How is life outside of work?

Leaders, Managers – give it a try.

“How is Life Outside of Work?” is one of my favorite coaching questions.

  1. It unlocks an iceberg of data that may be related to the presenting problem.
  2. It builds trust if asked with authenticity.

At the end of the day, you are managing people, not problems. You are managing people, not challenges. You are managing people, not projects, not headcount, not talent, not resources, not OKRs.

Early in my coaching practice, I had my first challenging client. He came to me seeking help on how to get promoted.  He had been passed over twice, and was very angry. He was projecting and transferring all kinds of energy, venting, ranting – and I froze. (I recognized later that this kind of negative, male energy was a trigger of mine. I grow too when I coach :)). Somehow from somewhere I spit out – “How is life outside of work?” He stopped in his tracks – something palpably shifted. He softened, took a breathe, showed vulnerability, and shared that he was single and would love to get married, start a family soon.  I don’t remember how it ended. All I know was I considered it an utter failure – a terrible coaching session in my mind. But weeks later, I saw him from afar and he was with a group of female friends. There was clear flirty energy and vibrancy in his movement. I am by no means a psychotherapist or counselor, but maybe the anger and grasping for the promotion was a proxy for something else. Maybe something did shift in him, an insight, a connection. Who knows? In my head, I like to think that maybe I did help him unlock some stuck energy.

Another client came to me in tears. She was one month into the company and held a pretty senior role, and was in a full blown crisis of confidence. She vented every reason why she couldn’t do the job, was a complete imposter, fearful of the repercussions, and quite frankly ready to quit.  Again, I asked about life outside of work.  And another flood of information was shared – she just moved into town, far from her family. Her husband was unemployed and having a hard time finding a job and she was now the sole breadwinner. And she just learned that her mother, who lived across the country, was diagnosed with cancer.  Wow.  Two things happened in quick succession. This woman immediately put the pieces together and realized that her stress had nothing to do with her capabilities (note: this was also a highly accomplished woman with lots of letters to her name) but with her worry for her mother and how could she care for her halfway across the country. And worry about her husband.  The presenting problem led to the underlying causes. Net net, this client walked away with an action plan to negotiate remote work as she cared for her mother.

Finally, my classic story about how a starting problem may not be at all related to the true underlying issue.  A client came looking for coaching to find a new job. Clean enough challenge right? I could have easily stopped here and spewed a list of networking techniques, job hunt strategies, resume tips blah blah. But this client also said, but I love my job. I love my job, but I need a new job. I love my job, but I need a new job. I love my job, but I need a new job. What gives? After asking about life outside of work, this client shared that he was the sole support for his parents who lived in poor conditions. And that his younger brother was unable to work so he cared for him too. And his reason for looking for another job was to make more money to support his family.

Had I stopped as a coach at the presenting problem, had I not used my instincts to ask the right question, had I not shown curiosity about the whole person in front of me, I would never had known about his crucial, contributing circumstances.

Leaders, Managers – give it a try.

Net net, this last client stayed at the job he loved and chose to put a personal budget together to manage finances, find a cheaper apartment to rent and investigate disaster insurance for his parents.