Liminal Space in Coaching

By Natalie Irons
Associate Director of Instructional Coaching, UCLA Center X

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

∼Viktor E. Frankl

“How do you actually begin a coaching conversation?” It’s a question that has been asked in coaching trainings and professional learning groups more recently, or maybe it’s one I have heard a bit differently today.

Sometimes we might be coaching in the moment with a ‘walk and talk’ down the hallway between classes, and sometimes coaching is scheduled time to set and accomplish goals. Whether it feels “on the fly” or purposefully driven, coaches can think about the ways time is spent before a coaching interaction. For example, in recent coaching conversations, I have been intentional to ask about a coachee’s openness to talk, their understanding about coaching, how it might be different from other ways of support, and the readiness to engage in a conversation. My question and prompts have varied from, “Thank you for taking time to talk. How would you like to be addressed as we begin working together?” or “Would you like to talk more about ‘that’?” or “I’m available today to explore that topic with you. What time might work for you?” I am realizing each of these prompts creates a space before the actual thinking and focused part of the conversation lives, what might be called a “prelude” to the conversation. It’s like an overture to a ballet or opera. You are setting the stage for the upcoming story. In coaching, I’m exploring the idea that there is a liminal space that holds a transition from “here” to “there” in which people choose, self-direct and take time to move purposefully into a next step.

Take the example of the question, “What might get in the way of focusing your thinking on this topic?” One coachee responded, “I guess I need to set aside some things that are happening outside of my schoolwork.” And another coachee said, “Nothing. I’m good to get started.” Each of these openings to a coaching conversation set a readiness to have focused time for coaching. And while these interactions were more formal in nature, an informal entry prompt might be something like, “We can walk and talk about that. You talk and I’ll listen. How does that sound?” Each of these varied openers indicates that I am being intentional about how “we” (myself as the coach along with the coachee) will engage in our work together; that is, my work is to provide space for reflection, thinking and feeling. And the coachee’s work is to take the space. At least that is my ruminating thought for today in this liminal space.

How do you begin a coaching conversation in your role? What might be in your “prelude”? What are the formal and informal opportunities for being a coach? How are you a coach when your role and title might reflect and assume something different?