Coaching, Mentoring and Metaphor

1909 - Men Curling in Toronto

1909 – Men Curling in Toronto

Conversation #3 of my 100 Conversations effort. An underlying theme to the discussion was coaching and mentoring. Communication is certainly becoming a theme of this blog, and what I am gaining are additional tools to expand and adapt my ways of listening and communicating effectively. From this conversation, I saw a useful viewpoint that coaching has specific goals in mind, and may have a defined life span relating to achieving those goals. Mentoring is more about an individual’s growth and development over time. Another way to say it might be that coaching gives a person skills and strategies, while mentoring gives them a framework within which to use those skills and strategies. I might not have the perfect explanation (and I could be wrong), but this view serves the purpose of this blog post.

You Can’t Connect without Communication

Key to either coaching or mentoring is successful communication. This conversation #3 quickly delved into how coaching and mentoring are impossible without a very high level of communication. Our professional focus is not on ‘communication in passing’, it’s on communication that establishes successful long-term relationships. So, from here I focus on the importance of understanding how we best hear those we are in a communication relationship with… staff, client, whoever.

The Importance of Metaphor

In a previous post (Managed Expectations = Success), I mentioned the use of a kitchen renovation metaphor to communicate the challenges of a client being in a new building. They won’t have all of the benefits of the new space until they get used to it (i.e. where is the can opener?!). The purpose of the metaphor was to find a common language, with the hope that it is vivid enough to come to mind when they experience the challenges. They still may feel frustrated (and curse your name!), but they remember the overall context that it will be better in the end. Let’s take the time to discuss the power and weakness of metaphor.

According to wikipedia, “a metaphor is a figure of speech that identifies something as being the same as some unrelated thing for rhetorical effect, thus highlighting the similarities between the two.” The power in using a metaphor is to add emphasis to communication, and hopefully find clarity. I’ve stated before that clients hire us for our expertise. Expertise brings with it a different world view, a different vocabulary, and experiences specific to our specialties. Our clients will NOT have these shared experiences. We will NOT be able to us the communication shortcuts that we do with our peers or repeat clients.

Let’s say that each of us has our own unique system through which we best communicate and learn new information. This system reflects our experiences and our developed world view. If sports are integral to your experience, then the framework and subtleties of sports will likely be  a good way to communicate with you. If I am trying to communicate something to you, my challenge is to understand your system(s) in order to best communicate with you.

Without shared experience, we try to find ways to adapt our communication to our clients. At its easiest, we can find the right layman’s terms to directly communicate. It gets harder when we need to access more specific communication styles. Sports can be an immensely rich system to use for communication for how it deals with a broad spectrum of strategies to achieve individual and team accomplishment. Superficial sports references will work for almost everyone since in our culture we are generally exposed to sports. The challenge becomes knowing how far we can use sports before it gets in the way of communication, or might even be negative to successful communication. I understand the importance of being a team player in basketball, and I understand that every position has its own importance… but you’ll lose me if you discuss particular techniques or players. Sports metaphors only go so far for me (unless it’s curling… then let’s take out that rock to clear the house!)

A better approach is trying to understand our clients and the systems that they use for communication. It’s always a good idea to learn about our clients and their way of doing business. Our role is to help them in achieving their mission by applying our expertise to their goals. The more we know about them and their staff, the better equipped we will be to assist. This includes understanding their communication models. When we are at our best, we learn enough about their interests to communicate in THEIR system.

Be genuine, and have mutual agreement when we use tools like metaphor. The pitfalls of genuine can be seen in the plots of many television sitcoms: man likes girl, girl likes opera, man pretends to like opera, girl finds out he’s pretending and so on. Mutual agreement relates to an understanding that we are trying to place ourselves within someone else’s world view, and that we are doing so with some risk. The agreement is that we are trying to improve communication for the good of each other. For the sake of having a sports analogy that is obvious (admitting I’m weak on the sports front, unless you want to talk curling), someone might reference OJ Simpson (or Oscar Pistorius) as an example of something beneficial in a sports career… but I might be appalled for other reasons. Within our mutual agreement, I need to realize that your intent is good… and I should ask for clarification.

This goes back to establishing expectations. An expectation should always be to expect good intent, and that if I’m bothered by something… I should seek to confirm the information I’ve received. I’ve probably misunderstood. We can have those same conversations with clients and staff. “If I ever say something that bothers you, please check in with me. It was likely miscommunication.” [note: it is unfortunate that as humans, we often forget to assess intent within a moment of perceived offense. We go straight to being offended, versus seeking clarification.]

So to summarize this post, it is essential that we find the ways to achieve mutual understanding with those around us. There are short-cuts to a more full understanding, but every shortcut comes with accompanying risks. We minimize risks with doing our research, and with establishing a framework for dialogue and iterative refinement. It can be as simple as saying to a client, “I see value in sports metaphors with you. I’ll do my best… and I won’t be hurt when you laugh at my mistakes. Now tell me again, how many innings in a hockey game?”

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