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From Outside In Coaching to Inside Out Coaching

One highlight for me this holiday season has been taking my 4.5 year old daughter ice-skating. New to the sport, she absolutely loves the feeling of gliding around the rink in ice skates;  her innocent sense of wonder has refreshed my own appreciation and understanding of the sport.

As a coach and parent, it has also made reflective on the most effective ways to teach others a new skill.    While guiding Brooke on the ice, I have found myself vacillating between wanting to let her just enjoy and learn experientially, and then alternatively, wanting to tell her all about the required stance, weight, movements all at one time.   Soon, I realized, however, that neither my “experiential” or instructive approaches were working.   I could not explain ice skating in a way that she could both understand intellectually and also carry out on her own.

All this internal tension and dialogue got me thinking about tennis and performance coach, Alan Fine, and his findings on coaching for performance.   After years of teaching tennis to kids and adults, he realized that 90% of what he was doing was not making a difference in his students’ game and in some cases, was actually making them worse.  This caused a fundamental paradigm shift in how he approached coaching.   Below are just a few of his key tenets that inspired his Inside Out approach to coaching.

  • In most cases, it is not lack of knowledge that gets in the way of performance; it is our lack of ability to do what we know.
  • There is a significant gap between what we think we do and what we actually do.
  • By removing interference in our mental state, we can significantly increase our performance.  (Interference might stem from our beliefs, our level of motivation and energy, and/or finally, from what we pay attention to in a given situation)

This third point above is particularly poignant for me.   We often understand what we need to do intellectually, but it is our thoughts, beliefs, energy and/or attention, that get in the way.   Good coaching is frequently about helping an individual to shift thoughts or focus in a way that clears the path for performance.  For example, we might ask the struggling tennis player to just watch how the ball bounces as she looks to make contact.  Instead of focusing internally on her beliefs about herself as a tennis player or breaking her natural backhand swing, she is in the present moment focusing on the movement of the ball, thereby allowing her body to do the necessary actions, intuitively and effortlessly.  It is about peeling back the noise, to free up the individual to realize their true potential.

The formula for performance in Alan Fine’s approach goes like this:

Performance =  Capacity –  Interference

This is in contrast to traditional models for performance which go like this:

Performance = Capacity + Knowledge


So getting back to where I started, which is teaching Brooke to ice skate, I soon realized I was not the right person for the job.   Instead, I turned to an ice skating instructor, of course!   The first thing the instructor did, was to teach Brooke to fall safely.   Sometimes, especially for young children, knowledge really is the necessary ingredient for success!   And what skill could be more important in life than learning to fall and get back up again?

If you are interested to learn more on Alan’s inside out approach, check out his  book,  You Already Know How to Be Great or view this short video clip on the concepts discussed above.

Reflections on Listening and Getting Out of Our Own Way

Recently, I have been focusing on my listening skills.  Having attended a 5-day mediation training with the NY Peace Institute and as a result of participating in a Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) course, I have been reflecting on what it means to listen and respond compassionately in different contexts and to listen not just to one person at a time, but also to listen to two individuals and their dynamics between one another.

Not surprsingly, both of the curriculums include a lot of skill building in listening for the goals of building relationships and also enabling individuals (both kids and adults) to feel fully understood and appreciated.  Quite frankly, I thought I already knew a lot about listening based on my work as a coach; it is a skill I genuinely enjoy putting to work and practicing with my clients, friends and family on a regular basis.  I naively thought that integrating the skills of mediation and facilitated problem solving as a parent would be a natural extension of what I already do.  Boy, was I wrong!  What I realized is that it is always possible to listen and move a conversation with greater nuance and depth, and it is always possible get better at listening in a way that supports others to feel fully seen and heard. And finally, it’s always possible to do with greater consistency.

I feel like I could dedicate myself to writing a book on nuances of listening to connect with others, yet as a starting point, I want to focus on the different levels of listening we do, and invite you to reflect on the type of listening you are doing with colleagues at work, with  family members and friends, and with all those whom you come into contact with in your daily life.

Filtered Listening – When we engage in this type of listening, we are hearing another through the filter of our own experiences, knowledge and perspectives.  This type of listening is likely the kind  we all do and experience most frequently in our casual interactions. Filtered listening can be a valuable way to get to know another person and share experiences and perspectives with one another. In many cases, however, our own filters and stories can get in the way of us fully hearing another and can also lead the speaker to feel disappointed, judged and/or misunderstood.

Empathic Listening – This type of listening involves putting aside our personal opinions and judgments, in order to hear another person’s experience and perspective as fully as possible.  When we practice empathic listening, we are looking to hear another not just in the words, but also in their tone, body language, and their underlying emotions about what it is they are saying and experiencing.   This type of listening requires focused presence and attention, which is often a scarce resource today.

Listening empathically might involve an incorporation of any of the following skills:

Reflection – repeating back what you heard word for word

Summarizing – highlighting and repeating key elements of what you heard

Validating – naming the emotion that you sense the other is feeling 

Dynamic Listening – This form of listening can be practiced in a setting when there are at least two additional people present.  This type of listening involves not only hearing what each individual is communicating (or not communicating) in words and also through body language, but also listening to how what the individual is saying is impacting the other(s), and finding the key issues/topics of interest to hone in on for the benefit of their relationship.

How often do you find yourself practicing filtered listening vs empathic listening?  In what contexts or situations, might it be helpful to practice with different kids of listening?  What I find most interesting about listening is how regularly we need to be vigilant about refreshing and practicing our listening skills, despite understanding cognitively what we need to do.  Most simply, it’s about getting yourself out of way to focus on the other.