Homerton Changemakers Coaching Circles: An Uncommon, Unexpectedly Powerful Experience
Author: Evelyn Gilbert-Bair, PhD student in Education, US Universities Admissions Counsellor, and also a regular Changemaker student
My Baffling Introduction to the Coaching Circle
Joining a Homerton College Changemaker’s residential as a Masters’ student, I was excited to spy an invitation to join a coaching circle. I’d had friends rave about “transformative” experiences with executive coaches, so was curious about the coaching process. I also saw that the designated coaching circle method was a brainchild of MIT’s U-LAB, one of the world’s most creative, powerful, and evidence-based academic institutions. I thus imagined a powerful process that would be critical, hard-core, and almost clinical. Reading the instructions and watching the video, however, I quickly slid into confusion—the process seemed imprecise, intuitive, and abstract.
The proposition was to undertake a tightly structured hour-long session. Four to five strangers (the “coaches”), were to listen deeply to another stranger (the “case giver”) speak about a challenge for 15 minutes. Everyone then was to reflect in “stillness” for three minutes, after which coaches would collectively spend 10 minutes asking clarifying questions and reflecting back the metaphors, images and feelings they experienced.
This was to be followed by 20 minutes of “generative” dialogue, eight minutes of closing remarks and two minutes of individual journaling to capture thoughts and feelings. There was little training on how to coach or be coached beyond instructions on listening deeply and being kind. There was to be no assessment of the problem or audit of the case giver’s skills and resources; no criticality or pushing someone to face their deficiencies head on. I genuinely struggled to imagine how novice coaches would be able to help the case giver solve anything in this way, especially under such tight time limits.
The Unexpected and Revelatory Experience of the Coaching Circle
Going through my first coaching circle was revelatory. The structured time created a sense of rhythm, flow, and focus that created a meditative feel to the process. Time felt ample, rather than rushed. Moreover, the operating procedure of positive reflection using metaphors, images and feelings, created a sense that participants had entered a common, imaginative space that also was a haven—people felt safe to be vulnerable and open, and ready to see problems through each other’s perspectives. The process, as active as it was, also had a feeling of inevitable flow, like a ball of string unwinding itself as it rolls down a slope. Individual challenges felt natural and situated within common narrative threads of being human.
The coaching circles also turned out to be incredibly useful. Case givers expressed feelings of having reached a breakthrough—of a new sense of clarity about a challenge and empowering feelings of possibility about how to approach them. Coaches were often surprised that they had something useful to offer and felt a positive and unexpected sense of accomplishment that they had helped someone. Most surprisingly, in such a short space of time, randomly assigned groups of strangers developed strong empathy and connection with each other. Based upon these strong bonds, many Changemaker coaching circles continued beyond the initial sessions.
In my own case, my coaching circle helped me understand and gain peace with a career situation that had been generating feelings of confusion and anger. One short hour cleared space in my head and heart for me to see more clearly, which ultimately allowed me to stop looping and to take positive steps. Moreover, the impact of the circle has gone beyond my specific “case”—it changed the way I see challenges and interactions generally, in all dimensions of life. I feel grateful and privileged that my coaching circle continues today, years later.
I am fully convinced that coaching circles are a powerful tool to help individuals approach a challenge they want to solve. More significantly, I am moved by the fact that people have a capacity to help each other, without any familiarity or expertise, and prepared only with an openness to listen and share.
If you have an opportunity to join a coaching circle, I highly recommend that you take it. Even if you feel a bit shy, can’t immediately think of a challenge to approach, or can’t imagine how you’d be a helpful coach to another person, the process takes care of itself and draws out the relevant needs, strengths, and connections. And please do not overlook the intrinsic value of the experience itself. Whether or not you ultimately adopt the process into your life, it is fascinating and thought provoking to learn about this highly unique way to communicate, connect and problem solve.
Thank you to Homerton Changemakers for opening me up to such a powerful and insightful experience!