I’d like to share a story about a coaching conversation I had with a client a couple of months ago. This person had just joined a private company after working in the public sector for a number of years. During our coaching session, she revealed that her development goal was to be able to make a bigger impact. We started exploring the areas in which she would be more impactful. It emerged that during the executive meetings, where she was a member of the team with particular responsibility for corporate affairs, she felt awkward and ineffectual. She shared a story of once, during a team meeting some team members turned to her and teased her by asking whether she had fallen asleep. She was mortified because she realised that she hadn’t said a single word during the entire meeting!
I thought that this story was very significant – what was stopping her from speaking? I asked her what she felt like during the meetings. Her response was that she felt like she was still new in the company and hadn’t earned the right to speak. In answer to my question, she responded that she had been with the company for more than a year. Hardly a new employee anymore, I challenged her. She smiled in agreement, and said that she realised that she won’t be able to use that excuse for much longer.
We then explored what is holding her back from using her experience. She responded that although she had good experience in the public sector, she felt uncomfortable with her lack of experience in the private sector. We then set out to examine how relevant her experience in the public sector was to the private sector. Just doing that exercise, raised her awareness that not only is her experience valid and useful in the private sector, but that she is the only one on the executive team with this experience. Her insights are necessary and completely unique – no-one else in the team can play that role.
I asked her: “What is holding you back from speaking in the meeting?” She thought about it for a moment and said: “I don’t think that they want to hear what I have to say…” Bingo! I thought. This is the problem right there. Her underlying assumption is not that her experience is inadequate (that was merely an excuse) but that the team doesn’t value her input. I then used Nancy Kline’s incisive question, which goes “If you knew that the [positive opposite] was true, how would that change your behaviour?” I asked her: “If you knew that they are interested in what you’re saying, what would you do in the meeting?”
Her eyes lit up! “Well, that will change everything!” she exclaimed! She went on to discuss animatedly how she would contribute to the meeting and share her input and experience. She planned how, at the next week’s meeting, she would contribute. When I followed up with her two weeks later, she laughed about how surprised and impressed the team was with her new attitude. She had learned a valuable lesson on identifying and questioning assumptions.