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CoachRetreats: A Way to Practice Coaching Skills

A coachRetreat is a "safe to fail" learning platform where participants can try different approaches to coaching. They are not a replacement for training about how to use coaching techniques, nor about solving a specific problem. In a coachRetreat participants explore the way that people interact in a given situation and can learn to view a situation from different perspectives to improve their coaching skills.

InfoQ interviewed Oana Juncu, Elad Sofer and Yves Hanoulle about what a coachRetreat is and what you can get out of attending one, the approach and techniques that are used in coachRetreats, for whom coachRetreats are intended, and examples of the things that people learn at coachRetreats.

InfoQ: Can you explain what a coachRetreat is, and what you can get out of attending one?

Juncu: The coachRetreat we are talking about here is inspired by the coderetreat format . When I attended my first coderetreat, I realized that the event is at least as much about perspective and mental models as it is about coding. At that time I had also experienced the "coaching DoJo" format defined by Rachel Davies. So I had a simple idea: what about repeating fixed duration coaching Dojos to explore the same situation over the course of a day from different perspectives, using different coaching techniques.

Now that many sessions have been held since 2012 - the 24th will be held in Tel-Aviv on January 28, 2016 -, I’m pretty confident that a coachRetreat day can make the following promise to participants: find surprising things about yourself and about the impact of different approaches/attitudes to the same situation. Using a hands on experience, they can discover how much knowledge powerful questions can reveal and how difficult it is to ask powerful questions. How does this matter ? Some of the participants left their session in the evening telling me that they are not quite the same as in the morning. If acquiring some learning about oneself and about how to improve interactions with people makes any sense, then yes, coachRetreats are meaningful.

Sofer: A coachRetreat is a "safe to fail" learning platform that allows participants to experiment and try different approaches to coaching. Participants get an unique opportunity to join this uncommon environment which amplifies their ability to learn and by that they can improve their coaching skills.

The upcoming coachRetreat is part of the Agile Practitioners conference, which is a yearly event organized by the community and for the community, as such the organizing team tries to create as many learning opportunities as we can.

InfoQ: Can you elaborate about the approach that is used in coachRetreats?

Hanoulle: As we learned from coderetreat, we want to offer people a safe place to experiment, in our case experiment with coaching. We start a coachRetreat with a group check in. Asking participants to share how they feel when they arrive feels a little awkward to them at first, yet it sets the right atmosphere. After that we have multiple sessions, where a person coaches a coachee in a certain situation, using a specific coaching technique.

Juncu: In former coachRetreat sessions we had some developers that were anxious at the beginning of the day because they are not coaches and they might not "do a proper job".

So here is the principle no 1: there is no job. Just fun.

CoachRetreat is a series of session where different coaching techniques will be worked-out, in one single day, therefore the techniques used cannot be detailed. CoachRetreat is not a condensed training about how to use those techniques.

So here is the principle no 2: it is not about coaching techniques is about changing perspective.

It is very important to create a safe place for people to try new things they might not be familiar with. I believe that one of the aspects that keeps coachRetreats safe is that we exercise the coaching sessions on a given imagined (but close to reality of many people) situation. I had a large number of very interesting discussions about this choice. I personally believe that playing roles preserves each individual’s safe place. And at the end of the day we always play roles using our personality, our experience and projecting our own problems.

So here is the 3rd principle: it’s not about solving a specific situation, it’s about the way we interact to do so.

Coaching is about genuine dialogue. Respecting everyone space of cultural expression is crucial. Coaching and people conversations are cultural regardless of the topic they address. For this reason, every coachRetreat is held in the local language. On one hand, the facilitator can hold a space for things to happen, holding a space can be language agnostic, on the other hand, it is important to have a local (co)facilitator so that effective interaction can be assured and coachRetreat can be promoted further locally.

So here is the 4th principle: Keep it spoken in local language, spread the word!

InfoQ: Are there specific techniques that you want to recommend for coachRetreats?

Juncu: There is the list of coaching techniques we use currently, such as Solution Focused, Appreciative Inquiry, Crucial Conversations, Clean Language, …

Currently I recommend to start a first coachRetreat with the list of techniques we have built for the coachRetreats that is listed on the site:

Of course, a lot of other techniques can be tried out.

Hanoulle: As a co-inventor and guardian of coachRetreat my NR1 advice to new organizers is to go to a coachRetreat as a participant first. Oana and me, we offer to have a Skype call before your event to prepare yourself and help you. If possible we will bring a previous organizer to your location as a backup. This backup person will not lead nor take over. She will help and support. The next advice would be to not change all the techniques. We love to have new techniques added, yet we hope organizers stick to using most of what we have now and only replace one.

Sofer: For me that depends on the context, just like coderetreats - If this is your first coachRetreat then I would recommend that you use the ones Oana mentioned. Just like in coderetreats using the same techniques again and again with the same people may become less valuable, so if that is your case I suggest to try out new stuff.

Hanoulle: True we want to keep it interesting for regulars.

InfoQ: Are coachRetreats only intended for agile coaches?

Hanoulle: No, not at all. it’s coachRetreat and not agile coach retreat. Actually you don’t even have to be a coach to come to coachRetreat. The goal is for people to experiment with coaching techniques. When I’m interesting in learning something, I don’t look at what roles techniques or ideas are aimed at. For example: I learned some of these techniques in a training for therapists. I know that as a parent all techniques come in handy. And I’m sure that a skill like crucial conversations has already saved my marriage multiple times.

Juncu: CoachRetreats are intended for people that want to experience coaching: as a coachee, as a coach, as an observer (this is the most difficult role, believe me!). There are no titles or roles asked at the entrance. For some reason, all the coachRetreat sessions had at least one participant who was either a professional coach, a therapist or an expert in behavioral research … and knew nothing about agile or software. I think I was very lucky to have this experience. Due to the diversity touch these people add so much value to the sessions! So everyone is welcome!

Sofer: No. They are intended for anyone who reads the description and thinks: "Hey, think sounds like a cool learning opportunity".

InfoQ: Can you give some examples of the things that you have seen that people learned at a coachRetreat, things that took back home?

Juncu: I already mentioned the most impressive feedback I heard "I’m not the same as I was in the morning". Another insight was "I changed the opinion about myself …"

Usually people particularly appreciate one or two techniques among all presented, and they plan to use them with their teams and/or stakeholders. As people are different, everyone appreciate one technique more than another, this is why feedback at the end of the day is so valuable.

An UX expert who participated in one day of coachRetreat in 2015 said the coachRetreat helped her a lot to improve her UX insights.

At the end of the day, what I think anyone will take away is a freshly unveiled part of what is called "me" and "us".

Hanoulle: One of the things I have heard people say: I learned to trust my gut feeling. For example: someone once told me: I learned to dare stop a conversation and say, sorry this is going nowhere, let’s start over …

Sofer: I know of a person that decided to change her career path following a coachRetreat. She had a technical role and now she is a full-time agile coach. I know I learned several new coaching and facilitating techniques when I attended a coachRetreat as a participant.

InfoQ: Where can people find information about upcoming coachRetreats?

Hanoulle:The first place would be the wiki This contains all the info. Next place would be our low traffic mailing list. Where participants and organizers can ask their questions. And last, Oana, Elad and me can be reached on twitter.

Sofer: Having been a participant, an organizer and a facilitator, I can surely testify that being a part of a coachRetreat is a great learning experience, and I would like to invite the readers of this article to try and organize such an event in their own community, if you need help - I am sure that all of us will be willing to assist.

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