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Kamal Coach’s communication isn't working for him

Updated: Jan 23

The meaning of communication is the response that you get


Business communication

In business we have a culture where people are expected to be decisive and constructive.  Generally speaking business is about working to deliver products and services to customers or consumers who derive real value from these products and services and are prepared to pay their hard earned money for that value.  Business or busyness is generally about getting on with something by creating something unique (a unique selling proposition, ‘USP’) that differentiates your product or service from others. 


A natural part of business involves working with others and as part of that we have normal business-style conversations with each other.  The modern corporate world has evolved into a sort of ‘middle manager / subject matter specialist’ culture of ‘meetingitis’.  This is the constant of 9-5 Monday to Friday meeting after meeting after meeting.  This is wearing on us all as we find little time to do the actual work that needs to be done let alone find the time for us to ground ourselves and then connect with each other.  It’s almost as if we have created a world of manager-come-commentators in a sort of reality television show where we all stand on the sidelines and ‘manage’ and ‘audit’ and generally ‘comment’ on how the doers are actually getting on with the work that needs to be done.


Agility and Coaching

And then within all of that the idea of agility as a way of working has emerged.  This is a culture with some new ideas of how to better organise ourselves to be more collaborative and innovative.  In my experience, when we focus on some of the undercurrents of relationships, trust and alignment we tend to get better results than we focus on the frameworks like Scrum, SAFe or LESS. 


We also have coaching as a profession that is establishing itself in the working world and has evolved from people like Tim Gallway and John Whitmore since the 1970s.  And here we take a kind of Socratic-approach to complex problems by asking open, though-provoking questions that encourage us to go deeper into ourselves and our relationships with each other to help us to create deeper more solid connections with each other.  This helps to create the safety within a group of people and that is an important foundation for us to work together better,  more open and transparent with each so that we can create valuable solutions for our business challenges.


There’s a lot of talk on social media at the moment about the ‘death of agile’.  Some say that agile has run its course now that organisations have branded ‘Agile 2.0’ and ‘corporatised’ the essence of agile into a set of frameworks with centres of excellence full of best practice and standard ways of working.  And within that there is this gap in expectation between the coach and the business colleague.  You hear of business managers complaining that they want their agilists to be more solution-focussed, directive and less questioning. 


To quote a fellow coach and friend, Francesco Bianchi:

“If I am paying for that person [a coach] that expectation is usually stronger.

99.9% of the times if I ask an Agile Coach a question I get back a question.

Most of the times I get an entire questionnaire.

There is almost never a conversation to reset expectations or a request for permission to change type of output provided.

Then we are wondering why the role of Agile Coach is starting to be rejected in companies”


To which I responded:

Sounds like speaking to a politician. They're good at spinning stories :)


Communication Disenfranchisement

So, what is the link between the current frustration with ‘Agile’ and the general disenfranchisement with politicians?


Political Disenfranchisement

It is widely acknowledged that there is a growing disaffection with our political establishment. Just listen to the news to hear the latest in a long list of political failings: The Post Office Scandal, the handling of lockdown in Downing Street, the politics of Climate Change.   Our political system has many problems and injustices. Power is imbalanced and there is an elite that is able to hold us all ‘in check’. 

 

It seems to me that it is common for a politician to have a pre-conceived idea about the narrative they want to project via the media to their voters.  This is particularly prominent during the run-up to an election (as is the case at the moment, here in the UK).  So, they attend television interviews, radio phone-ins, and Westminster press briefings with a public relations strategy created by their party machine.  They spend considerable time and money developing their communications approach to ensure that they can come across in the best possible way to the widest set of people possible.  Of course, nobody can please all of the people all of the time, but they can make a determined effort to please or at least, convince, as many people as possible.  


Disenfranchisement with Agilists

But what has any of this got to do with coaching, professional coaching (as we like to call it in the agile coaching world) and agile coaching?  As ‘Agilist’s’ we have this notion of a ‘stance’ or different hats that we like to metaphorically wear on our heads in different situations.  I wrote about this a few years ago, click here to read more about it.

 

As an agile coach, there’s a time to be reflective; to create time for my client ponder and think. There are also times when I need to respond in a more decisive and reactive way.  If a building is on fire, we need all hands to put the fire out rather than pause and have a reflective conversation with our client. 

 

That said, organisations are known for spending a lot of time ‘putting out fires.’  This is a common referred to metaphor in the business world.  So, as coaches when do we put on our inquiry head and when do we simply respond to our client in a more direct way?  And what on earth does this have to do with the politicians anyway?


Kamal’s Coaching Story

So, it was a Tuesday morning.  I’d been on a couple of calls already and I was now joining a call with a fellow agile coach [Kamal] in a ‘peer to peer coaching super-vision session’.  I was listening to Kamal voice his frustrations from his interactions with others in a meeting earlier that morning. 

 

“They just don’t get it’ Kamal bellowed. 

 

“I asked her what she wanted to get from the meeting” he said.

 

It was a regular senior meeting with other leaders.  A Senior Leadership Team (SLT or insert current fashionable acronym here) weekly meeting.  Bear in mind this is normally a room full of ‘senior leaders’ or people with ambition to ‘get on’ and climb the corporate ladder.  They tend to fit the existing culture and therefore match that behaviour.  This often means providing certainty where there isn’t certainty and doing that with assured confidence so that people feel ‘safe in their hands’.  This usually means that SLT meetings are short, concise and without challenge.  People tend to want to look decisive and action oriented.  This sounds quite different to being open and reflective which, it felt to me in any case, was the sort of thinking that Kamal was looking to create with his question.

 

“Oh yeah, how did that go with Kate McKenzie?  I asked Kamal. How did she react to your open question?” (name invented for anonymity) Executive Programme Director. 


I was conscious of the fact that Kamal had asked the question in a room full of senior people who, usually at least in my experience, wanted to get on and demonstrate progress on actions, as is generally the culture.  So, I was already sensing the tension that Kamal’s s potentially annoyingly open question might generate.

 

Kamal replied, “Well, there was a pause as she [Kate] took an extra breath to calm herself and then she thanked me through gritted teeth for my thoughtful question and said, ‘well it’s really important for me to get to understand the team’s progress as I’ve got to meet our Business Sponsor this afternoon and I have to demonstrate progress from last week!”

 

“Oh, so what did you say to that my friend”  I asked my fellow coach.

 

“Well, to be honest, now it was my turn to take an extra breath!  I was so frustrated.  I had thought we’d made so much progress last week in my 121 with her.  Kate had seemed so captivated by our forward-looking coaching conversation last week.  And now we just seemed to be back a square one to me.  I was exasperated to be truthful. I didn’t really know what to say but I remembered my coaching training and I decided to dig a little deeper.”

 

“Wow that sounds brave, what did you say next then?”

 

“I said, ‘Kate, last week we spoke about the coaching stance to create space for you to truly be you and for me to help you to find the place for you to grow and become the person you always wanted to be’.  I’ll admit I felt a little awkward saying it, and, if truth be told, I could hear her breathing with plain exasperation now.”

 

“Oh, sounds like she was quite irritated!”

 

“Yes, but she has to understand that she can’t keep treating the team like this and, as Agile Coaches, we’re here to be disruptive!”

 

“Er ok, but what sort of message are you giving to her by using open questions on the one hand whilst on the other hand you’re visibly annoyed because you’re not getting your way?”

 

And the conversation went on.  It was clear that Kamal, the Agile Coach, like a Politician and perhaps many different people in different roles, have their own agenda.  But they were masking that agenda behind a thin veneer of professional coaching.  It all sounds a bit toxic to me.  Again, much like our politicians these days!


The Meaning of Communication is the response that you get

There was an old sage in the Oldy Worldly Wisdom Centre at the back of Marylebone Train station in W1 London, UK.  He was a man with only a little bit of thin white hair on the top of his head.  He had a lovely teethy smile and a fresh face in spite of his mature years. 


He used to profess, “The meaning of communication is the response that you get.”

 

This motto comes back to me time and again.  I find myself musing over the words and I remind myself of it when I find people not responding to me in the way I had intended and even hoped. 

 

The wise man had told a story of when he was a little boy and his family had moved from the north of England to the Midlands.  He had always been very good at Maths at his old school and so when he joined the new school near Bromsgrove, he found his new Maths teacher was disconcerting.  This teacher seemed to be struggling with his pupils. One morning after only a week the new boy sat down at his desk only to be embarrassed by his teacher, Mr. Muyhill.

 

“What have you all been doing?” Mr Muyhill exclaimed.  “You’re just not getting it” he said. “You should all take a leaf out of the new boy’s book” He proclaimed in an alarming fashion. 

 

Mr. Muyhill was blaming his own pupils for not learning what he was responsible for teaching them.  And he was using the new boy’s mathematical ability to blame them for their supposed failings.  This new boy (who is now the wise man with no name) had only been at the school for a week, so how could Mr. Muyhill claim to have any impact on this boys learning?


He had it all the wrong way around surely!  It was Mr. Muyhill that needed to consider the response he was getting from pupils.  Somehow his teaching methods left plenty of room for improvement!

 

What is the use in blaming the recipient of some new information, as if there is something wrong with them!  The meaning of communication is the response that you get.


Conclusion

Did you ever consider that you might need to change the way you communicate?  And that includes asking open questions!

 

What is my agenda?  And how does this relate to a politician?  Well, they also have their own agenda.  So, am I serving the client’s agenda or my own?  And to what extent can we align those two things together?

 

What do you think?  Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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