The Inner Game of … Connect 4

Every day events can provide interesting learning opportunities, relevant to coaching and personal development. One example is from Monday, when playing Connect 4 with my family. But what is the connection to coaching?

Bank holiday Monday was a day of fun with the family visiting, roast lunch and board games in the afternoon. Cluedo was followed by Connect 4, played with my wife. Connect 4 is the highly ‘intellectual’ family game in which two players win by making a line of 4 disks; connect 4 disks in a row and you win! After several moves and a perfect strategy played out, I was about to take my final move and make ‘four in a row’ and win the game, but then my wife dropped her yellow disk into the frame and said, “connect four”. She had won.

The Inner Game of ... Connect 4

How did this happen? I did not see this coming and I was taken completely by surprise. After my competitive nature allowed me to calm down, I reflected on what happened. I realised that I was so focused on what I was doing that I did not see what was happening around me. I had played a good move, and was in position to play one more red disk to win. However, I was so concerned about my next move that I did not see the obvious. In fact, I was one move away from loosing, rather than one move away from winning. I noticed that my eyes looked solely at the gap in-between my three red disks, the gap that I would fill in my next move and win the game. I looked intently at this area of the Connect 4 grid, and neglected to move my gaze to the left by two columns to see the three yellow disks and a space wide open, ready for my wife to go before me.

So what has this to do with coaching? There are 4 points that come to mind:

  1. Like coaching, Connect 4 is a focused interaction between two people. The yin and yang of disks placed into the Connect 4 grid, are like the spoken word and the silence of listening when coaching.
  2. Focusing on my needs and thoughts as a coach, rather than those of the coachee. I can remember coaching conversations when I was a novice coach and learning the basic skills, I would think about what I was going to say or ask next. When this happened, I would stop listening to the coachee momentarily and only hear my own thoughts and insecurities.
  3. I lost the game of connect 4 because of my narrow perception. Coaching is not about winning or losing, but the coach needs to have awareness of what is happening in the coaching room, with them and their coachee. It is as if the coach has very sensitive antenna able to ‘listen’ to all that is said, with tone of voice, body language, and what is not said. Laura Whitworth in Co-Active Coaching would describe this as level 3 listening. This heightened perception and increased level of awareness, produces deep understanding.
  4. Considering the bigger picture. Within Connect 4 there are red and yellow disks within a grid. This is the Connect 4 ‘system’. Within coaching there is a system of infinite complexity, of the coach and coachee, but also multiple ‘players’ in the form of different stakeholders and agendas. There are varying timeframes to consider as the outcome of actions take time to become evident. Like Connect 4, if a coach does not consider the big picture system, then coaching may have a limited impact, or could even be counterproductive.

Connect 4 aside, I really dislike playing Monopoly, I wonder what that says about me!

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