Using artwork as a coaching tool

I’m delivering a lot of coaching training at the moment. Needs of the business and all that. As happens to us L&Ders, when you repeatedly train on one topic, I start to tinker with how I’m delivering the session. One of the things I’m highly mindful of when I do this is that it needs to be supportive of the learning experience.

I pay attention to what others in this shared world of work do. Particularly I’ve been paying attention to Doug Shaw and his Art for Works Sake series, and Simon Heath and his invitational approach to using art as an expression at the recent Glasgow L&D Connect unconference.

What they’ve both helped me to come upon is how artwork can be a vehicle for discussion.

Unless you maintain artwork as a hobby or do it as your main thing, many people forget how to put pencil to paper to create art. The practise itself is not supported in many businesses, because it’s not a (directly) productive endeavour for making money.

I’m not on a crusade to reinvigorate art in a work setting. But I am interested in challenging people’s perceptions of their barriers and of their limitations. It’s far too easy to dismiss something as difficult and not take the time to explore why or what’s going on there. And it’s even easier to not focus on what t might look like if it were better.

So the first exercise I get the group to do is draw something in their view. I’m explicit in letting people know that their skill kf drawing is entirely consequential in this context and that even if the drawing is just a series of lines, that’s enough.

I then pair people up and ask them to coach their partner to do the next iteration. Again I’m careful to not give the instruction to make it better. This isn’t about judgement. It’s about helping the partner to explore what they’re doing and what they would try again or try differently.

It’s also important to note I’m not a very arty person. I don’t find drawing easy. I enjoy it but need to spend time with it. I’m asking people to practise something as a way for them to have dialogue later.

I find that the coaching conversation that ensues raises a lot of interesting insights. Some people judge the other person’s drawing. Some people offer direction via their own interpretation – e.g. “you are drawing a boat. It needs to have sails.”. Some decide to take authority “I’m the coach, you need to listen to me”. Some ask questions about what the person was trying to achieve. Some provide feedback. Some offer options for improvement.

All from an opening 20 min exercise.

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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

5 thoughts on “Using artwork as a coaching tool”

  1. Hi Sukh
    It will come as no surprise that I loved reading this (and not just because you very kindly gave me a mention).
    One thing that struck me, that I’ve not really expressed fully before, is that, whilst I’ve long been a proponent of encouraging anyone and everyone to “do” art irrespective of whether or not they consider themselves able to draw or whatever, is that you need not be an artist yourself to be able to create the space for people to express thoughts or concepts artistically. As a coach or teacher or as a L&D or OD practitioner, you have many tools at your disposal of which artistic expression is but one. Artists (that is, people who are naturally artistically able) do not, and should not, hold a monopoly on artistic endeavour. What your post so ably demonstrates are the benefits of the democratisation of art and it’s ability to uncover a different set of perspectives.

  2. Heh heh. Basically – what Simon said. For me – this work is primarily about opening up different ways to think – and that seems to be easier when we run that idea in parallel with different ways of using a pen/pencil/brush/whatever.

    I’ve been using sketching as a way of introducing coaching type questions and conversations for a long time now. One of my friends introduced the concept to me at the Leap Day event in 2012:

    http://stopdoingdumbthingstocustomers.com/inspiring/leap-day-learning/

    I’ve been playing with it ever since. Great fun – and I’ve seen it act as a catalyst for some great conversations.

    Keep on keeping on arty dude.

  3. As always Sukh, a great post.

    I find an interesting parallel in my own work. Not about coaching in this instance and not in the face to face classroom, but in the online classroom. There are annotation tools (pen, lines, shapes, highlighters etc) that can be used on whiteboards and also to mark up slides. I’ve used them a lot on slides where I’ve decreed the layout, such as typing into ‘swim lanes’ on a table or in boxes for their opinion and so on — it can get very, very creative, which I love!

    What I’ve started doing recently is give people blank whiteboards and asking them to actually draw something very quickly in groups and then tell us what it means to them. There are a few interesting things about this:

    1) I had to observe someone else doing this really well (@Kassy_L) in order to see best practice and be given inspiration.
    2) Time had to pass with me thinking about this in order to get the confidence to do this activity.
    3) I had to give that confidence to my attendees who, mostly, wouldn’t feel comfortable ‘drawing’ something using the computer.

    Obviously it’s been a great activity and, in turn, I’ve helped to encourage others to do something similar.

    Artists (and non-artists) unite!

  4. Sukh was running a coaching workshop today. In the moment I ditched the planned activity of blindfolding someone and getting them throwing pens to a target to demonstrate the impact of negative, positive and constructive feedback I decided to invite delegates to draw.

    So draw something was my introduction, then invited then to pair up, give each feedback on the drawing, and then coach to make improvements.

    I then ended the activity by inviting the delegates to give me feedback on how I led the activity.

    Interesting on many levels. How they gave feedback, to each other and me, how they engaged with coaching and the different levels, and how you tell someone “they draw like a 5 year old”.

    Good shout, I applied it, and it worked!

    1. Ian this is so awesome, thanks for sharing! I’ve been really paying attention to the instructions I’m offering people and have so far settled on:

      – Draw something in your sight
      – This isn’t about your art skills

      And before they start coaching:
      – be mindful of the language you’re using
      – don’t tell them what to do

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