I’ve done coaching with nonprofit leaders (and to a lesser extent, with entrepreneurs and artists) for about seven years now. I started my consulting practice seven years before that. Coaching changed my life as much as any other tool in my toolbox.
To this end, I am indebted to Raquel Gutierrez, a coach with deep social justice values and roots, who I met while consulting with a national Latino leadership organization. (Many groups I’ve worked with have been Latino. I often joke that my dad’s family should have had a bit more patience. Had they waited to disembark in Buenos Aires [the third and final stop in the Americas before returning to the free port of Danzig in present day Poland], my cultural affinity with Latinos would have been more easily explained. Plus, I wouldn’t have gotten into all those arguments in the 1990s with people who insisted on cloistering me in the “White” category. But then I wouldn’t have figured out that while everyone else is entitled to their opinion, nobody else gets to define you. A story for another time!)
Raquel and I hit it off immediately. For me, Raquel was a shining example of how to live one’s values at work, how those of us brought into organizations for whatever reason could and should influence how power was distributed within them, and within communities of organizations, and foundations and policymakers. She is fierce and loving, reminding me of the Talmudic story that every blade of grass has its own angel standing over it saying “grow, grow!”
She facilitated scholarships for three of us in the nonprofit world to study ontological coaching — which uses a dynamic and holistic observation of language, the emotions, and the body to facilitate learning and reflective action — from her coaching alma mater, a network started by a former lawyer in Salvador Allende’s government.
And while I never “graduated” (for financial reasons once the scholarship was done), Raquel immediately invited me to be her partner in a year-long coaching process at a youth organizing initiative. I have been very lucky to be able to learn from and with the best.
I’ve used what I’ve learned every day since then — with friends who want to talk through major decisions, with clients who want to run something quick by me, and even on the Reiki table.
I see coaching as a practice in mindfulness — my own and the person who I’m coaching. A definition shared this week at a training I attended on peer coaching facilitation was “a process of supporting individuals to make more conscious decisions.” Coaching is observing and interacting in a way that facilitates ah-hah moments.
Yesterday, a friend shared a confession around her writing: she thinks she might be a literary “head-hitter,” hammering her version of the story (and ideas and conclusions) into readers’ heads. Incidentally, I disagree with her assessment, but I know what she means: this is how we’re taught to be, isn’t it? Pound it in long enough and loud enough and maybe they’ll get it.
And yet, the incredible leaps and bounds of neuroscience teaches us that people who connect their own proverbial dots, and focus on strengths and solutions are far more likely to change the way they pay attention, speak and act. (Here‘s an interesting piece if you want to learn more.)
Plus, treating people as complex, unbroken human beings, with profound intelligence and capacity for learning and transformation feels a whole lot more just and progressive than the alternative.
While coaching is a rich complex path like any other, there are very simple ways you can start practicing. This week, try listening more deeply to the stories your friends and colleagues tell. Listen to their words, and also to the speed of their talk, to their gestures, and breath. Ask open-ended questions that encourage them to think about something in a new way.
I’m heading to Northern California for a wedding this week, and when I come back looking forward to a book launch for The Last of My Village on my actual birthday. It’ll be held at the home of two incredible poets and hosted by two others — a village I feel incredibly lucky to be a part of. The party will be on October 19th at 7:30 in Washington, DC. Please email me at Yael@YElements.com for the address if you think you can come.
Until then, Yael