Inspired by @Kevin_Fong

Inspired by @Kevin_Fong

via Twitter

Also: a carton of ribena & a snickers bar from the vending machine have most of the necessary food groups to keep you going #tipsfornewdocs

— Kevin Fong (@Kevin_Fong) August 6, 2014

Why a single tweet from a doctor I don’t know is pinned to my wall

This tweet makes me smile.

It encapsulates in less than 140 characters some of the core principles of being a great coach.  Less than 140 characters.  Incredible.

It demonstrates the importance of kindness, subject-matter expertise, timing, experience (in several guises), empathy, inspiration and belief.  It also offers some genuinely practical advice.  All that in less than 140 characters.  Incredible.

First some context.  In the UK Junior Doctors are famous for the number of hours that they have to work – often in continuous stints.  What few breaks they get are likely to be interrupted to a point where they barely exist.  On the first Wednesday in August junior doctors step onto this treadmill as they start their placements or swap their specialities.  Food, sleep & bathroom breaks become rather a luxury.

So with this single tweet Kevin Fong offers a quick rule of thumb that will help.  Its obviously not sustainable in the long term, but its a great answer for the immediate problem of being a junior doctor, short on time, and in need of sustenance.  At least, that’s what it looks like on the face of it.  As with all great coaching there is much more to this tweet than first meets the eye.

Coaching is a black art of combining many things at once:

  • knowing what is useful to say at that moment
  • recognising the moment when it presents itself
  • avoiding platitudes yet conveying empathy
  • offering inspiration and a light at the end of a tunnel
  • offering a completely honesty and reality-based viewpoint, and in an upbeat way

That’s a big message to get across in 25 words.  It is a little microcosm of coaching.

I saved this tweet because it reminds me of all these things, and a few more that were probably not intended when it was sent.

When coaching someone I focus on the 5 things that have proven their worth time and again as coaching mantras:

1)  Keep it Simple.

Sometimes this is better described as focus.  Focus on improving or changing one thing at a time.  It is far easier to make progress (and so get results) if you aren’t spreading yourself too thinly.

It is also easier to observe the feedback loop and measure improvement for one thing than many.  When changing habits, building new skills, or just offering a piece of experience, remember OTAT (One Thing At a Time) or KISs (Keep it Simple).

Simplicity is a good thing: think the 80:20 rule of thumb, 80% of the benefits come from 20% of the effort.

2)  Share your Experience

Sometimes this is sometimes called your authority, but I personally don’t like that term.  It is the metaphorical medal you are awarded for having ‘been there’.

Remember that although the saying goes “knowledge is power”  it really is only potential power (hat tip to Tony Robbins there) – acting on your knowledge is where the power comes from.

Often learning and growing is difficult.  Most people don’t know what they are truly capable of until they are tested.  However, once you have done something, it becomes proof that it is possible.  Once you know something is possible, doing it again has a certain guarantee of success. This makes it easier (note: easier, not easy!) to achieve the same results the next time.

3) Belief is like Magic Fairy Dust

Someone who has already done something similar, has experience and knows with absolute certainty it can be done.  If that person (the coach) is letting you know with equal certainty that they believe you can do it too, their authority and certainty translates across.   You can effectively borrow their certainty.

This is one of the core tools of a coach.  (And sadly, of a good con artist too).

4) Keep Your Distance

When you are coaching someone, remember that to a large degree you are reminding them of things they already know, but aren’t able to recall or act upon right at that moment.

They are in the weeds, fighting fires, doing battle and a lot of other analogies.  They don’t see that they have time to stop, step back and assess the best thing to do.  Even if they did, being invested in the problem can muddy a persons thinking .  This is where the strength of having a coach comes in.  A person can’t physically do the work needed without being close to it.  Unfortunately,  being close to the work narrows their ability to think of alternative solutions.  People forget to question their own assumptions or to explore other possible outcomes.

A little detachment, with no skin in the game can really move things forward.

I am reminded of an interview I read some time agoabout a surgeon who was accused of not being empathetic with his patients.  (This isn’t it, but it covers the same idea in much more detail).  His response was interesting to me.  He felt that if he empathised too much with his patient, he would become incapacitated for fear of making a mistake.  This relative detachment in his profession gave him a clear head and a steady hand when someone’s life was at stake.  He recognised the latter as much more valuable to the patient than the former.  The linked article also mentions dialling your level of detachment up or down appropriately for the situation at hand.

5) The Right Kind of Kindness
As a coach, you are not their friend (at least while you are coaching them).  Unless you are specifically teaching self-appreciation techniques, you are not here to make them feel great about themselves.   You are there to help them learn to do things they deeply desire, but for some reason are unable to achieve by themselves.

No one said coaching was easy. It is a rubbish vocation if you hate difficult conversations.  You will get some gratitude and appreciation, but it is in rotation with regular bouts of resentment.  How much resentment depends on the person you are coaching and how hard you are pushing them.

What you can’t do is to do it for them.  They will throw strategies at you implying they need help.  You absolutely must not allow yourself to think you are ‘being kind’ by giving them easy answers.  Helping them out of their (temporary) terror of trying something new, or  leaping in to help at the first signs of floundering when they do try is not you being a great coach for them.  Instead that’s about you demonstrating your greater experience to them.  By inference, it also conveys your belief that they aren’t ready to try.  As we learnt earlier, your belief is magic fairy dust.  Use yours to build confidence, not to knock it.

Instead, you do have to demonstrate that you absolutely believe in them.  You need to gently nudge that little bird out of its comfy nest.  Firmly.  You need to stand beside them and witness their efforts and you must, at all times, radiate utter certainty that they can do this without you.  This is truly the kind thing to do.

The ultimate measure of your abilities as a coach is just how high people can fly on their own…and without you.  If the people you coach go on to great  & truly epic things, then you know you have done your job well.

So in this single tweet above, Dr Kevin Fong had experience from his past of what was about to come.  He knew what would be useful information to share, and he knew when that advice would be best delivered.  He also managed to convey a subtext of camaraderie, kindness, humour and a confidence in the reader.  That things are about to get tough, but the reader is going to be just fine…eventually.  Hell, I’m no junior doctor and I still found this text all these things!

As I said: that’s quite good to get that into 140 characters or less.  (After all, its just taken me this whole post to show you why).

To Sum up

  1. Keep It Simple
  2. Share Your Experience
  3. Belief Is Like Magic Fairy Dust
  4. Keep Your Distance
  5. The Right Kind Of Kindness


I’d recommend this book if you want an insight to what it is really like being a junior doctor in that first year.  It’s quite old, and I’m sure it isn’t the only one out there, but it is the only one on being a doctor I happen to have read.  It is an entertaining and somewhat humbling read. Since reading it I carry an deeper respect for all doctors out there.