2 + 2 = 5 : Learning from our Mistakes

Is it appropriate for a coach to point out a coachee’s mistakes? This was the question Ian and I debated with the attendees of our Academy of Executive Coaching master class several weeks ago. The debate was triggered by the participants completing a self-assessment questionnaire on their challenging coaching skills. One of the behaviours assessed was ‘My coach balances praise with feedback on mistakes, learning and failures’. A number of participants stated that they did not see it as a coach’s role to point out the mistakes or failures of their clients.

The discussion lingered with me and I was reminded of it when supporting my wife Jane who runs a local Kumon centre. Kumon is a maths and English study programme for children in which the students complete daily worksheets, have these marked and then correct their mistakes. I was marking the worksheet for a five year old child and I came across the sum 2+2. The student had entered the number 5 as the answer. I had the luxury of the answer book which clearly said that 2+2= 4 so I knew they had got this sum wrong! I returned the worksheet to the student and told them they had one mistake to correct.

Learning from our Mistakes

Like children learning maths we all make mistakes i.e. we do not always take the actions or make the decisions that lead to the goal we wish to achieve. We learn when we realise that what we have done is a mistake i.e. we get feedback from the world around us that demonstrates that the goal has not been achieved. Sometimes I make grammatical mistakes in these blogs and people highlight them to me. In this way, I learn gradually that there is no need to capitalise the word summer or to use inverted commas quite as often as I ‘seem to do’!

In an executive coaching context, I was recently working on the phone with a client. We had 45 minutes only and towards the end of the session my client suggested that he was going to communicate a sensitive decision at a senior level by an email to his boss copying in other Board members in the organisation. It was too late in the call for me to coach him through the process of assessing the impact of this email on all the participants involved yet I knew there was a significant risk that such an email would not achieve the outcome he was seeking. To me, it was a 2+2 = 5 moment so I said ‘I think if you do this it will be a mistake’. It was a relief that he did not take offence or get defensive or burst into tears. Instead, he got curious and asked me for ideas on an alternative course of action.

I came off the call confused. What had I just done? Was it coaching? Was it mentoring? Was it teaching? Then I remembered John Whitmore’s words that are featured in the foreword to our book – ‘Anything that helps someone get from A to B is coaching’. Coaching is far too complex a task to sustain many dos and don’ts. It is all very well being non-directive but 2+2 always equals 4 and allowing people to believe otherwise keeps them in a state of ignorance or denial that will ultimately not serve them or the organisations in which they work. If we are to learn from our mistakes then we need to work with coaches who have the courage to point them out to us as and when we make them.

Please let us know your own thoughts via the challenging coaching linkedin group.

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