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6 Tips to Be More Coachable

leadership personal development
Woman smiling and being coachable at work


By John Millen

Q: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Just one. But the light bulb has to want to change.

I’m not sure where I first heard this joke years ago, but I find myself telling it or thinking of it frequently.

I’m often asked by leader development teams to take on an executive coaching assignment with someone who doesn’t want to be coached.

I tell them this joke, and then I politely decline the assignment. Why? Because coaching is about guiding people through change and until someone recognizes the need for change, they are unlikely to be receptive. “I’m fine, thanks,” they are saying or thinking.

We all know this happens frequently in organizations and in life. I’m sure you can think of someone right now who needs change in his or her life, but won’t or can’t, acknowledge it and take action.

If you want to become coachable, or to become better at coaching, here are six practical tips to help you be more coachable:

1. Leave your comfort zone

To change, we need to leave our comfort zones. All of our personal growth happens outside of our comfort zones. If it were easy to change, we would all do it right away. We wouldn’t need coaching

To be more coachable, be willing to move beyond your set behavior patterns to find the future you.

2. Start with an open mind

Most of us believe we are open-minded and open to feedback and new perspectives. But the truth is that we are comfortable where we are and only looking for reinforcement of our current beliefs, as I wrote in How to Challenge Your Beliefs

The key is to adopt what Zen Buddhists call the “Beginner’s Mind,” a child-like perspective of openness to learning. A classic story is of the Japanese Zen master Nan-in who was visited by a university professor to understand Zen.

Nan-in served him tea. He filled his visitor’s cup and continued to pour as it over flowed. The professor watched the cup with alarm and finally said, “It is overfull. No more will go in!

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

3. Recognize your fear

Why are we resistant to coaching? Some believe they know it all; others lack awareness of their blind spots, but I find it more often motivated by fear.

In my experience, most of our resistance to change stems from fear. Fear of the unknown; fear of discomfort; fear of not being good enough; even fear of success. If you dig deep, you’ll find the fear that holds you back from making the changes you know are necessary.

A coach or mentor can help you to identify and overcome that resistance. After all, according to that coaching canard, “FEAR is false evidence appearing real.

4. Connect with your purpose

As I’ve written about before reconnecting someone with their purpose can be a powerful tool of engagement. Often a person that really needs to change has lost sight of their “why.”

> Why should I change my way of leading people? To get better results with less stress, or to advance your career. 

> Why should I lose weight? To be around to see your children or grandchildren grow up. 

> Why should I find work-life balance? To live a fuller, happier life.

It’s amazing to see the motivation and energy for behavioral change that can come from a person being reconnected to their purpose.

5. Tweak your habits

When we finally decide to make a change, it’s usually a grand, sweeping declaration, often on New Year’s Day, or a milestone birthday. “I’ll exercise every day for one hour before work!” How long does that last? It varies with people, but I can say that it’s much easier to get a parking space at the gym on the second week of January. ;-)

As I wrote about in Change Your Habit, Change Your Life, if you want real change, you should tweak your habits. Modifying a habit might seem too small, too easy. But science proves that the lasting changes in our lives come from making small changes that are easier to implement.

Consider this small, but powerful example: Replace a soft drink with water at just one meal --say, lunch. With this small change, you will drink approximately forty more gallons of water per year, while not drinking forty gallons of carbonated sugar. You also save up to fifty thousand calories and as much as five hundred dollars. (From Small Change, Little Things Make a Big Difference by Susan and Larry Terkel.)

6. Practice consistency

As you work to improve through coaching, practicing daily is most effective for behavior change.

As Daniel Coyle writes in The Little of Talent, 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills, With deep practice, small daily practice ‘snacks’ are more effective than once-a-week practice binges. The reason has to do with the way our brains grow -- incrementally, a little each day, even as we sleep.

Daily practice, even for five minutes, nourishes this process, while more occasional practice forces your brain to play catch-up. Or as the music-education pioneer Shinichi Suzuki puts it, "Practice on the days that you eat."

Well said.

To improve our lives and the lives of those around us, whether at work or at home, we should all be coaches, and be coachable. And that takes an open mind and continuous practice.

Okay, that’s it from Coach John. I’m blowing my whistle. Go get back in the game!

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John Millen

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