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Expert v. Coach: The important difference and necessity of each


Experts provide advice and solutions to your problems


Coaches support you to co-create solutions through dialogue and conversations

I remember when I was first starting my career in behavioural change; I would devour books, blog posts and seek out people (often stalking them) and ask to be mentored; I would go to extraordinary lengths to find new information to add into my “filing cabinet” repository of knowledge. That was 20 years ago.

During these years of knowledge acquisition I noticed a disturbing trend emerging in my personal behaviour when I interacted with certain people during programs of change. It seemed that no matter what workplace I was in, I’d always run into a certain type of individual that saw the world very differently to myself. We would clash, I would have more knowledge but they had more power and often I would be the one leaving the organisation. As I became more expert in my field of work I started to investigate and run experiments to find the root cause of this phenomenon. I started to analyse my interactions with these types of people; I would introspect and debrief looking for the triggers that were causing my reactive behaviour. I knew that to progress in my career I needed an approach where I was able to utilise my knowledge on helping people change whilst avoiding these interpersonal clashes that risked derailing my career efforts.

There will always be people who see the world VERY differently to you

After a few years of testing and learning I kept coming back to the concept of responsiveness. I learned that I must stop reacting and being triggered by these types of people when working with them through change; I needed to learn to respond. This epiphany came to me after yet another career setback that resulted in me losing a contract. I then undertook professional coach training; spending hundreds of hours practicing how to hold back my reactions and instead calmly respond as I conversed with others. But my real breakthrough came at a neuroscience 2-day leadership course. The facilitator put up some archetypes of people using their propriety neuro-profile model. We broke into groups based on these profiles and I got to meet face-to-face with a group of people who were the ‘type’ I’d been clashing with all these years. 

After that course I realized that these people were not being horrible to me on purpose; all they were doing was being themselves and making sense of the world as they saw it. After this breakthrough moment I started to form some ideas on how I could instruct people in how to change (be direct) but also build my ability to respond as a coach when challenged. How could I be an expert who gives advice but when required respond as a coach? What a conundrum!

The answer came from my work in implementing agile as a way to work. I was being employed as an agile coach. I saw that being an agile expert hads the same challenges I’d faced in the past; specifically how do I give (agile) advice whilst retaining my ability to change style and coach as required.

To solve this challenge I designed the Responsive Agile Coaching model; which can also be applied to non-agile conversations too; regardless of what you are an expert in. If you can responsively conduct coaching conversations then your advice has a much better chance of being heard and acted upon; especially if you are met with resistance (the person listening does not agree or rejects your advice). For me this model allowed me to take back control of my reactions when I met one of my “problem” type of personalities.

What is responsive agile coaching?

You can learn more about this model on this page but here is a short synopsis. There will be times when clients need you to be the (agile) expert; this applies when you’re faced with “just tell or show me what to do.” There will also be times when the person you’re talking to needs you to be more like an open, curious beginner. This non-expert type of agile coaching is required when you are faced with “I’m not sure I need to be told what to do” or when you don’t have all the answers. In this second example, agile coaching is about helping co-create the new way of working with the client as opposed to telling or showing them the what or how of agile.

The truly masterful agile coaches can “dance in the moment” between these two extremes—at times, they give expert advice; then, the next moment, they deeply listen with non-judgmental awareness before asking an open question to help provoke thinking and introspection in the client.

I’ve witnessed these masterful coaches work, and when I first saw them in action, I thought it was magic; so incredible to watch. I could not fathom the skills required to, in one sentence, discuss a highly complex process used to manage a portfolio of work and then, in the very next moment, help a leader deeply consider their impact on workplace culture. This is what responsive agile coaching looks like; and is a capability any expert in their field can develop. As an expert who is responsive you’ll improve your outcomes because you will have developed your ability to respond—not react—when called upon to help your clients . By being able to respond as you deliver your expertise, you are more likely to take the right approach (give expert advice or listen and ask questions) and get to the outcome faster. 

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If you’d like to join the responsive agile coaching community go here, its free and a great way to learn more about this topic with others.

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© 2020 by NIALL MCSHANE.