I am a bit of a logophile. I subscribe to dictionary.com’s Word of the Day because I really enjoy it when I can capture the essence of something with a single word.
That happened for me the other day when dictionary.com’s Word of the Day was velleity: a mere wish, unaccompanied by the effort to obtain it. This perfectly describes a younger version of me and a probably two decade fantasy of mine to be the bass player for the Allman Brothers, the house band that played in my head throughout college.
For ten of those years, I actually owned a bass but, believe it or not, had no idea how to play it. I was in college and then a doctoral program and it just was not a priority to learn. I kept dragging that bass and amp around with me everywhere I moved.
After graduate school, my peregrinations took me to Boston and I decided to sit down and have a little talk with that bass. The conversation was of course with myself…the bass, a mere prop…like Wilson the volleyball in the Tom Hanks movie Castaway.
The conversation went something like this: “I am going to take lessons and practice you every day for six months. After that, if I still can’t play you or don’t enjoy it, I’m selling ya.”
I took those lessons. I practiced. And lo and behold, I started to get some traction. Eventually, I even played in some Jazz and Motown bands. All the while, I continued to harbor the thought about being the Allman Brothers’ bass player.
But truth be told, I never practiced enough and was never that good. Playing bass for the Allman Brothers was a velleity…purely wishful thinking…with no commitment and no real effort behind the thought.
There is nothing wrong with a little woolgathering. Dreams and fantasies like that are enjoyable to try on…I guess you could call it old school Virtual Reality.
But if you are in the business of helping individuals and organizations change, you have to be on the lookout for it.
As a coach, I talk to prospective clients about things they want to change or achieve. The first screen for me is to see if even a velleity is present. I try to sniff out if there is any desire to change or if they are just contacting me because they think they should or because the organization is raising concerns. Believe it or not, sometimes velleity doesn’t even exist. In those situations, coaching would be a bunch of wasted words. (Allman Brothers fans will get that inside joke.)
If there does seem to be a desire to change and we both decide to work together, I then look to see if the follow through there on the tasks and exercises we talk about. Again, despite paying good money for the help, in many cases, there is not.
Asking clients about what is getting in the way often precipitates a hue and cry about how busy they are. But a quick review of their calendar finds all kinds of discretionary activities that could have been used for the objective they say they want to achieve.
The best coaching occurs in the context of a burning desire to fix or achieve something. Further, it does not go on forever. You get in together. You work towards the objective. And you get out.
Coaches are not personal trainers…they aren’t there to supply the motivation. Maybe in short bursts they can provide encouragement and some accountability, but that is not a recipe for successful long term change. When it feels like you’re dragging a piano uphill and are working harder than your client, you have to stand back and assess what is really happening.
But it is even better to try avoid that situation all together. I’ve learned to tell prospects who want to change some work related behaviors that if they want me to coach them, there is a prerequisite. I tell them they are going to have to do a 360 and present a thematic summary of their strengths and weaknesses along with their action plan to all the people who completed the 360 for them. In short, they’re going to have to go public.
When what I get back is silence or dissembling, I politely bow out and give them the names of other competent coaches.
But when they agree to it, and take that required step, the changes they seek are usually accomplished much more quickly and easily. There are probably many reasons why that is, but one of them is certainly because their volition has reached the level of being willing to make a public commitment about what they want to achieve. As anyone but an English teacher would say, that’s not nothin’.