Dancing through chaos and how to avoid the Coaching Death Spiral


First things first.  This entire post was inspired by an even better one by Stephanie Ockerman.  If you don’t already read her blog, you need to fix that right now.  She offers amazing insights and is an incredible voice for Scrum.

If you just left this page to go read everything in her blog, I don’t take offense.

She describes a pattern early in her post that really got me to thinking about my own coaching style and where things can go wrong.  I call this the Coaching Death Spiral, but feel free to come up with whatever better name suits your purpose.

In short, here’s the Death Spiral pattern:

  • We enter a coaching event with some degree of expectation and things don’t go quite as expected.
  • Because things are not what we thought, we doubt ourselves; not sure if we are asking the right questions and saying the right things.
  • Once that doubt sets in, we overthink everything.
  • We become so involved in our own heads, that we aren’t actively listening anymore.
  • We now start missing important cues in tone, body language, or even in the actual words someone is saying
  • Effective coaching has stopped; we’ve lost the person we are supposed to be coaching.

You can see how each step in the spiral feeds off the one before it, and that once you start down this path, it can become very difficult to escape.  I’ve done this, and I’m quite confident in saying that I will likely do it again, even knowing what’s happening.  We’re human, and these things happen.

What’s really important is to recognize what can happen, and think about how we avoid it in the first place.

It all starts with those first two lines.  If we go into any coaching event with some preconceived expectation of precisely how things will unfold, we set ourselves up for failure.  No matter how things go, the fact is that we won’t always ask the right questions, or have the just exactly perfect thing to say at any given moment.  Every single coaching conversation is different, even when you’re coaching the same person on something you’ve coached them on previously:

  • The context for that conversation has changed
  • It’s a different time of the day
  • One (or both) of you didn’t get a good night’s sleep, or hasn’t had enough coffee yet.
  • There’s a bad moon on the rise

Whatever the circumstances might be, there is always something different and unique about every single coaching event.  Going into coaching with any kind of fixed agenda simply isn’t going to work, because you don’t have all of the information you need until you’re well into the event.  It’s okay to have some thoughts in mind, but those might not actually be what the person you’re talking to needs in that moment, and sticking to your talking points could lose the person just as quickly as getting sucked into the Death Spiral.

It’s chaos, I know.

To quote directly from Stephanie’s amazing post: “We must be willing to dance in this moment.”

I LOVE this.  And Stephanie, if you’re reading this, thank you for that line because that’s the one that inspired me. 

You are going into a coaching event with someone — whether one on one, or in a group setting — and you don’t know what’s about to happen.  Putting time aside to work with someone is no different than putting your name on their dance card at this point.  You’ve got time on their schedule reserved, and the dance begins:

  • When the conversation starts, the musicians have begun to play..
  • Take your partner and start to dance.
    (Not literally. It might be weird. Unless you actually work in a dance studio.)
  • You don’t know what the band (or DJ) is going to play next, just as you don’t know where the conversation is going to go.
  • You know you want to keep dancing with this person, so you adjust.
  • During any given dance, you don’t know exactly what you’re going to do, you just know you’re going to move together and share that moment.
  • You will take cues from your dance partner.  Sometimes you will lead, sometimes they will lead, and it will all work out great.
  • Those cues might be verbal, they might be from making eye contact, they might be in how they are actually moving.  All of these things are important.
  • The dance can create an emotional connection.  Don’t shy away from this!
  • You may be tired when you finally stop, but it was worth every minute.

Be in the moment.  Enjoy the dance, and pay attention to what your dance partner is doing.  Listen to everything they say, and more to the things they don’t.  All of these things will give you important clues on what that person wants or needs from this time.

Be there with them.  Take your cues from everything the person you are coaching is telling you.  You don’t have to get it perfect every single time, but you do need to be in the moment with them, and willing to take them out onto the dance floor and spin around a few times.


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About Heath

Scrum Master. Software Engineer. Writer. Musician. Craft Beer Aficionado. Jeopardy! contestant. Not necessarily in that order.