By Nandita Badami and Oviya Govindan, doctoral candidates in Anthropology at UC Irvine
July 8-9, 2020
Here's an analogy to think with. You want to learn how to ride a bike. You go to a consultant. The consultant knows the mechanics and physics of the bike. They'll educate you by showing you, for instance, how to balance, how to push the pedal. A trainer might hop on the bike, and demonstrate how it can be ridden, what it's supposed to look like to ride a bike. The trainer might set you on a practice schedule to master technique. If you speak to a therapist about wanting to ride a bike, they might ask you about any family history of bike riding, and if you have a plan for if and when you fall off. If you speak to a mentor about riding a bike, they might say, "this is how I rode the bike, it worked for me, you might want to try it."
But if you go to a coach, the coach will ask you right back, what is important to you about riding a bike? Did you ever learn how to roller skate? How did you do that? Can you apply some of those same skills to bike riding? A coach will talk you through it and be with you until you manage to ride the bike. And then ask: what's next for you?
Part two of the OC United Way SparkPoint OC Virtual Train-the-Trainer workshop continued through July 8-9, 2020, conducted by Debra Waldman and Karen Boise, certified financial coaches with CNM Ingenuity (CNMI). CNMI is a non-profit that helps Central New Mexico Community College pursue cooperative ventures in technology and their financial coach program specializes in a dynamic, interactive approach to both coaching and coach training. The virtual gathering connected CNMI with the SparkPoint OC Team, comprised of OC United Way and Abrazar representatives. Participants also included representatives from UCI's Student Outreach and Retention Center, UCI Dream Center, and FRESH Basic Needs Hub-UCI, the United Cambodian Community and The Cambodian Family.
The purpose of the training was to equip the SparkPoint OC team with a new perspective on financial literacy practices, particularly the financial coaching model. The concept of financial coaching differs fundamentally from financial literacy training. While the latter focusses on pre-determined curricula that clients might follow to learn more information about the financial system and how it works, coaching is a more individualized, holistic approach to financial guidance. Coaches work with clients not just to tell them what best practices are or what they might look like, but rather, together with the client, they explore the underlying causes of their relationship with money, and the patterns that inform how they choose to spend it. The philosophy of coaching is to build more responsible financial practices by developing insight into the client's personal spending patterns, rather than starting with pre-determined solutions.
Together, the group performed a series of activities, playing interactive games and engaging in coaching-client role play. One game, titled Spent, an online budgeting game designed by Next Gen Personal Finance (NGPF) that takes the player through difficult life situations that left them financially marginalized (regardless of the decisions they took), became a tool to anchor conversations about the tough life decisions people face when structural conditions are heavily stacked against them.
The CNMI team then led the group through a few activities deconstructing common myths around poverty. The group agreed that poverty is not the result of laziness or lack of education. Rather, it is the result of systemic injustice and structural inequality. In particular, the group discussed how poverty is the condition of having one's ability to dream taken away: people in poverty don't have time to think about what they want, their entire focus is on how to survive. This resonated deeply with the SparkPoint OC coaches/case managers, many of whom expressed that they had clients who struggle with no longer knowing what they want out of life, especially those who have been conditioned to say certain things in order to receive aid. The group discussed how this results in an approach to "solving" poverty that focusing on telling people what they ought to do, rather than encouraging them to explore and express what they need. Getting told what to do, extrinsically, depletes rather than nurtures hope.
Coaching, it became clear through CNMI's activities through the day, is about giving the client the opportunity to dream, even if it is for just a 30-45-minute session. Coaching encourages empowerment at an individual, case by case level, slowly and incrementally infusing hope back into a person's experience of life and resources. Coaches do this by treating people not as cases, but as human beings with stories. People's lives aren't just problems to be solved by pre-designed solutions. There may be many reasons why existing solutions don't work for a particular individual: personal histories, past experiences, perceived inabilities that imbue self-narratives, all of which can take over and define the manner in which we experience and navigate financial complexities. Coaching helps break down these assumptions about themselves, and about the way things work, enabling them to make choices that work for their specific needs.
As Waldman and Boise underlined through the day, it is important for coaches not to presume what their clients' needs are, but rather, to operate without judgement or preconception. It is only with such an approach that a coach can actually listen to a client's needs, wants and preferences and therefore be able to assist them on their terms without "telling" them what to do. Coaching requires care, connection, ethics, courage, and importantly, the skill of being a good listener.
On the second day of the workshop, Waldman and Boise invited participants to share their reflections on the coaching approach. Participants shared that they could now identify the distinction between case management and financial coaching more clearly. Several shared that they had already been able to practice the coaching approach during calls with their clients later the previous evening. This involved asking straightforward, simple questions like "Can you tell me more about this?", which opened up space for clients to share their own thoughts about a particular financial situation, and what specifically was meaningful to them about it.
The first activity of the day invited the group to conduct a brief self-assessment of their own personal values. The aim of the activity was to make the case managers aware of their own personal values. Each participant was given a list of values, including "acceptance", "creativity", "resilience", and was asked to rank them in the order of importance, based on personal preference. Participants were asked to isolate and rank their top five most important values.
At the end of the activity, the group was led through a reflection exercise. Participants shared that identifying their own personal values made them aware of who they were and what they valued in others. They noted that clients may have different values and understanding these values would be key to successful coaching. As Waldman explained, behavioral change can only happen when it is attached to a value. In the context of financial literacy, this means that while a coach might tell someone they need to save money, it will not happen until saving money is attached to something the client values within their way of making sense of the world.
The second set of activities focused on learning how to ask powerful questions during coaching. Powerful questions are open-ended questions that encourage detailed, meaningful answers. This can range from questions which clarify what outcomes a client might actually be hoping for, such as "what is your desired outcome", to those that challenge the way a client perceives a situation, such as "what are you holding true that might not be?" In the context of financial coaching, this might look like a simple shift from asking a client "Do you want to save money", which invites a yes or no response, to asking them "What is important to you about saving money." The latter demonstrates that the coach is interested in learning more about what values the clients attach to money, invites the client to discover their own insights and opens up the conversation more.
Over the next hour, the organizers led the group through two rounds of role-playing coaching scenarios. Participants were divided into teams of two each. First, one person played the role of client and the other played the role of coach, and then they swapped roles. During the first round, participants who were clients were asked to state a behavioral change they wanted to make in their lives. Those who played the role of coaches were asked to simply tell the clients why and how they ought to make the change. In the second round, participants were asked to focus on using powerful questions in these coaching scenarios. The activity was designed to put the participants in the shoes of their clients and experience what it felt like to be told to do something as opposed to being engaged through powerful questions.
In the debrief that followed, participants reflected that in the first round, as "clients" they felt like they were being told to do something irrespective of how feasible a solution it was. Many case managers struggled since they were deliberately asked to preach solutions to clients, which they typically avoided doing this in their own practice. By contrast, participants shared that the second round, fueled by powerful questions made them feel heard. As 'clients', they felt empowered to make their own connections and breakthroughs, understanding the roadblocks in their own mindset. As coaches, they felt less pressure to be experts, expected to have all the solutions.
Drawing on the discussions above and connecting them with importance of recognizing one's own values, powerful listening, and asking powerful questions, Waldman and Boise explained what they call the "COACH Model". COACH is an acronym where the letters stand for some of the qualities valued in the model such as Curiosity and Connection, Opportunities and Obstacles, Commitment, Actionable steps, and Honoring the coach partnership. A coaching relationship is ultimately a strengths-based approach and is focused on the future.
What followed was one of the most powerful moments of the workshop. Walden demonstrated what a coaching conversation might look like with one of the participants, a case manager, playing the role of client. During this demonstration, Walden and the participant turned off their video so that they could each focus entirely on listening and responding to each other. This emerged as an important realization about how virtual coaching experiences can be made meaningful and powerful even in the absence of immediate physical interaction.
At the beginning of the conversation the participant, occupying the position of the client, stated that the behavioral change she wanted to see in her life was an improved commitment to training for a half marathon coming up in August. Walden probed her motivation through a powerful question that demonstrated curiosity about the meanings of the client's goal-- "What's important to you about running this marathon?" The participant realized during the conversation that running the marathon was about being able to prioritize time for her personal goals and needs despite all her professional commitments. At this point, Walden probed deeper to question the nature of the priority itself.
Walden: On a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 means "not so much a priority" and 5 means "totally
a priority", where would the marathon fall given circumstances today?
P: Not so much a priority. If it was, the moment I was off work, I would go for a run, but I don't do that.
Walden : I want to ask a bold question with your permission.
Walden : Is this really a goal?
P: The half marathon isn't. The goal is more to follow through on something, on my personal time.
This was a powerful moment for everyone involved, both participating and listening in. Together, over the course of the conversation, the case manager-participant and Walden together realized that the actual value which motivated the goal of running a marathon was about establishing work-life balance and routines of self-care. By the end, the case manager in question recalibrated her goal into something smaller and more manageable, starting with a weekly run which she would report on to her coach. One of the participants likened the entire interaction to a "peeling back of the layers" in a non-judgmental way that allowed the client to express more about what truly mattered to them. Walden underscored that for her, as a coach, the conversation was about demonstrating curiosity and not about fixing the problem. As she stated powerfully, "What's there to help when nothing is broken? It is tempting to take on the superhero cape because you want to fix it all. But there may be nothing to help. Coaching is not a helping profession."
The day ended with a final activity which focused specifically on personal values, what the CNMI trainers called "money beliefs". Money beliefs are the different values, feelings and views about money that people hold, which are in turn shaped by individual life trajectories, family histories, cultural and economic background. Participants reflected on their own experiences with money and articulated their beliefs about money. Boise pointed out that clients too often came in with their own beliefs about money, such as "I will never be able to make much money." She explained that though one might want to shift such beliefs, it is important to honor the process and enable clients to reflect on how they came to believe in them in the first place. Overall, the activity was designed to help participants to get a good sense of what they would be asking their clients to do.
While Waldman and Boise have many years of coaching and training experience, the virtual workshop was a first of its kind for them. Despite pandemic limitations, the online platform proved itself to be an effective format given the proper facilitation and its accessibility allowed IMTFI to include additional UCI campus and community members to take part. SparkPoint OC coaches/case managers came away with a refreshed perspective of the financial coach/case manager role and additional tools to educate and empower their clients.