By Randy Sabourin
There’s an old joke that goes like this: a pedestrian in Manhattan stopped Jascha Heifetz, a famous and incredibly talented violinist and, in the mid-1950’s, a household name.
“Excuse me, ” the pedestrian inquired. “Could you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”
I think everyone would agree with the premise that if you practice something you will get better at it. Seems simple enough, but there are a few challenges in the execution of practice that deserve more exploration. How you deliver practice makes all the difference to whether you remember what you’ve been taught and how you turn that knowledge into a skill. You can read a book about how to play the violin but it takes a lot of practice to perform at Carnegie Hall. The same is true for coaching. Delivering or understanding a coaching process is not a particularly difficult task, and can be achieved by eLearning, a traditional workshop, or even reading a book. However, actually becoming a coach is much more difficult, and practice is the tool of choice.
There has been significant research about how to practice more effectively. Cementing new learning in long-term memory requires a process known as consolidation, in which memory traces (the brain’s representations of the new learning) are strengthened, given meaning, and connected to prior knowledge. This process unfolds over time, anywhere from hours to days to longer periods. . Traditional repetitive practice relies on short-term memory. Permanent learning, however, requires time for practice and the other processes of consolidation. Therefore, spacing practice is more effective. The increased effort required to retrieve the learning after a little forgetting has the effect of retriggering consolidation, further strengthening memory.
Spacing and Interleaving practice is one of the keys to disrupting the typical ‘Forgetting Curve’. Spacing practice from the original learning anywhere from 3 weeks to 6 months, ideally with 2 or 3 practice sessions during that time, is the most effective strategy. Interleaving practice combines many parts of the process in a practice session as opposed to focusing on mastering them independently. Scenario-Based Practice (roleplays or simulations) encourages interleaving as guided by a professional Roleplayer because the practice emcompasses the entire process in a conversation.
Embedding Elaboration into Scenario-Based Practice will also increase the effectiveness of retrieving previously learned knowledge and converting it into skills. Elaboration is process of utilizing learned content in new ways, finding additional meaning, and applying the process to new situations. Roleplayers will target a skill for elaboration practice by having the participant use a single skill to solve several situations in a roleplay. A great example of this is targeted practice of an Objection Handling process to resolve several objections during a coaching conversation. Professional Roleplayers recognize that this often leads to the ‘aha moment’ for the participant in their practice. Elaboration is also tied to the Business Improvisation process and exercises a creative skill for added benefit.
Measurement and Reflection are also key ingredients to effective practice. During practice sessions Roleplayers are noting and comparing participant skills to the coaching process. This measurement, whether it is shared skill by skill with the participant or not, is critical to understand what skills participants are retaining or missing from the original learning event. The data becomes a way to measure the effectiveness of the original investment and, when multiple practice sessions are used, can be used to measure the growth of the participants, by skill, over the practice period. When each practice session is complete, the participant should discuss with the roleplayer and reflect on the skills measured and the intent for the next sessions.
The value of Scenario-Based Practice is based on the reality of the interaction. Coaching conversations can be unpredictable and stressful, especially for coaches who are new to the activity or who are trying to integrate new skills into their process. Adding a Performance Under Pressure element to the sessions helps the participants to experience the reality of the situation. When faced with pressure or the possibility of failure, participants will often fall back into old ways of solving problems or conducting the coaching conversation. Fear and consequences of failure during a coaching conversation will often drive participants back to old ways. This is a typical human response to failing while trying to create new habits.
Understanding a coaching process is not difficult for a new manager or leader , however converting that knowledge into a skill takes practice – deliberate, measured, thoughtful practice. We may not all make it to Carnegie Hall but we can use the same methods the greats have used to get there.