Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue — that’s what American (and maybe also English? — enlighten me, English people, please) brides are supposed to wear on their wedding day. And as I pride myself the queen of cheesy segues: Isn’t a wedding the start of new relationships, new interactions, new webs of meaning? Just like coaching! (ok, you can stop cringing now, it wasn’t that bad).

“What on earth is she going on about?”, you are probably asking yourself. I think I am going on about creativity and about how something new emerges in a coaching conversation. Have you ever asked yourself how it happens that “out of the blue” (forgive me) something emerges: an idea, an insight, a great “AHA-moment”?

I think that these moments don’t happen randomly and I also think that coaches can create environments in the conversations that make them more likely. In coaching conversations, we move from “what is known” to “what is possible to be known” but not yet known. The psychologist Lev Vygotsky called this the “zone of proximal development“. A coaching conversation is a dance in this zone and the coach can ask about both what the client already knows and what the client does not yet know but is possible to be known.

Descriptions of the client’s experience, for example, are usually in the zone of “what is known”. So asking the client about: “Was there a time when you were able to ….?” and “What happened there?” is a question that clients can usually answer. The answers are “known”. If the coach then ventures to ask: “What do you think this says about you?”, the answer is possible to be known but not yet known. The coach can invite the client to move between those zones and can try to make it as easy as possible for the client to build on what they already know. Michael White called this gentle way of asking questions that build on one another toward discoveries of what is not yet known “scaffolding questions”. We don’t ask the clients for a big creative leap, but for little doable steps.

So we have “something old”, “something new” — where does the “borrowed” come in? We can ask clients about their own experience, but also about experiences of people that they know. “Borrowed experiences” are also quite easy to describe. A coach might ask something like: “Who do you know that would not be surprised that you can…?” and then ask the client to describe: “When did they see you do … that told them that you can…” and then venture into the more unknown territory of: “What do they know about you?”.

Something blue? Come on, Kirsten, queen of cheesy segues — what are you going to do with this one? Actually, there is a connection (or I can find one). I was talking to my friend Alex Steel the other day (you will find a podcast with him on in March 2022). He is a Jazz musician and gives workshops on improvisation to leaders all over the globe. The blue(s) is built on improvisation: taking something old (for example a melody), borrowing other things and creating something new. In music, this is also not abrupt, there is a theme, or a sequence of cords and the music goes from the familiar to the less familiar.

Maybe this is what also happens in a conversation that creates a wonderful environment for new things to emerge: the conversation partners accept what is, move elegantly between what is known and what is possible to be known, integrate experiences, play with them and are aware that there are “no wrong notes”, that everything that happens in the conversation can inspire a new thought, a new feeling, a new plan, a new experiment.

Now, I am very curious about listening to one of my coaching conversations with the ear tuned to what environment I was creating, what zone I was inviting the client into — maybe you are, too?

If you’d like to improvise with me and the team, why not come to one of our free meetup and exchanges?