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What's Behind Door #3?

In order to properly train and prepare for my career as a coach, I was in higher education administration for a little over 20 years. My area was student affairs. An oversimplification of 'student affairs' is the stuff that's not classes. This isn't purely true, but a decent place to start.


Types of stuff in student affairs might include wellness centers, student unions, student government, identity programs, residence life, health services, campus activities, and financial aid, as examples. My last role in higher education was dean of students. Most people get to this type of position through campus activities (leadership programs, events, concerts, etc.) or residence life. My path was through residence life.


At the beginning of the journey as an undergraduate, I was hired as a resident assistant. There are some very colorful euphemisms for this role that people like to deploy, usually around rigid rule enforcement. This means that the group of trained undergraduates would do rounds (walk through all residential spaces) to observe issues and respond to issues as needed. Sometimes these issues were student behaviors. It usually follows this elementary formula:


Notice something that may be amiss, investigate further, document if and as needed.


Simple enough. If we're talking about an imbalanced washing machine. If we're talking about 20 people in a room that is so loud they can't hear someone knocking on the door, it changes things.


The staff may have access to master keys. They certainly have the ability to document or write-up a student. As a person in their late teens or early 20's, having this kind of power over the peer group can be daunting.


Because of the responsibility and unknown possibilities, training often incorporated a series of "Behind Closed Doors." This was training to notice, investigate, and document situations. The situations were meant to be examples of issues that might arise during a school year. There were times when the facilitators wanted to re-enact the most bat-stuff crazy thing they'd ever seen, heard of, or imagined. Sometimes they did. However, putting people in storage cabinets to hide, having 3 kegs, and what might be a grow operation in one student room is really just an exercise in calling the police. Not much training.


The beauty of the training was in the nuance. The seemingly calm person who was just listening to music too loudly. Upon investigation and asking caring questions, the trainee picks up (or should pick up) signs that the actor is suicidal. If the trainee focused only on the volume of the music, they would have missed a much larger issue.


Another situation might be the couple who is "tickle fighting" and just got carried away. Nothing to see here, we were just a little excited. But the actor not in the speaking role appears to be more nervous than jovial and has something under their eye. Maybe it was a an abuse situation rather than "tickle fighting."


Once on the job, most times people knock on doors, it's noise, a quick chat, and that's all. Sometimes, there's a foot (presumably not disembodied) sticking out from behind the door, a partially full bottle of whiskey on the floor (that would be a capless bottle with a label of "Jack Daniels" sitting on the floor of the room nearest the north west corner of the bed along the south wall approximately 1/2 to 3/4 full of what appears to be liquid - for those of you keeping track at home), or just a befuddling mess of trash, clothes, books, and maybe that's a ski boot, all over the place.


The point is, as undergraduates and not omniscient beings, we never really knew what to expect behind the door. We could get ideas. To knock on a closed door, there had to be a reason. The reason was almost always sound or smell. Walk to the door, try to assess, 2 people? 10 people? Cans opening? Bottles clanking? What's that smell; incense, manure, is it just me? After the knock and when the door opens, there's at least a little mental prep work that can give context to what the undergrad is about to encounter.


How is this training for coaching?


Every client is like that door. As a coach, I'm there for a reason. The alert may have been noise, but there's always more going on once the door is opened. Clients may say they just need help communicating clearly, but once the door is opened, they share concerns about communication, leading their team, supporting their boss, living out the mission, and feeling like they lucked into a position they have no position holding.


Continuing the metaphor, we knock and ask permission, we don't key in. I ask the client questions rather than starting with "tell me what's really going on." Once the first door is opened, we might see the small room with things strewn about and, as a coach, start sorting that out. Or, it might open to a very modestly appointed room that has 8 more doors. So, it's time to ask permission to explore.


At no time during the coaching call is it obvious or clear how the client will respond to a question. This is by design. At no point should I assume to know what I'm getting into. Once I do that, I am setting myself up for confirmation bias or not being prepared to be fully present for what the client shares.


In the actual room setting, if the stuff is a biohazard, we call for help. If the stuff is an insect infestation, we call for help. If the stuff is very likely a felony, we call for help.


Metaphorically during coaching, if the stuff is a biohazard, infestation, or felony, we also call for help. Coaches are coaches, not first responders, exterminators, or lawyers. Coaches should never be confused to be anything else.


What's behind door #3? I have no earthly idea. Neither do you. The only one who does, is the person who owns the door. And, to be completely forthright, they may not fully know either. It is through a competent coaching conversation that they can begin to appreciate all of the stuff in the room.

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