Community, Power and Old Stories; How Coaching Supported my Transformation

People ask me all the time; What makes Coaching for Transformation different from other coaching schools? There are some obvious answers such as; we focus on the role institutional oppression plays in personal transformation, we have a diverse and seasoned faculty in both Coaching Competencies and Social Change work, and we offer coaching programs around the globe from New York to the Bay; from India to LA and in community organizations, corporations, and even prisons. But you probably already know all that. I’d like to share some of what personally moved me about my experience as an emerging coach in training in 2011, prior to becoming faculty.

One of the first areas of inquiry I embarked on as a student of coaching, was needs and values. (All the “skills” of coaching are taught through immediate application to one’s own life). While reflecting on my needs and values, I realized how much I missed my kids during my long hours working and commuting. Even the notion that I had “needs” at the time felt revolutionary. But I did have unmet needs. My kids were young, my marriage strained, and my income limited. I had unmet needs for stability, rest, and presence. I learned that it was OK not to know how to meet these needs, but that I could recognize my needs and honor them, even if they were not fully met. This patient approach was essential to eventually accessing the strength and creativity to (eventually) get more of my needs met.

By participating in a supportive community of other change agents, I also was able to take a courageous look at my relationship to my activism. I realized my social change work had stymied. While I was consulting non-profits and training in multi-culturalism and diversity, I was disconnected. I had become so focused on “getting it right” that I had lost track of the love and the joy of doing the work. There wasn’t a place in my mental model of a strong white ally for vulnerability. I learned that my feelings are the path to my authentic voice. While analysis and courage are important in social justice work, I learned that by being vulnerable, I can access my heart. My heart; including all her questions, doubts, fears, and longings, allows me to connect with and build bridges across difference. As a faculty member at Leadership that Works, I have continued to uncover my unconscious bias – be in conversation with it – as well as use a coaching mindset to address the effects of systemic racism within myself, on organizations I am a part of, and that affect all the relationships that are important to me.

Another poignant memory for me is having a peer coach challenge me around a tough consulting negotiation I was going through. When she said to me; “what if you earned this client’s respect instead of getting her to like you?” something landed inside of me. Because I had also been practicing listening to my body in the program, I was able to track more readily my internal response. My body told me – YES, this is EXACTLY what you need to hear right now – welcome this challenge and do something about it. PLEASE. (And I did, and it felt GREAT!) In coaching, we call this; “Calling out the Power.” My peer coach was able to hold up a mirror and say; “hey, trust your intuition and your experience – you know what you need to make this project work – Ask for it!” That was a game changer for me.

Another game changer occurred during the individual mentoring. In CFT, each student is matched with an individual mentor coach who listens to a 30-minute recording of one of your coaching sessions and gives you feedback. I sent off a recording of a coaching session I was pretty proud of, and waited for “the good student” story of my childhood to play out. This “story” is the pattern of working hard and getting my teachers to like me and praise me in school. I got so good at it, I had come to expect it. And then my mentor didn’t give me praise! He didn’t criticize me, but he simply stated the facts of where I had exhibited coaching competencies and where I had not. He reflected back my strengths and pointed me towards where the coaching could have more of an impact on my client. It was SO WEIRD! And, it changed the way I think about feedback and learning forever. I no longer work for praise or depend on it to feel good about myself. I can step into things as a beginner (not a pretend beginner but an actual beginner) and have faith that I can practice and get better at something. While part of me always believed that with effort and hard work, one can improve, a less confident and more insecure part of me believed “you either have it, or you don’t.” I realized, again through coaching, that this belief is false and not serving me. We all have “it” within us to support our own and others’ transformation. Coaching is a practice, an orientation, a self-discipline, and a set of skills, that with support – anyone can master.

If you are longing for a change in the pace of your life, seeking community to explore your unique contribution to positive social change, wanting to stop giving away your power, and willing to let go of whatever old stories are holding you back; then join us in June for Coaching for Transformation in Oakland, CA; there is a place for you.

The Pitfalls of Praise; Originally Published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review

The original publication can be accessed here.

Most nonprofit and social impact leaders share a belief in the positive potential of human beings. We seek to alleviate suffering and lift up the good in people. We advocate, champion, and care for the needs of others. So why don’t more of our workplaces reflect these core values and beliefs?

While our purpose in the sector is to empower others, we aren’t immune to limiting beliefs that permeate our educational and economic systems, namely “there isn’t room at the top for all of us.” This is an example of “scarcity thinking,” and without even realizing it, many managers in the social impact sector are steeped in it.

Scarcity thinking is an attitude based on a false assumption of limited and finite resources. Lynne Twist elaborates in her book, The Soul of Money: “When we believe there is not enough, that resources are scarce, then we accept that some will have what they need and some will not. We rationalize that someone is destined to end up with the short end of the stick.” Managers often assume praise will support a positive working environment and help their employees feel good about themselves, or at the very least, open up to criticism. But in fact, praise can perpetuate scarcity thinking. This is because praise, in its essence, is a comparison. “You’re amazing!” (Someone else is not.) “You are outstanding!” (Better than someone else.) Praise indicates you are rising and, thankfully, not being left with the short end of the stick. (But someone else will.)

We all need positive feedback, but not all positive feedback works equally well. One of my clients came to me for coaching, because his supervisor told him he needed to get better at offering praise. He admitted, “I hate feeling the pressure to positively reinforce my staff all the time. I feel like a phony. I am just not that good at praise.”

I suggested that perhaps praise wasn’t the solution after all. In The Art of Possibility, Benjamin Zander and Rosamund Stone Zander share an alternative to scarcity thinking: “What if you participate joyfully with projects and goals, not because your life depends on meeting the mark, but because you will be better able to connect with people all around you?” They call this “a generative world.” Twist calls it “a world of abundance.” And in this generative, abundant reality—where true connection and contribution, rather than achievement and rewards, drives us—acknowledgement, as opposed to praise, is a fundamental management tool.

An alternative to praise: acknowledgement

Acknowledgement is a way of communicating that we “see” someone—without comparing, evaluating, or judging. We share out loud that we saw someone set a goal and meet it, or that we noticed someone exhibit courage or take a risk. It is simply saying, “I see you.” Being seen is a basic human need. In the best-selling The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey explains, “Next to physical survival, the greatest need of a human being is psychological survival, to be understood, to be affirmed, to be validated, to be appreciated.” When people feel “seen” in the workplace, performance improves. Research conducted by psychologist Dan Ariely and his colleagues Emir Kamenica and Drazen Prelec found that simply recognizing someone’s work resulted in significantly more perseverance.

I was first introduced to the skill of acknowledgement as a leadership coach in training. I watched my clients’ motivation improve when I acknowledged (rather than assessed) their character and their commitment. Now I recommend that managers use acknowledgement as well.

To better understand the difference between praise and acknowledgment, it’s useful to examine three big pitfalls of praise:

1. Praise fosters dependency.

A lot of the research on the problems with praise comes from the field of parenting and early childhood education. Based on observations in my coaching practice, I believe our early experiences as children affect how we express ourselves at work. I have observed that managers’ approaches often reflect what they learned in childhood from observing parents and teachers. Likewise, high performers at work are often working to get rewards that they were trained to seek as children. The problem is that to break through entrenched social and economic problems, we need to transcend the drive for rewards, and start thinking and acting much more creatively.

Family coach and researcher Vicki Hoefle writes, “Praise trains children to depend on constant feedback regarding what a ‘great job’ they are doing. This dependency shatters rather than builds a child’s self-esteem.”

The parent-child and teacher-student relationship are both traditionally hierarchical. Praise reinforces the child’s dependency on the parent or teacher for their sense of worth. Many work places, particularly in the social sector, are seeking to create more inclusive, flat, and collaborative structures. Just like a parent who wants to encourage their children to think for themselves, a manager who wants to encourage more ownership and responsibility in their staff should consider dropping praise from their vernacular.

2. Becoming accustomed to praise sets us up for self-criticism.

When praise is the primary message that we’ve done well, we feel like a failure if we don’t get enough of it. The most common reaction to perceived failure I’ve observed is not working harder, but self-criticism.

Leaders usually embrace the concept of the “inner critic” as a useful construct for transcending internally focused negativity. I ask all my new coaching clients, “How are you your own worst enemy?” Every single one has replied with some version of, “Let me count the ways.” Psychologist Carl Rogers coined the term “selective positive regard” to describe clients who considered themselves “worthy” only if they had behaved in certain ways—for example, getting good grades in school, getting accepted at a prestigious university, or securing a certain job. He strove to foster a sense of “unconditional positive regard” in his clients—a sense that regardless of their accomplishments, they were worthy of love and acceptance, which he felt was essential for human beings to develop their full potential.

Seeing ourselves with positive unconditional regard helps us see others in the same way. Alex Lickerman, author of The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self, writes, “To view someone with unconditional positive regard isn’t to automatically forgive them their sins, but rather to refuse to dismiss their humanity because of them.” He goes on to say that embracing this notion on behalf of others is possible only if we embrace it for ourselves as well. This is the primary purpose of acknowledgement—to recognize our own and others’ humanity.

3. Praise overlooks opportunities for growth.

Praise tends to communicate a sense of, “Now you’re done. You’ve made it! End of story.” Conversely, acknowledgement is a foundation to work from, to soar to new heights. Praise expresses an end, acknowledgement a beginning.

The purpose of offering an acknowledgement is to inspire, not confirm an evaluation of competence. If every supervisor set out to inspire their staff in performance evaluations, rather than grade, performance evaluations would feel very different. The feedback would be less hierarchical, from the manager down, and more relational. This could look like: “Here are some observations, in what ways are they helpful for you?” In this way, the staff member takes ownership of the interpretation of the feedback, and what he or she wants to do with it, and the manager then supports follow through and accountability on a goal the staff member has set for themselves.

When people know they are seen, they relax. They ask questions. They reveal rather than protect. They share what they are struggling with, because they feel confident they aren’t going to be judged. When people start sharing rather than protecting, an opportunity for growth opens up.

When my clients experiment with acknowledging the work of their team members, and ask open-ended questions in performance reviews, they are often astounded by how quickly the levels of engagement improve.

Putting acknowledgement into practice

We all need positive feedback. But praise, while well intentioned, is not the most effective way to increase motivation or engagement at work. In fact, praise can set up a relationship of dependency, trigger our inner critics, and miss opportunities for growth. Conversely, acknowledgement helps us effectively share when we see some else’s effort, the values that guide them, and their character. Integrating acknowledgment into a managerial approach takes practice. Here are a few examples of how to turn praise into an acknowledgement:

PRAISE:  Great Job!  ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: I want to acknowledge you for delivering the objective we set together on time and within budget this quarter.

PRAISE:  Outstanding! ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: I’ve seen you step out of what’s comfortable for you and share more of your own ideas.

PRAISE:  I’ve never seen anyone do that as well as you! ACKNOWLEDGEMENT:  When you facilitated that meeting, you really took the time to ensure everyone’s voices were heard.

As leaders begin to bring acknowledgement into their managerial approach, they should consider the implications even beyond their team and organization. In using acknowledgment, leaders help change the conversation about what it means to be successful. They invite us to see the world through the lens of abundance and to recognize our shared humanity, .both of which reflect core values of the social impact sector.

How to Make a Vision Board; For Skeptics and Believers

A vision board is a powerful (and fun) way to bring our deepest yearnings to life.  Creating a vision board is a great activity to undertake, during the first month of the New Year especially.


I was first introduced to vision boards in my non-profit community development work back in the 90s, and honestly, I wasn’t that into it.  As a community development trainer, I would ask people to imagine their ideal community; safe, vibrant, healthy, etc. and then in groups, people would cut out images from magazines and use other crafty materials, to design their Utopian community. It felt like a waste of time.  Everyone already knew what an ideal community was “supposed” to have in it, so the activity revealed nothing new, it was just a reminder of how far from ideal many communities I was working with at the time, felt.

The Receptive Process

In 2011, during my coach certification training at Leadership that Works, where I now teach, I was introduced to the personal vision board activity.  At first I was pretty skeptical, but I went along and was a good sport. What was different in this activity, apart from dreaming about my own personal future, was the notion of a “receptive” process.  And to this day, every year, I create a vision board using the receptive process.

The receptive process invites you to forget for a moment about all your goals, all the things a fabulous 2017 is “supposed” to have it in, and just flip through magazines, images, or other materials and allow the images to choose you.  You are invited to “not know” what they mean, but just to trust whatever internal reaction you are having to the image and select it.  Putting on soft music in the background helps to calm your strategic brain and encourage you to let go as well.  After you feel ready, or ready enough, start to display your images on a blank piece of paper or poster board.  Cut and crop some of them, leave some with jagged edges, put some close together, layer some, or allow blank space in between.  Slowly, the meaning of the images will reveal themselves to you, as you do this.  The meaning of other images may not reveal itself until much later in the year, or subsequent years.

Inner Wisdom

What happens in this process is that your unconscious, creative, right brain starts to take over and begins to guide.  There is a part of all us, deep down, that knows what we need to be happy, and knows what of our special gifts are, that haven’t been fully expressed yet.  And this part of us loves the language of visual metaphors to communicate this wisdom to us.

At the center of my first vision board is an image of a nude woman made of clay, arching back, completely free and uninhibited.  At the bottom corner is an image of a couple in love. The expressions on their faces communicate a thousand words; intimacy, distance, admiration, rebellion, beauty, struggle and reassurance all at once.   There are images of magic and deep perception, balance, doorways to other worlds, and the opportunity to offer the gift of presence to my daughter. At the time, some of this seemed perfectly clear to me, some of it was (and still is) a mystery. However, the vision board felt authentically “me” – both the “me” that I was aware of and the “me” that I was becoming.

What I Took With Me

I took with me a sense of peace.  I thought a vision board might make me feel excited about the future, but actually it calmed me.  In moments of doubt throughout the year, I would look at it and feel reassured that I had everything I needed inside to live the future I wanted.  I felt more patient and more willing to allow the part of me who speaks through metaphors to guide. Here’s a little secret:  this process was easier than “striving to reach my goals” and the results were more deep and lasting too.

A Final Word to the Skeptics

A vision board, particularly using the receptive process, is not the notion that if I put an image of what I want in my life on a board it magically appears.  However, there is science (“Imagine” by John Lehrer is a good place to start) behind how selecting an image that speaks to either why that goal is important to you, or what that goal looks like actualized that motivates our psyche not to give up.  It will always be up to us to put our ideas into action, we cannot delegate that power to a vision board or anything or anyone else.  However, using a vision board stimulates a creative, intelligent, resourceful and wise part of us that naturally moves in the direction of growth and fullfillment.

I invite you to give it a try!

Variations on Vision Boards

1)  Divide your vision board into three sections:  what you are saying good-bye to, your present moment, and what you want to invite into your future.  This can be especially helpful if you’ve had a shitty year and are ready to move in a new direction.

2)  Have some really specific goals for 2017?  That’s great!  Write out your goals on your vision board and find images that represent these goals.  The process of selecting the images firms up your commitment to actualize these goals.

3)  Love quotes?  Write out your favorite most inspirational quotes and paste images that represent these quotes next to them.  (My twelve year old daughter came up with this one).

Lastly, play music in the background, take your time, and have fun!

Grieving After the Elections; Tips for Leaders

Many of my clients have asked me some version of this over the last week;

“I know our organization needs to grieve this giant loss and hurt, to process the results of the elections, but I am in such a state of despair, I don’t know where to start.”

After careful thought, support from my mentors and peers to process my own emotions, as well as some research, here are a few suggestions.

First and foremost make a public statement of support for those who are now being targeted.

If you are in a leadership position in your organization, bring your staff together and share with them out-loud, in person (and follow up in writing), that your organization is committed to fighting for, standing with, and protecting people of color, women and girls, immigrants regardless of legal status, those of the Muslim faith or Islamic background, and those of LGBT community.  (You may want to adapt this list and speak even more specifically to groups being targeted).

Do not fall into the trap of saying to yourself, well, we are an immigrant rights organization or a multi-cultural community service organization – and assume people already know that you support those targeted. Maybe they do – AND they need to hear it from leadership.  They need to see you take a stand in some sort of public way.  It’s a way of acknowledging their fear, of saying that you “get it” and their safety matters to you. You take this seriously. It’s also a way taking a stand within a realm over which you have some control.

Set aside some time, for your staff to share their emotions with each other.

The five stages of grief; denial/numbness, anger, bargaining/analyzing, depression, and acceptance can serve as a container for your staff to share their emotions.  These phases are part of a normal human response to great loss.

Let me jump to the last one first and say right away, acceptance is most commonly misunderstood.  Acceptance is not – everything is ok now.  Acceptance is the acknowledgement that this is the new reality, right here, right now.  It’s a letting go of manically analyzing the past and attempting to solve the future right now! It is the ability to be in the present, to be with what is, so that whatever action steps we take in the future are solid, strategic, and meet and respond to the real needs of now in new and creative ways.

Acceptance is usually last, but the other four stages do not necessarily proceed in a linear fashion.  In fact, you may start with bargaining and then get overwhelmed and turn to numbness.  You might feel trapped in anger for days, or so depressed you wonder if you will ever be able to take action again.  You will.  Feeling the anger, or the depression, is part of the process and none of these stages are permanent.

Set up a Space, Acknowledge Systemic Racism and Oppression

Acknowledge that our identity groups, (gender, race, class, religion, gender identity and sexual orientation) impact how we process the hate that is permeating our government, our media, and our communities.  You might consider breaking up into small groups based on social identities to begin to process each of these stages of grief and then choose someone from each of the smaller identity groups to report back to the full staff.  You may want to work in small mixed identity groups but do not pass over stating out loud that your identity group impacts how you share and how you listen.  (At the end of this piece I will share some process guidelines for setting up an anti-racist space).

Once you have divided up your staff in small groups (if you are a staff of over 12 for example).  Share a short description of the five stages of grief.  I have summarized and in some cases re-interpreted the five stages of grief from this resource.


Denial helps us to survive the loss. In this stage, the world becomes meaningless and overwhelming. Life makes no sense. We are in a state of shock and denial. We go numb.” 


Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process. Be willing to feel your anger.  The anger is just another indication of the intensity of your love.”


While this stage is commonly called the bargaining – often with God or the universe, (i.e. I will be the best daughter ever, if you let my mother live).  I will offer a slight re-interpretation. This stage can look like, an overwhelming desire to FIGURE IT OUT.  Who voted for him and why?  Could I have done more? What will I do next?  How can I make this better? In the bargaining stage, we are usually anywhere but the present.  We are both analyzing the past as well as formulating a better future.  The manic nature of this stage halts most of our ability to actually take any conscious steps forward.


Often after bargaining, “our attention moves squarely into the present. Empty feelings present themselves, and grief [or sadness] enters our lives on a deeper level. It’s important to understand that this depression [or deep sadness] is not a sign of mental illness. It is the appropriate response to a great loss.”


Acceptance is often confused with the notion of being “all right” or “OK” with what has happened. This is not the case. Most people don’t ever feel OK or all right about the loss of a loved one.”  And certainly there is nothing to be gained from accepting racism, sexism, or other forms of hate.  This stage is about taking the long view.  This stage is about accepting that this new reality is the current reality. “We will never like this reality or make it OK, but eventually we accept it.”  And while we can’t go back, we can make new connections and illuminate new inter-dependencies. “Instead of denying our feelings, when we listen to our needs; we move, we change, we grow, we evolve.”

After sharing each of the phases with your staff, give them some questions to stimulate their discussion such as the following:

1.  Which of these phases have you experienced so far?  Let people notice which of these phases they have felt and which ones they might not have yet.  Normalize each of the phases.  Remind people none of them are permanent and all of them are useful.  

2.  Go through each phase asking the following questions:

a.  What is your experience of this phase? (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Sadness Acceptance)? 

b.  How does your body feel/react in this phase? (trouble sleeping, tightness, lethargy)

c. What happens in your mind?  (racing, spacing, analyzing, planning)

d. What behaviors show up when you are in this phase? (paralysis, taking on too much, yelling, hiding).  

Close with asking people to reflect on how they feel now that they have had a chance to share and to listen.

Give people the opportunity to make requests.  Support them to say things like, i.e. I would like to request for it to be ok that I am more quiet than usual for a while.

Come back periodically to re-assess where people are, notice and celebrate healing and any shifts in energy as you move through all five of these phases individually and as an organization.

Some Guidelines for Supporting Conversations that Transcend Racism and Oppression*

1.  Speak from our own social identity memberships about our own experience

2.  Be curious and let go of judgment

3.  Remember this conversation isn’t about “solving” anything – its about witnessing each other and giving each other the gift of listening

4.  Ground our conversation in honesty

5.  Go Slow

6.  Right to pass, only share what we want or need to

7.  Make specific requests of how others can help us

8.  Maintain confidentiality.  Don’t share others’ experiences unless given permission.  

*These are inspired from numerous places including but not limited to Leadership that Works & Crossroads Anti-Racism Organizing and Training