Adapted from the original article of the author published in the IAC Voice, Volume 4, Issue 109, August 2015
The other day I was watching a friend’s grandchild laboriously pile square blocks on top of another and another. She gleefully stood up as the edifice she was building became taller than her. Proudly the toddler made sure we saw and praised her masterpiece. In one fell swoop she knocked over the blocks – giggling and clapping her hands. It was adorable. This charming scenario has become somewhat of an analogy, in my mind, about blocks that clients build and break down during coaching.
As conflict management coaches it is common that we witness our clients encounter blocks during the course of our engagement. Like the child in the above scenario they build blocks though not intentionally – at least at such a conscious level. That is, though people in conflict do not appear to build blocks with the same sort of pride and glee, there is usually some purpose for doing so. For instance, the tendency to build blocks likely reflects well-honed and predictable patterns of acting and interacting to stay within a comfort zone. Fears of all sorts, unmet needs, lack of confidence, unresolved matters, vulnerability and insecurity, pessimism, despair and various other emotions all contribute and pile on top of one another until the tower of blocks feels daunting and impenetrable. It is with this mindset coaching clients come to us.
One of the things about blocks is that, generally, most of us do not recognize how and when and why we build them. Also, we may not be able to process that our blocks actually protect us from things that need our attention before we feel safe to move on. Or, we may not realize they serve as justification or defensive symbols that purposely keep us from resolving matters.
Using Questions to Break Down Blocks
Identifying blocks is, of course, not as easy as with the toddler’s game. However, as coaches we use a range of techniques to help clients gain clarity on what drives and constitutes their impasses – to be able to ultimately break down these challenges and move on. We may, for instance, use questioning skills and metaphors. Examples include : How do you describe the blocks? On what foundation do they stand? What is the mortar binding the blocks? How are the blocks helping you? What don’t you know about them?
Where the analogy with the child’s building blocks and clients’ impasses gains more strength is when the blocks are knocked down and there comes the empowering acknowledgement – “I can do this!” To facilitate this evolution, conflict management coaching coaches regularly use visualization and forward-thinking questions. For example: What do you expect to feel like when you knock over the blocks? How might the blocks be helping you? What power and other strengths do you have to break down the blocks that you aren’t using yet? Who will you be that you are not right now when you overcome the blocks? What else will be different for you?
Other Coaching Techniques
There are other techniques that tune into how our clients process their worlds. For example, with clients who tend to be visual, asking them to draw what the blocks look like or what they will look like when they overcome them works well. Or, some may find it helpful to compare an impasse to one they observed or read about in a movie, television show, book, etc. in which a character encountered a dilemma. Asking the client to describe what it was like for that character and what was done to overcome his or her blocks often provides ways to identify possible action steps. Asking how the impasse tastes, feels, sounds, etc. can also be powerful for some people.
We are aware, as conflict management coaches, that blocks are common with our clients wanting to find their way through conflict. To help them overcome these impasses it often helps to use creative methods that engender increased energy and open up different ways of exploring what is precluding the way forward. By inviting our clients to tap into their strengths and inner resources to break down their blocks also results in the huge release that comes with relying on themselves to overcome them. And that is as much fun for them to experience as it is for the child knocking over blocks.
Cinnie Noble is a certified coach (PCC) and mediator and a former lawyer specializing in conflict management coaching. She is the author of two coaching books: Conflict Management Coaching: The CINERGY™ Model and Conflict Mastery: Questions to Guide You.