Setting your personal context


Today let me put it to you that, in many years and thousands upon thousands of hours as a coach, the single most powerful tool for coaching is Context.

Today I’ll talk specifically about the power for an individual of setting a personal context and three focal areas for action aligned to that context.

To get there, as the diagram indicates, one needs to ask oneself different questions to arrive at what both drives and supports you to move forward from the present.

Personal Context, for grounding in the present and to move forward

A few years ago I met an amazing young entrepreneur at an early stage on their journey. Recently we met up again in a different country, at a point where they were finishing one stage of life, study, business and about to move into another.

Our lunch conversation moved into a mentoring space as to what they are going to do next. As I listened deeply to them, I became aware of their presence, or indeed lack of focus and clarity as to what was next, so I offered to instead help by coaching them to find a personal context to ground them in the present and support them in moving forward.

I emphasise the tenses I used. Setting a context to “ground them in the present and support them moving forward.” Note carefully that this is not about the past. More later when I talk more about what context (as a tool) is and what it is not.

So, I then coached them around their awareness of where they are in the present, then asked them to talk about some areas where they will focus to move them forwards. From that relatively brief conversation, I asked them to sense if they had one word that would sit over all of those themes, hence their personal context.

They landed on a context of BECOMING, with their focal points of :

  • Foundation
  • Process
  • Transformation

At this point, they then jotted some notes in their journal to give themselves clarity around what they meant, at that moment, by each of the words.

This now forms their one page “Strategic plan” to move them forwards and to ground them in the present moment.

What it also brings is an embedded sense of where they are, their personal “why”, what drives them at this moment. Embedded, embodied, intuitive, felt. In other words, a level above the rational.

We parted after that lunch and they left with that context and three focal points to support them personally in the near term. As for me, at a high level of context, my “why”, my purpose, is about helping people see and realise their potential. I can tell you that, leaving that lunch, I felt pretty good, I felt “on purpose”.

What is Context as a tool?

Language and definitions are massively important, so first let’s look at that word Context.

Common definitions of it tend to refer to (and I’ll summarise) background and circumstances that give meaning to where we are today.

To me, this can give too much of a focus on the past, on analysis, judgement and other thought processes that can, in fact, hold us back.

To make a joke about it, whenever someone says to you “let me put this in context”, take a seat. They are about to give a bunch of background information, and often this may land to you as them defending or justifying a position or recommendation they’ve made.

So, using these sorts of definitions, context is past-oriented.

Now, my mentor and dear friend Suki Smith taught me: “awareness is the greatest agent for change”, and coaching is all about bringing awareness to where a client is now and then supporting them in taking that awareness to make choices to move forward.

To then consider that illustrative story above, when I coached the individual, from my standpoint wearing my coaching “hat” (and please note, coaching is permission-based, always ask before you coach!), I was deeply listening. I was focussed on my own awareness of where the client was at that moment.

By deep listening, I mean listening beyond their words, with a focus on body language, tone of voice and more. I also focus on their eyes (as Shakespeare said, “the eyes are the windows to the soul”), and even heart rate and breathing are all in my awareness of the where the client is in that moment.

From that deep awareness in support of that client, my intuition tells me what questions to ask. When I do ask them to bring forward words, themes, areas around their context, I’m also listening less for their rational explanations and much more for the energy behind the words.

All of this though, is about THEIR awareness, my own awareness of where they are is only valuable in allowing me to both create a space for them to be self-aware, and in asking the right questions for them to find their own answers. Coaching is not consulting. Consulting is telling, coaching is asking.

Once you are in that space as a coach with your client, sometimes they can “pop out” their context and focal points in minutes, with true clarity. This happened in the example I gave today.

So, if finding your own personal context is as powerful as I have said, how do you do this and can you do it yourself without someone in conversation with you? My answer is that yes, you can. However, it is so much easier and quicker to do when someone who is totally focussed on you can help you find it for yourself.

I do model the idea of having someone help you. I am always running a context and focal points for myself at any time, and I always ask someone to coach me to it. The good news is that if you work with someone who knows you well and is skilled in this, sometimes it is the work of moments.

Just a few days ago, I had lunch with a friend and past colleague in a coaching company. They sensed there was a particular area of life I wasn’t clear on and said so. I said that I’d like to get clarity on this with a context and focal points and they then helped me. In this case, it was a single focused area of my life and we landed on it within just a few minutes. I walked out of that lunch totally clear.

Context is a simple and oh so powerful tool!