Put a Bench in Your Garden for Reflection: How Visual Tools & Metaphors can Boost Your Coaching Practice
Perhaps the greatest skill a coach can bring to their practice is listening. When you add drawing to your listening, you give your client a tangible tool which reflects your collective listening and sense-making
I have always had an appreciation and admiration of coaches. They remind me of a skillful gardener with a great bag of seeds for planting ideas, and a bountiful basket of rich fruits freshly harvested from their earnestly planted rows. In hand, a steady toolkit of great questions asked at just the right time, a crystal clear mirror to reflect your behavior or words, a pair of pruning shears to trim away the weeds and help you to see and tend to the growing seeds of potential and to the emerging possibilities.
Finding and working with metaphors was one of the tools we introduced to the 30+ members of the International Coaching Federation (ICF) during our session on “Visual Coaching”. We were invited to present this workshop as part of a full day symposium for International Coaching Week (ICW) 2018, a week-long celebration to educate the public on the value of coaching as well as to acknowledge the progress and results achieved through the professional coaching process.
Metaphors Create Shared Meaning
We used the garden metaphor as a tool for them to reflect on various aspects of their profession and open up a richer discussion. One of the coaches added a bench to the garden and said: “you need time to pause & reflect”. Another responded to a birdbath with an attendant bird as a reminder of “the power of community and sharing ideas”.
The gardener is just one of many metaphors you could use to describe a coach or the coaching process. You could also suggest the lighthouse; offering a beacon piercing through dark clouds to guide ships towards safe harbor, a compass; the tried and true instrument which always knows the direction of true north, or the caterpillar who, as part of her natural evolutionary process, takes a break to reflect, renew, and re-emerge as the captivating, mature and elegant butterfly.
Metaphors compliment the processes of asking questions, identifying patterns, and establishing a narrative
Metaphors compliment the processes of asking questions, identifying patterns, and establishing a narrative. They bring a richness of story, color, emotion, and inspire our imaginations to offer a clearer view of complex thinking. For the coaches, we asked them to consider the value of using a visual metaphor like this with a client. “it helps us to have a shared understanding”, “it can help them to find a way into a more complex conversation” were some of the responses.
Visual Templates Shape a Story
The garden metaphor used as a visual template for participants to reflect on their experience of coaching
Metaphors often go hand in hand with the second visual tool we introduced: templates. A template is a simple visual diagram or model, with visual elements, keywords, and lots of blank space. This blank space is a key factor in the engagement value of a visual template, as it invites the user to fill it in for themselves with words and simple pictures to create their own meaning. Working with templates can be a powerful tool in which to invite discussion or reflection for either a group or one on one conversation. In our workshop, the metaphor of the garden was presented on an A4 size card with color markers and the invitation to explore the meaning, by first writing, drawing and adding color, and then through discussion. Some of the templates we shared with the group contained imagery of the journey map- another metaphor, or the empathy map. We also suggested simple visual templates which you can make yourself, such as a timeline, on which to document a clients journey or story and key points of decision, challenges, actions. Templates serve as a great companion to the coaches conversation.
Draw Live to Reflect Your Listening
The most basic tool we shared was the skill of drawing live with your client. Simple, yes. Easy? well, ask the average adult about their comfort level of drawing, and you will invariably get 9 out of 10 who will say something like “I can’t draw to save my life”. The reasons for this could be the stuff of perhaps many a great coaching session, but I think you might be familiar with the story already; something along the lines of going to school, doing the right thing, dealing with growing social pressures and assumptions, the need for efficiency over creativity – all of these are contributing factors for the reason why “drawing is dead” for most adults. I reminded the group that once upon a time they were also a kid who loved to draw; a kid who saw drawing not as a “thing” but rather as an exploration, as a natural extension of his or her world.
Participants exploring shared understanding using visual images they created in response to coaching key words
So, we gave them a few simple activities in which to reframe their relationship to drawing and to recognize that, by using simple shapes, connectors, and elements, that they too can draw. And that by adding a few words and connecting elements to these drawings, you can begin to tell a story. The simple visual you draw is a valuable form of feedback to your client. The process requires a deeper level of listening which can also serve as a powerful form of validation.
“I told my partner so many things and I think I was getting confused myself. He made this simple drawing to reflect back what he heard from me and this helped me to understand what I was trying to say.” Participants feedback on the value of listening & drawing
Perhaps the greatest tool that a coach brings to their practice is listening. We introduced a framework for listening and drawing and an activity where they draw a simple model to represent what their partner is sharing. They then use this to reflect back to their partner what they heard. One participant shared: “I told my partner so many things and I think I was getting confused myself. He made this simple drawing to reflect back what he heard from me and this helped me to understand what I was trying to say.” Another participant shared: “Through this process, I learned something new about my partner that I have never known, and we’ve been married for over 20 years”. The group laughed and together we celebrated the power of visual tools to open doors for communicating and sharing.
If you would like to learn visual thinking skills to apply to your coaching or facilitation practise, join us in one of our upcoming Visual Facilitation Labs in Hong Kong May 3-4 or in Singapore June 13-14.