A Key Strength and Skill for Any Coach

Recently, a mentee shared a poem that really resonated with me. It came from Chris Guillebeau’s blog which included the author’s thinking on the meaning of the poem.

The poem is from a 14th Century Sufi Poet called Hafiz and, as Chris states, it really illustrates the concept of empowerment.

The Small Man Builds Cages For Everyone

 The small man
Builds cages for everyone
While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
For the

In a past article, I have referred to the wise man or sage – Are you the wise man or are you sitting at the feet of the wise man when looking at assumptions as a coach? This question links to a couple of other pieces I have shared previously: Are you’re an Ass… or an Owl? and The Power and Importance of Choice which both link to the concept of empowerment.

When looking at the Art of Empowerment and how it links to this poem, I first sought the definition of empowerment and empowering.

  • Empowering – to give someone the authority or power to do something
  • Empowerment – the process of becoming stronger and more confident and to achieve autonomy and self-determination.

As coaches, our role is to enable and empower or clients to find the new learning they need and to utilise that new learning to move forward towards what they want to achieve—whether it’s work-related goals, personal objectives or dreams (an often-forgotten topic). In the poem, the poet refers to the Sage ‘dropping keys’ for the ‘Rowdy Prisoners’ with the intention of setting the prisoners free from their cages. Whereas the ‘small man’ builds cages for everyone.

As a coach, if we assume we know the answers and direct or lead the client to the answer, we could, in effect be building a cage for our client as they are not learning or developing their own ideas and often remain reliant on others and therefore not develop their own power. This can happen inadvertently when we coach people on a subject we may be an expert in and feel the need to pass on that expertise.

Whereas the dropped keys from the coach are the questions, comments, and sharing that evoke ‘new’ awareness (ICF Core Competency 7) and those questions that invite the client to uncover and articulate their own learning. In doing that, we are enabling the client to be empowered to formulate their own ideas, their own thoughts, and their own actions.

What may be some of the coach’s competencies that enable empowerment to happen? 

First, we hold the belief that people are already ‘Creative, Resourceful and Whole’. That they are the experts in themselves and simply need occasional keys to unlock their thinking from their cages.

Many of the coaching competencies speak to empowering our client:

  • CC4: Cultivates Trust and Safety – in particular the concept of acknowledging and respecting the clients’ unique talents, insights, and work in the coaching process.
  • CC5: Maintains Presence – especially ‘is comfortable in the space of not knowing’ – even when we think we do know! And when we demonstrate curiosity.
  • CC6: Listens Actively – in its definition to focus what is and is not being said and to support client self-expression. (Sitting at the feet of the wise man.)
  • CC7: Evokes Awareness – facilitating client insight and learning using tools such as powerful questioning, silence, metaphor, or analogy. This competency is possibly the one that can drop the most keys.
  • CC8: Facilitates Client Growth – partners with client to transform learning and insight into action and promote client autonomy in the coaching process.
  • CC3.7 – partners to define what the client believes they need to address or resolve to achieve what they want to accomplish. (Again, the dropped keys to unlock the ideas to move forward.)

In Chris’s blog post, he refers to key dropping as ‘making other people look good, building them up, expanding the pie’. That is our role as a coach, to empower our clients, to enable them to build themselves up and find their own answers and then celebrate their success with them. Our keys will be very useful to them, so drop many!

The Small Man Builds Cages For Everyone: https://chrisguillebeau.com/the-small-man-builds-cages-for-everyone

Hilary Oliver, MCC

Hilary Oliver is a Master Certified Coach (MCC) with the International Coaching Federation (ICF). She is also a trained Coaching Supervisor and Mentor Coach. Hilary trains coaches and works with managers and leaders to develop their coaching capability. She works as an International Corporate Executive and Board Level Coach, a leadership development designer and facilitator working with a wide range of organisations. Hilary also specialises in working with organisations to support them develop coaching culture. She has been the President of the UK ICF Chapter and is a Past Chair of the ICF Global Board.

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