What do a medical doctor, an attorney, a yoga teacher, a life coach have in common? They all practice their profession and their professional sphere is known as a “practice.” Doctors practice medicine, lawyers practice representing clients’ interests around the law, yoga teachers practice yoga (and recommend that you do too), and life coaches practice helping others through coaching, and using their own tools and techniques (and coaches) to enhance their own lives. A doctor who finished medical school but has no medical practice is only a doctor by name. It is not the completion of an education in a certain field that makes one a professional in the field; practice, as it turns out, is what transforms a person from being a student to being a master professional. That transition can be challenging and is sure to make the practitioner very (even, excruciatingly) uncomfortable at times.
I remember the first time I coached a client who was a complete stranger to me. I was terrified that I’d do it wrong, and that she would just KNOW I wasn’t *really* a coach yet. I had all kinds of “practice hours” under my belt, having studied a LOT, written a LOT, and coached for hours back and forth with my student partner and with a variety of friends, family, and acquaintances who were gracious enough to help me by showing up for coaching while I chose which tools and specific methods I needed to hone and work on for myself. But when that first cold call came in and she set an appointment and I had to show up at my office and PRACTICE FOR REAL, it felt like I was walking into a comprehensive exam unprepared. Naked. Just like those dreams that show up in silly Hollywood movies. Every doubt in myself I had ever had showed up to greet me like old “frenemies”.
But we sat down together and I helped her (and myself) clear the space by taking a few long, slow deep breaths. I asked her how she was doing and what brought her to coaching. She began to tell me her story, and we were off! After a few minutes of listening deeply to her experience, I was able to focus on my client and her story and needs, and completely disconnect from all that internal anxiety and doubt I was feeling about my “wet behind the ears” self. I realized that using the most basic of coaching skills, full-bodied listening and empathetic understanding, was helping me focus on her and allowed my own insecurity to fade for a while. My client would pause for a moment, and I would carefully summarize what I’d understood her to say, which she would either agree I’d understood correctly or she’d explain a little more or even correct her own narrative, realizing that what she said and what she’d meant were a little different. The coaching dance continued, and the next thing I knew, the session was over, my client felt a great deal of relief made possible by my staying deeply connected to her and helping her feel completely HEARD, ACKNOWLEDGED, and UNDERSTOOD, and my anxiety about messing it all up faded away as it became clear to me that all of the tools and methods are important, but none more important than staying 100% present, focused, and attuned to the person who is there for coaching.
That was my first real practice. That is when I realized why professionals practice their profession.
I ended up working with that first client for several months around a specific set of troublesome things happening in her life at that time. I helped her define the full content and scope of the problem. I helped her learn a handful of tools that decreased her daily mental and emotional stress load so that she could better manage both herself and her family’s needs and desires. I helped her create a specific goal, and we worked together to create a realistic plan of action to get her from where she was to where she wanted to be with that goal. And she continued coaching along the way to help re-frame her own thinking and discover new strategies to get over, under, around, and through the various obstacles that kept cropping up in her path towards the goal. Coaching became a practice in and of itself for me through this first “stranger” client, and soon I was working with more and more “strangers” with greater ease, less doubt about myself and my role, and more confidence in both coaching itself and myself as a coach.
That first client was nearly a decade ago, and I’ve now had the honor of helping hundreds of strangers coast to coast in the USA, and around the world as far away as China, the UK, and Australia. My practice has become stronger, and I have become stronger because of my practice. The academic learning element continues as I am always taking on new challenges in terms of continuing education and reading the latest news and texts on topics like neuroscience research, attachment theory, healing from trauma, and recovering from grief and loss. As I learn new methods, and try them out with clients for the first time, I still feel a little of that initial hesitation and doubt, and am humbled to realize that no matter how much I practice, there is always more to learn and ways to improve. I now have to actively cultivate a beginner’s mind as it’s easy to fall into the “comfortable” patterns of practice, which may or may not be of highest service to the specific client in front of me.
Perfect is an illusion, but practice absolutely makes most nearly perfect.
And we all probably remember how painful the process can be in transitioning from learning something in theory to practicing it in reality, whether that something is what one might do as a career or just as a hobby. There are steps, both conscious and unconscious, involved in moving from student to novice practitioner to master practitioner.
So next time you embark on a learning adventure or start doing something that you KNOW you KNOW, but haven’t had a lot of “real world” practice with, just remember: all that doubt and anxiety is part of the process. Just start practicing, and stay open to both successes and mistakes from which you can learn, adjust, and grow. And trust that the more you practice, the more nearly perfect you’ll be! Perfection itself *is* an illusion, but we can all strive towards confidence coupled with the humility of being a human. If we were perfect, we wouldn’t be human.