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Home » Blog » Curiosity in a Coach’s Armoury

Dr. Patrick Williams was one of the founders of the International Coaching Federation (ICF) and within the coaching community, he is referred to as the ‘OG’ or Original Gangster of Coaching. He laughs it off and calls himself the Old Guy of coaching. We were lucky and honoured to have him on our podcast- the xMonks Drive, where his 35-plus years of experience showed itself and we made sure to learn from it. Pat says that even though the ICF does not include it as a core competency, he believes that compassionate curiosity is definitely one of the key elements of coaching. Why compassionate? Simply because curiosity might be construed as intrusive to a person’s mental space but compassionate curiosity, on the other hand, is where the coach does not get in the way of the client’s understanding. Pat says that while coaching, he does not see himself as some wisdom guru, doling out sermons. He is there to ask questions that neither of them knows the answer to. This is where compassionate curiosity helps him to be non-judgemental culturally, or even cross-culturally. Such a coach does not let pre-existing biases cloud his judgement. He is not going to get in the way of his clients’ accounts, step over them, and come up with some embarrassing folk-pop about his beliefs on them. Similarly, John Spence, another exceptional coach bats for curiosity as one of the necessary and key components for coaches. He says that when he is genuinely interested in the other person and then compassionately curious, something emerges ‘in the moment’.

What role does curiosity play in the coaching conversation?

Ines Paler in ‘Coach like a Child – The Power of Curiosity’ shares:

“For a coach, being curious enables us to let go of our beliefs. It allows us to leap beyond first impressions and connect with the client. It doesn’t matter if their story is like ours because it’s not the story that matters. It’s what the person is experiencing. And that is unique.”

Research has shown that curiosity is correlated with creativity and innovation, intelligence, tighter relational bonds, improved learning, and problem-solving. With all those benefits, it’s no wonder that creating a culture of curiosity is something every coach- aspiring or practicing, should strive for. Perhaps the most important role that curiosity plays is that it leads to the all-important step in the coaching conversation. Compassionate curiosity is the precursor to asking the right and powerful questions. According to the ICF, the real difference-maker is when coaches decide to ask questions coming from a place of genuine curiosity rather than from a place of information gathering. While the former leads to insights, learnings, and discoveries, the latter just leads to the coach assuming the role of a knower, an expert, or somebody who leads the conversation. That is never the desirable outcome.  The process of discovery is the power and beauty of coaching. While curiosity strengthens the coach-coachee bond, information-gathering on the other hand, builds walls that repel intimacy. Curiosity brings forth trust, a safe space, and eventually collaboration. Minus either of these attributes, coaching will definitely not work.

How to incorporate curiosity into the coaching conversation?

Sir John Whitmore was a 2nd baronet and a British race car driver, who then turned his sights to coaching. He was one of the pioneers of the executive coaching industry and was also an author. Almost a decade back when we asked him- “How to be a more effective or a better coach?”, he replied with his trademark laugh- “Learn to observe a small child and the curiosity with which he asks questions.”

The answer was actually very deep. Effectively what it meant was to retain innocence and to be comfortable with not knowing. As coaches, you must pay attention to being curious. Stop asking questions as a knower and simply ask questions out of curiosity. A healthy mindset of not being attached to a response can work wonders for maintaining a curious stance throughout the coaching journey.

Practise what you preach. As a coach, if you imbibe the culture of curiosity and acknowledge when you do not know something, it allows you to capture input from the client. If you show vulnerability first, trust is likely to form sooner and the client will reciprocate similarly.

Draw out curiosity from your client. Coaches can help draw out the innate curiosity of their clients. Asking ‘What if…?’ and ‘How might you…?’ questions will race their minds onto other possible scenarios. If you, as a coach, feel that there are multiple layers to explore beneath what your client said, you can always ask questions like ‘What do you make of this?’, ‘Do you think there is something else happening here?’, or ‘I am wondering how this could have turned out if….?’ These elicit deeper levels of exploration which lead to fresh insights and perspectives.

Be aware of your client. To ask the proper questions, you need to know the person sitting in front of you. Curiosity cannot flourish where there is a lack of awareness. Your curiosity will lead to the client being more curious about the new insights and discoveries that she has just seen.

A mistake to avoid

Dr. Pat Williams warns us of a simple, yet costly mistake that coaches may venture into. By using compassionate curiosity, transformation is to be brought about in the client, but without digging too deep into their past, or getting too personal. By the use of a beautiful metaphor, he likens the difference between coaching and psychology or therapy to the one between snorkelling and scuba diving. Coaches have to snorkel, where the client might be afraid at first to dip below the water (their memories or emotions). Once they see under the surface, the beauty reveals itself. This is vastly different from scuba diving where one must go many feet deep under the water. That, he reckons, is best left to the therapists. During coaching, going a little bit into the depths reveals that transformation is right there, if they put on their mask, change their perspective of viewing, and see it clearly. Thus, there is an element of balance to curiosity which will vary from client to client. Responsibility rests upon the coach to work with each and every one of them to find the best fit for every client.

In metaphor as in reality, the field of curiosity lies wide open for coaches to explore and use. Like most things, it is a talent that can be improved with practice. As a coach, being a disciple of compassionate curiosity will help you leverage its many benefits, none greater than a stronger relational connection with your client and uplifting the coaching conversation.