The Ubiquitous Pepper Mill: Using Ordinary Items for Extraordinary Coaching
Sitting in the quiet staff canteen, I wondered how to break the deadlock; my client was diving into detail, immersing themselves in the minutiae of work with habitual aplomb. We had been here before and if something didn’t change we would be again, same challenge, different plan. They paused and I seized the opportunity. “How is your cappuccino?” They looked surprised, I picked up the nearest object, a fancy pepper mill. “Beyond these steps, what magic ingredient could you sprinkle into your coffee to make all these plans successful?” I offered the mill across the table, and they slowly picked it up, scrutinizing, I hoped, both the object and their own thoughts.
I’ve found impromptu props to be incredibly useful when coaching, and I hope this post will encourage readers to look around and realize that the spaces in which we coach are brimming with potential tools to assist our clients’ thinking. Many of our clients will be familiar with coaching cards, dice and wheels of xyz. These are powerful tools, although I notice some clients don’t find them particularly engaging. It may be overexposure, or perhaps the polish and corporate branding bring fear of manipulation, inauthenticity or a sense of not being treated as a unique person. More practically, not all coaches carry a giant Mary Poppins style kit bag. For spontaneous conversations, the preferred tool for the moment may be out of reach.
There is something about introducing an unexpected object into play that encourages different thinking. It could be a kind of novelty effect where performance improves when we are introduced to something new, perhaps because it prompts our brains to disengage autopilot and really start working. The use of objects also sparks curiosity, another emotion which changes thinking. One research paper found curiosity puts the brain in learning mode, improving motivation and memory.
I also often observe a shift of attention. There is more eye contact with the new object than the coach, as if we have made ideas tangible and we can walk through the landscape of thoughts together. Now we can both look at the objects and scenery. We may ask questions of their position and explore scenarios through their movement. A simple object, like the ubiquitous pepper mill, may be incorporated in many ways:
A simple cue based on the classic “What would you need to be successful?” prompt. Asking the client to think of that elusive ingredient invites questions like “What?” “How much?” “Where do you find it?” “How do you blend that in?”
Using the mill as a microphone, imagining a heat of the moment post-sports game interview in both successful and unsuccessful scenarios. For example, “That was an amazing performance; how do you feel?” “What did you change to do so well?” We can use this frame to feel different outcomes, increasing motivation towards or away from them, and we may use it to discover preparatory activities or behaviors. In addition, the sports theme lends itself neatly to talking about energy levels and their management.
We may encourage the client to arrange objects to represent progress towards something or to explore the past. When lining up objects to represent steps or stages, order and proximity are highly flexible, even more so than when drawing. We can use the arrangement to explore order and dependency, what lies between steps and what is required to cross chasms. Using objects with a range of different sizes, types or colors, we may explore other dimensions such as perceived importance, safety, significance or difficulty.
We can construct representations of systems around people, things and organizations. Sometimes it is useful to recruit placemats, leaflets or even spaghetti to represent real or perceived boundaries and groupings. The visualization enables us to discover relationships, gaps, network effects and assess potential changes. Again, we see the ability to explore and create options through readily movable pieces.
There is, of course, some risk to grabbing items and bringing them into a conversation. It often surprises, and sometimes won’t go well, but isn’t that what being a coach is about? Improvising, taking risks and placing bets that could lead to insight and valuable outcomes for the client? If part of our role is to identify habitual thinking patterns, and offer alternatives, then shouldn’t we reflect that in ourselves, and embrace the learning that arises from it? We might also ask what we risk by playing safe and reaching for familiar purpose-built props. Do we miss realizing some of our own potential as well as the clients?
So, go ahead, if opportunity presents, embrace the moment and try it, surprise your client, surprise yourself, and do let me know how you get on!