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Three lessons from peer coaching

For a little more than a year, my colleagues and me have been organizing peer coaching sessions for junior group leaders. A typical session consists of four to six of us, and we meet for one morning to discuss the most pressing issues. After a start-up training and some trial and error, we settled for a group coaching method that gave the best result. To give an idea, the “coachee” tells the chairman what he/she wants to solve, then follows a discussion where he/she explains the facts to the coaches who ask as many question as possible. Then the coaches analyze the situation, suggest solutions and make comments meanwhile the coachee has to remain silent and listen. Finally, the coachee summarizes what he/she heard and what steps he/she will take.

With this exercise, we learned a great deal about how to organize such peer coaching sessions in the academia and how to make the best of them, but this is not what this post is about. Instead, I would like to share more important lessons I have learned about working together and using the group as support and source of motivation.

If you have some firsthand experience of peer coaching or peer mentoring groups in the academia, or if you disagree with what follow don’t be shy and use the comments to share your opinion.

1. It is useful

Reassuring for a three-hour meeting, but what is it useful for? For the coachee, the group is very useful to commit to solving the problem. If you raise an issue to the group, it has to be worth it and you have to take a proactive attitude. This alone is worth the exercise: you get used to dealing with your issues instead of pondering on them. The other obvious benefits are that you understand your problems better by explaining them to other people, and you sometimes get useful suggestions from the coaches. Finally, while you sit and listen during the third phase, it is great to see how your peers care about your problems.

For the coaches, it is useful to hear about problems that you may have. You always project onto the situation and ask yourself “What would I do at his/her place?” You do not always come up with an answer, but at least you become aware that the issue exists and you are more likely to avoid it in the future. Also, it is useful to feel useful. The academic world is very competitive and peer pressure can make relationships between colleagues a little tense. Helping for the pleasure of helping gives you a stronger sense of community and makes you want to work with these people.

Finally, it is also useful for the chairman. It makes you realize that listening is much harder than talking.

2. People are surprising

Gossips creep up in every work environment and particularly in the academia. We rapidly make an opinion about our colleagues based on what everybody knows. “He fired his technician without reason, what a jerk!” Or “She is pregnant for the second time, what is she thinking?”. But every coin has two sides and when you listen to the other version of the story, you realize that situations are always more complicated than what you imagined.

Daniel Kahneman has a word for it: WYSIATI. “What You See Is All There Is”. Facing a new information, our mind is hopelessly uninterested in learning more. We take it and make a judgement. That’s all there is.

Your colleagues may surprise you about the problems that are on their mind, about the way they see a situation, or about the way they see you. But you will find these gems only if you look for them.

3. Peer-coaching is hard

The way I see it, peer coaching is about giving space for the coachees to grapple with their issues at an emotional rather than intellectual level. When someone brings up an issue, it is not because he/she did not find a solution. It is because he/she likes neither the situation nor the potential solutions. Rather than finding a quick fix, the purpose of these sessions is to understand why the coachee feels bad. What is the problem, or more accurately “where” is the problem is the real focus of the discussion.

It is much more important for the coachee to understand why he/she has trouble with this PhD student than to just “fix the relationship”. It is much more important for the coachee to understand why he/she is unhappy about the performance of his/her group than to just “boost the productivity”. But unfortunately, we are problem solvers and very often we are trying to do just that. Instead of listening to the coachee, we play a matching game that sounds something like “This is the typical first year PhD student problem; it will pass” or “This is a clear case of bad hire; you cannot keep these people”.

We recognize the problems we ourselves had and either tell what we did (if we are happy with the outcome) or the opposite of what we did (if we are not). And while doing this, we talk about ourselves, our expectations and our standards of satisfaction, but we are not listening to the coachee. I find that one of the hardest parts of peer-coaching is to turn off the automatic problem solver and keep a disciplined silence.


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