Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Coaching Story: Meet Connie

No matter how long you’ve been coaching, how expert you are, or how much training you’ve had, you sometimes talk with a prospective client and a little voice in your head says, “Who are you kidding? You can’t help this person!” For me, that client was Connie, who called to see if I could help her turn around her life.

Connie was animated on the phone. We chatted for a while and laughed about some of the struggles we share, thanks to our AD/HD: For instance, thinking we could drop off dry cleaning and mail packages as we rushed out the door in the morning, when we were already late. We connected immediately.

Connie was an executive in an advertising firm before getting married. Now she was a stay-at-home mom with five children ranging in age from 5 to 16. I couldn’t imagine how hard her life must be. My own struggles—trying to stay organized every day while caring for two dogs—seemed smaller in comparison.

Connie was upbeat initially, but as the conversation wore on, she confessed that she felt beaten down by life. She was depressed and anxious. Fighting back tears, she said she had recently read entries in her journal about things she wanted to change—to be on time and more organized, to exercise regularly, and to spend more time with friends and family. She wrote the entries several years ago. Nothing had changed.

“How could I have been so successful in my corporate job and fall apart at home?” she asked me. Even though she had been happily married for 20 years, her relationship, lately, had become rocky because of her AD/HD. Connie’s husband didn’t understand why she was unable to finish a task when she had all day to do it. He couldn’t understand why she was disorganized—being late when picking up the kids and misplacing her keys several times a week.

I started to feel Connie’s pain. I kept thinking to myself, “How can I help her if I haven’t walked in her large shoes? I have two dogs; she has five children.” One thing I could relate to was Connie’s feeling of being overwhelmed. I understood how AD/HD impacted her life, and I believed I could help her. We decided we were a good match, set up an appointment, and started the coaching process.

In the initial intake meeting, we had a one-hour in-depth conversation where we started to identify Connie’s struggles and challenges: the inability to prioritize her activities, keep track of time, and structure her day. Connie learned that these challenges were caused by her AD/HD, not by her lack of discipline or effort. At one point, she blurted out, “You mean some of this is my AD/HD? I thought I was just lazy!”

Understanding that her AD/HD was the source of her problems stopped her from judging and blaming herself. It was as if a light switch had been turned on. Only then were we able to develop strategies that would allow her to, finally, make changes in her life. For the first time, I could hear a glimmer of hope in her voice. “There is a good reason why I keep repeating mistakes. Coaching can really help me make the changes I’ve tried so hard to make on my own.”

We compared her success in the workplace with her challenges at home. Why did she excel at the office and fall apart at home? After some probing, we discovered that Connie thrived at her job because her responsibilities were clear-cut and her day was structured. She didn’t have structure at home. Her children attended school, and her husband worked. She was often alone all day.

We decided to add the missing ingredient—structure—to her day. We started with something pressing in her life. Guests were visiting next weekend, and she had to get the house in order. We agreed that her goal for the upcoming week would be to neaten up the house in preparation for those guests. How would she accomplish it?

“In my eyes, everything seems important,” said Connie. “There’s paperwork I’ve been wanting to get to for three years that all of a sudden seems urgent to complete! But yet guests are coming. I’m so confused! Where do I start?”

I had her make two lists: a priority list for all the things she needed to do to prep the house for the guests and another labeled “Do Next Week,” for tasks she could tackle after they left. She put the latter list in a file folder on her desk. By listing tasks on her priority list—and breaking those tasks down into achievable actions—she built confidence that she could keep moving forward.

To help her accomplish the tasks on her priority list, we devised ways for her to organize her day and to better track time. We went over her weekly schedule and identified “open zones”—periods where she had time to accomplish tasks. Her goal was to slot a task from her priority list into an open zone. For example, make up the bed in the guest room, vacuum upstairs, clean the kitchen sink. She set her cell phone to beep every hour, so she could “hear” the passage of time and check in with herself to see if she was on track. Connie also e-mailed me during the day to let me know what she had accomplished. This motivated her to do more.

There were slip-ups. When Connie checked in with me by phone every week, she admitted her miscues. “This sure isn’t easy! I found myself off track many times. I began to see how I would negotiate with myself. I’d say, ‘It’s OK, Connie, if you play solitaire on the computer for a few minutes.’ I wound up playing for hours. My cell phone would beep every hour, and it helped get me back on track. But, I admit, there were a few times when I ignored it! I’m learning, though.”

We found that the weekly check-ins by phone worked well for Connie. We would identify daily priorities, and divide them into doable pieces. We also came up with ways for her to be accountable. Connie slowly began to make progress. She became more confident and self-reliant, and her family was able to depend on her.

As the weeks went by, we addressed Connie’s other goals—exercising, socializing more with friends, and spending time with her family. “For the first time in my life, I actually do what I say I am going to do,” Connie told me. “I see where my AD/HD gets in my way, and I have strategies to work around it. I have hope I can live a happy, more satisfying life. I see light at the end of the tunnel!”

Connie’s success underscores the foundation of coaching: It is a dynamic, evolving process that takes time to work. The client must be prepared to work hard and to establish a productive partnership with the coach. I’m still working with Connie; she—as we all are—is a work in progress. She is making positive strides, and she is improving with each session. I am so glad I didn’t give into that little voice of mine.

Until next time,