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Preparing to be Unprepared

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“How much preparation do you do before coaching calls?”
I was asked a version of this question by a client this morning, and have seen it asked and commented on around these parts.

When I started coaching professionally in 2005, I did no preparation at all. The conversations were few and far between, and mostly with family, friends, friends of family, friends of friends, very small fees, and I mostly knew a little about the person I was talking with. Looking back, I had no idea what I was doing, just curiosity and a sense of a direction I wanted to encourage my clients to look. This might seem like unconscious incompetence, yet on reflection there was greater competence there than first appears.

Through some of my training and mentoring I’d been inspired to research everything there is to know about my clients, not just to understand what they are capable of, but, as was taught unashamedly, to impress them. “Didn’t you win the young entrepreneur of the year award three times in high-school for your tuck shop business that was actually an undercover illicit tobacco importing operation?”
“Wow, you’ve certainly done your homework, dear Mr Coach, here’s two hundred grand!”

I was never comfortable with this. I always know my clients are capable of almost anything, and there was an aspect to this research that always felt distasteful, irrelevant, and creepy.

In any case, why do I need to know so much about my clients and all the stories they have enacted in their life if my role as a coach is to help them see what is possible beyond all their stories?

This came up in one of the last such training events I attended in LA late 2014, where someone in the team I was leading suggested she wanted to find a coach who was also a single Mom, ‘so that she will understand all the challenges that entails.’ I suggested that, whilst that may be true, she might be better served by someone who had absolutely no idea what it was like to be such a Mom, since they would be far less likely to buy into any bullshit stories around it.

The more I understand about what it is to be human and the infinite potential of which we are all part, the less I need to know about my clients. In understanding we all see life through stories I can remain ignorant of the content of them. And nowadays, often beyond an initial level of amusement and fascination, I’m generally not so interested.

As far as preparation goes, I need to know nothing about my client over and above what I already know of what it means to be human, plus maybe some points we may have discussed on a previous call, such as committed actions. (I’m not in any way an accountability coach, but I am always fascinated and curious when a client commits to something which they then do not do.)

It seems the best preparation I can undertake prior to any session is to allow myself to be present and drop any notion of ‘me,’ including any stories ‘I’ may have entertained about my client. That used to be a 5 or 10 minute meditation, but more recently is simply a bathroom visit and a glass of water so as not to get distracted by my body.

Then instead of unconscious incompetence, or indeed any level of personal competence, I get to show up, present, conscious, in ignorance, and allow loving curiosity to guide us to wherever we’re to go.