, understand their sense-making apparatus and start pulling it apart (gently and with consent of course!).
This approach has a two-fold purpose. First, the coach needs to understand the client in order to find the best way to work with the them. This means unpacking assumptions, their own and the client’s; checking in on what the client needs and wants; reframing their own ideas in a way the client can understand; and exploring the way the client sees the world. As the coach begins to understand how the client makes sense of the world and what instructions they have for problem solving, the coach can start exploring, with the client, how this might change for the better.
The second and more salient purpose of “hacking the clients operating system” is to help the client better understand their own OS. As a client begins to see the shortcuts, algorithms they have installed for getting through work or life, they can then re-evaluate them and change what is necessary. These “programmes” may include: how to handle an angry colleague, how to go about getting promoted, how to deliver a presentation, organise their personal affairs, even how to love. Whatever it is we are asked to coach the client on, chances are they already have some system for making it work. If we are to be effective as coaches, what we do is help the client identify, or better yet create, new “hacks” that make these programmes work better for themselves.
What are we then experts in? Learning – each and every client has their own unique operating system and lifetime’s worth of hacks, layered on experiences past and present. Our job is to learn these, or more appropriately, help the client learn these programmes and update them. To do so, we must also learn what they are and in doing so, we help the client become experts in their own OS, able to upgrade what’s needed and adapt to the world they face.
Getting it wrong is to be expected, neither client or coach may have never looked at the manual. We may even spend a significant amount of time looking for it so we can begin to crack the code. Once this is done the client can begin to build new hacks, cut-out old systems and approach their world afresh.
As well as learning, we need the skills to create a spacious container that allows the client’s own expertise to meet their own not-knowing and help them explore this relationship. Trust and sensitivity are paramount in this stage. As discoveries emerge and there is enough insight to move to experiment, the coach helps the client shift gears to be bold and try things out. To beta-test their new hack. And then, when appropriate, the coach can work as a challenger – to further test the thinking, practices and so-called evidence that the client may use to avoid change.
How we do this is always “client dependent” and usually requires us to update our own ways of working with each new client, as well as within each coaching relationship. Like many experts who have made a name for themselves, they are avid learners who take their curiosity seriously. We coaches can aspire to this learning expertise too. To that end, it’s time to come out of hiding, learn how to understand other people’s operating system and fly your geek flag!