Crucial Conversations, Compassionate Candor, And Coaching Yourself, With Antonia Bowring
Let’s admit it: coaching can be expensive. While its ROI goes beyond the financial, not everyone can pay for it. Executive Coach Antonia Bowring is democratizing coaching so you can Coach Yourself! She is an ICF-certified, New York-based executive coach who works primarily with founders, C-Suite executives, and leadership teams. Bringing insights from her book of the same name, Antonia sits down with J.R. Lowry to tell us all about the idea behind it and how it offers more than getting good resources. She also discusses the importance of having crucial conversations and how to prepare for them. Plus, she touches on the topic of compassionate candor, where delivering feedback is an act of love that a leader provides to their team. For more great wisdom on personal development as well as your growth as a leader, tune in to this conversation with Antonia!
Check out the full series of “Career Sessions, Career Lessons” podcasts here or visit pathwise.io/podcast/.
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
Crucial Conversations, Compassionate Candor, And Coaching Yourself, With Antonia Bowring
Executive Coach and Author of “Coach Yourself!”
My guest is Antonia Bowring. Antonia is an ICF-certified New York-based Executive Coach who works primarily with founders, C-suite executives and leadership teams. One of her areas of expertise is helping neurodiverse leaders create the necessary scaffolding to leverage their gifts and maintain their focus. She’s a frequent speaker and a member of the Forbes Coaches Council. The American Reporter named her one of the ten leadership coaches to watch in 2022.
In addition to coaching, Antonia has a strategic facilitation practice that includes facilitating the CEO forum on the East Coast for UCLA Anderson School of Management, chief core groups, offsite leadership programs, and team cohesion projects. She holds a BA in Political Science, a Master of Philosophy and Development Economics, and an MBA. Antonia, welcome. It’s great to have you on the show.
Great to be here. Thank you.
Let’s start by talking about your new book, Coach Yourself!. The title is pretty clear. Tell our audience a little bit more about the premise of the book and its key message.
The book Coach Yourself. The subtitle is Increase Awareness, Change Behavior, and Thrive, and I think of it in two ways. Number one, it’s part of a mission to democratize coaching because it’s an expensive thing to receive. A lot of it, if you have good resources, you can coach yourself to a degree. I like the idea that it’s not a few that get coaching. That was part of the impetus.
Secondly, I don’t think of this as a book you sit down and read cover to cover. I think of it more as a book you orient yourself to and go, “I know what the different sections are.” When I hit that bump in the road, this is where I’d look in that book. It’s like if you can put these two words together, a very friendly reference book, but much more engaging than you and I may think of what a reference book is.
I would certainly agree with that, having read it. It’s interesting that you talk about democratizing coaching. That’s the show I started a couple of years ago. It’s about giving people better access to career guidance because it is typically the privileged few who get coaching provided by their companies.
Some people will take on getting coaching for themselves, but other people can’t afford that or want to try a DIY approach. I was trying to balance that and allowing people through a web platform to give them access to a lot of content, tools, and frameworks in more of a tech-centric way than a book but a similar idea.
It’s important because I think back. I wish I’d had a career coach at certain points in my life. I floundered around and we all have to move through our process, but the pain can be shortened if you have the right resources or the right person if it’s a coach. I agree with that. To say a couple more things about the book, I was writing quite a bit online for Forbes and the publisher contacted me and said, “Do you want to write a book?” I said, “Sure.” They said, “What do you want to write about?”
My next book will be about ADHD in leadership, but the first book, this one, is why I wrote it because I sat back. I have been executive coaching for several years, and I thought, “There are a dozen frameworks that I use day in and day out.” I referred to some of them. I said to someone who’s got a mediation. “If my book hasn’t arrived, I will send you the PDF of that chapter.” I’d go back to them over and over again.
These are frameworks that most of my clients are C-suite or C-suite and founders and early stage high growth companies, but these frameworks are as beneficial to someone starting who may be on the receiving end. You are not the manager yet, but you report to the manager. This gives you a beautiful perspective of seeing things from both sides.
I could have written this book for coaches. It would have looked a bit different. As a coach, I wish someone had given me a book when I started and said, “You will find your sweet spot of what your frameworks are, but here are my dozen frameworks because some of them might work for you.” I wish I’d had that gift.
I would imagine coaches will pick the book up, but the coach audience is this wide. The general population is much wider, so you might as well write the book with the general population in mind.
That was what the publisher said.
I’m glad I agree with him. You cover a number of areas. I wanted to pick a few. Crucial conversations were one of them that I thought would be good to cover. Describe what you mean by crucial conversation and the coin framework that you introduced in the book. I know it comes from the group that wrote the book Crucial Conversations, but talk a little bit about how you apply it.
Everyone has to have challenging conversations. If everything is going smoothly, we don’t need to worry about it that much. What happens is in conversations where we are triggered or we are carrying anxiety or nervousness, or the stakes feel very high in the conversation, or we feel like we are putting something out there.
What often happens is the amygdala gets activated. All of a sudden, you went in and you wanted to talk about this, but then the other person said something and then you are off this way or you are frozen and you can’t think of a thing to say. That happens all the time, or you say the wrong thing. In a critical conversation, I think of it as emotions can run high and the stakes can feel high, so we need to be prepared for them.
I find that I have a couple of different communication frameworks, but the coined one is a very simple one. It’s more like a checklist almost. It’s basic, but I like to think of it as being in my back pocket and I can go COIN, Common purpose, Observations, Inquiry, and Next steps. Did I get lost somewhere in there? This brings me back to the throughline of the conversation that I want. That’s why it’s very powerful.
Everybody has these conversations. We are probably all on one side or the other of them at different points in our lives. For the people who are delivering the message, what should they do to best prepare? Is it writing out how they want the conversation to go and practicing it? What else would you recommend?
How you prepare is we all approach challenging conversations with heart and/or backbone. What I mean by that is heart is the, “I’m listening, I’m feeling, and I have got the empathy.” That can also be a perspective that avoids discomfort because you want everybody to feel good, and then there’s the backbone. Think of it as your objectives and your clarity on what you want to achieve in the conversation.
Sometimes people jump right in and say, “Let’s do it.” That can be off-putting and feel harsh and not needing me. What we want to think about is, number one, what’s my default? We all have one. Where do I default? How do I do the work to show up knowing my default so that I can balance that with the other? A successful conversation has both. You have to hold your power and hold yourself in it, but you also have that openness of heart to dance with the other person.
That’s the first part. Who am I, how do I tend to show up, and what’s the work I can do to bring that awareness and make sure I’m bringing in the other piece? The other is, “I am a big believer.” If you are less experienced, write it out. Write those four things out. Inquiry. The third step of it is always around open-ended questions.
Write some down. Tell me more. Elaborate on that. How does that make you feel? What’s your opinion of how we should proceed? All those kinds of questions. Always walk in knowing what links us. What are common purposes? Immediately, that creates a mini-inside group. We are friends and not foe. We are linked by some sentiments and some goals. “JR, I know that we both care about your career here at X.” you created an in-group right away. From a neuroscience perspective, you created a positive relationship in that mini-setting.
“If I’m on the receiving end of these conversations, you talked about the amygdala response. How do I block first impulses and focus on getting as much out of that conversation as possible? There is a message that I’m supposed to receive here.
You have a responsibility, but I think the person delivering a tough message also has a lot of responsibility to deliver the message in a clear, transparent, direct, caring way, with enough space for processing and with the presence of being there in that conversation. The responsibility of the person receiving it is to breathe and take a step to always, and this isn’t always easy, but try to think of these situations with a learning mindset.
It depends on what the conversation is. Did I get told I’m not getting promoted? Is it something about my performance or is it something about my interpersonal whatever? Is it something beyond my control about the context of our business? Sometimes, budgets get cut that have nothing to do with you, but it affects you and your team.
I would say three things. Breathe, always remember that you want to approach these things with a learning mindset and curiosity. Lastly, if you are overwhelmed, if things are coming at you like, “I need to take this in. I need five minutes to walk down the corridor and get some air,” or, “I need five minutes. I will be back.” Give yourself some space.
When I’m in those situations, it helps to force myself to think about why this person is telling me this. What are their motivations? Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and also asking a rational question triggers the rational part of your brain. It goes with taking a breath and maybe waiting a few minutes and then you can go back with a question. “Help me understand,” or, “Give me an example.” It fights the trigger that a lot of people get.
I came across this and I like this. I’m the manager and I’m telling you as an example, you didn’t make a partner in our consulting firm. What this person said was I prepared the first sentence and the last sentence, and everything else is processing time. “For JR, I’m pleased we could make the time to see each other today.” You start with something that invites. This might not be the conversation you’d want to be having, but it’s important we have it.
“I am sorry to tell you that you aren’t going to be making partner this round. We don’t feel you are ready.” I want to let that land with you and I want you to know we have an hour together or 45 minutes. You can ask questions. We can process this together, but I’m here to dig into whatever aspect of this you want. There was no BS in that. I delivered the bad news to you directly.
In the second sentence.
Yeah, but with respect, care, and compassion. Now, I’m giving you my full presence. I’m here and we have 40 minutes to talk about it.
You have to be prepared for that 40 minutes. In your example, I’m going to want to understand where I fall short. What feedback did the selection group have? What should I be doing differently? Whatever the way you want to phrase it, you have got to make sure that you have something to say.
The last sentence is something future-oriented. Like, “I know you took notes, Jr. If there’s anything you feel was missing or you want to schedule a follow-up to talk about once you have digested and you want to talk about concrete development opportunities, or let’s schedule some time in a week or two.” There will always be something concrete about going forward, but what a gift that is. Now it’s delivered, let’s have a conversation.
This leads to the next thing I wanted to cover, which is feedback, which you cover in the context of applying some of Kim Scott’s work in Radical Candor. How would you describe Radical Candor?
That’s a funny question because when I was wrapping up the book, I called it Compassionate Candor in my book, and I talked about it with that lens. When I wrote to her as I was wrapping up the book, she got back to me very quickly and said, “I don’t call it radical candor anymore. I call it Compassionate Candor,” and she wanted me to footnote that. If she’d written that book three years after she wrote it, she probably would have changed the title. That’s the sense I got. Do you like the Radical Candor more?
I felt like what she was trying to hit at with the positioning of that book was that you just got to own it. You have to own the direct message and radical seems like a word that goes with that. I get it, but you can’t be a jerk about it, which is where the compassion comes in.
It’s interesting how the language does evoke different emotions, isn’t it? I would say the example I gave you was a compassionate candor. Is it a radical candor? Sure. The thing is, we need to deliver as a manager or leader. In any way I get feedback, I got to take it. There’s no discussion if you are my coaching client.
You described feedback as an act of love.
As a leader, you have to take it even if it doesn’t feel like love. You have to take it any way you get it, but as a leader, it is your responsibility to deliver it in a way that people can hear. You have to be careful. You have to think about, “Who is this person? How do I do it?” It can’t be, “This is my style and that’s how I do it.” It can be, but that’s not evolved. I do think, then there’s this whole debate, “Is it feedback or feed-forward?”
If semantics matter to you, let’s use them. What do I care what we call it? I did an interview. It was more like a fireside chat, and the word that she used was, “I don’t use feedback.” She said, “I call it input or insights.” Whatever works for you, but we talk so much about we need learning mindsets. We need to be curious. We can’t grow without insights and inputs. How do we change our cultures and make it safe to give these inputs and insights both ways? This is an overused term, but in a place that feels psychologically safe.
You need that. You argue on point in the book that that’s an underpinning of a functioning team. It’s also the underpinning of a functional bilateral relationship.
It’s the underpinning of everything. I mentioned it in the book. One of the best things I ever saw written on team success was Google’s project, Aristotle, where they set out with big budgets to figure out, “What’s a secret of a successful team?” There were five things. The first one was psychological safety. The safety to admit errors and share opinions. The others were purpose. That was characteristic of a successful team, that people felt a sense of purpose. Another was that there was clarity on roles and responsibilities. I do not remember the other two.
It was similar. That framework that’s in the book is similar to grippy with the psychological safety piece, I felt like added to it. The grippy framework that you also talk about having goals, roles and responsibilities, processes, and interpersonal relationships, those things lined up against the work that came out of the Google project as well. A lot of commonalities between the two.
That grippy framework is like a neglected child. I feel it’s a pretty old framework, but I love it. I used it with a client who’s going into mediation. I said, “I feel like there’s strong goal alignment between you and this other person. I feel like the mission and the goals are clear. There is a total lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities.
Until you are clear, how do you deal with the interpersonal dynamics? It’s like dealing with interpersonal dynamics. While you are stuck in mud, your feet are in mud and you are surrounded by fog, and then you are supposed to find healthy ways to interact. You can’t see each other and you can’t move. Sometimes, we go right to the interpersonal, and it’s healthy to take a little bit like what you are saying, take a step back, and look at, “Bill and Ben are not getting along, but goals, roles and responsibilities, processes and procedures, it waterfalls down.
That’s the beauty of it that there’s a hierarchy. If you don’t have goal alignment, how can you be aligned on anything else? If you don’t have role alignment, then the processes will be harder to figure out. If you don’t have the processes figured out, then you are probably going to have interpersonal issues.
It is very true that you often go to something lower in that waterfall, and the problem is more foundational and it’s helpful to start at the top and confirm. Do we agree on the goal? Do we understand who’s doing what? Do we have a set of processes? It’s powerful in its simplicity. It’s also got a catchy way of remembering it, so that one to me was one I had not heard before that I thought was quite useful.
The way you talked about it, you sounded so knowledgeable. I thought you knew it.
It made so much sense to me immediately. I deal with a lot of project work in my day job and we have all sorts of issues that you have to work through. Having a hierarchical way of thinking about it is helpful to get at where’s the real root cause. You talk about feedback and then you differentiate it from performance reviews using the eating analogy. Perhaps you could share that with us.
In an ideal world, feedback is like a snack. You get it in small bits. A healthy snack. You get it in small bites frequently. Versus a performance review, which is a three-course meal you get once or twice a year. We are not here debating performance reviews. That could be an interesting conversation. I do distinguish between feedback and performance reviews. When someone says, I’m going to tell them in their performance review.” I’m like, “That’s not feedback.”In an ideal world, feedback is like a snack—you get it in small bits. Click To Tweet
Feedback should be happening every day. That’s the culture you want so that things get course corrected quickly. You are not turning a tanker. You are jiving a sailboat, jabbing, or jiving. A sailboat where it’s easier to course correct that way. If things have to escalate, they have to escalate, but what happens, as we all know things because we don’t like to upset people. After all, it’s uncomfortable. Things get bigger and bigger, and then we explode. The person is frustrated, or something goes wrong on a project because we haven’t done those more micro corrections along the way.
It turned into one of those crucial conversations that required a lot more work to do right. If we continue the eating analogy, that would be binging. You also talk about the idea of affirming versus constructive feedback, and you talk about a 3 to 1 ratio also very helpful. Part of this is if you can get somebody comfortable, you are going to hear positive and negative things from you. If you can try to err on the side of having more positive than negative constructive things that you talk about with them, you are helping to create this environment of psychological safety. They know that you are not going to tell them the negative things that you also are noticing the good things that they are doing. It’s also important to get people to be able to hear your feedback.
I don’t have to add one word. You covered it. That’s exactly it.
I want to talk a little bit about neurodiversity. That’s something that is very top of mind for you. We use it to describe people on the autism spectrum, people with ADHD, bipolar disorder, and other things. You talk at the outset of the book about receiving your adult ADHD diagnosis. I’m curious about what led you to go down the path of that possibility and talk a little bit about the impact of getting that diagnosis in your adult life.
The one thing and thank you for bringing it up, neurodiverse is a very broad term. I feel like I deeply understand ADHD and have studied it. I have studied ADHD coaching. I don’t consider myself an ADHD coach and I can explain why, but I feel very comfortable talking about it. I do not feel comfortable talking about autism, Asperger’s, and things like that in any depth because it’s different and the nuances do matter.
I’m very comfortable saying I dream that neurodiversity is another diversity in the workplace. That is, we don’t talk about strengths or weaknesses. We talk about, “This person is neurodiverse. Antonia, you have ADHD. What accommodations are going to make this project work better for you?” That’s it. This is very typical. We all started hearing it more, but I always associated it with rambunctious boys.
My son was diagnosed with it between middle school and high school. I remember thinking, “My God.” I was going to the psychiatrist, the testing, and all that. I remember thinking, “That sounds like me.” It took me a couple more years to get tested and I’m so glad I did it. The way I like to describe it is it’s not an excuse, but it’s information.
When you have that information, you have a responsibility to do something with it. For me, it was very freeing in a funny way. It allowed me to reframe things from my past and go, “It’s not that I am such a loser socially or whatever. My brain is wired a bit differently.” I got a late diagnosis and I built up a lot of scaffolding during my life successfully. I got high marks, but I think I worked three times harder than anybody else.
Describe what you mean by scaffolding.
Dedication is scaffolding and anything that is a process system tool that you use to support you in achieving your goals in a way. I do think of it as the scaffolding when you are building a building. For me, I was a very hard worker. Too hard, in a way. I’m now in a position where I get people to help me with things I’m not good at or don’t want to do. It’s not a good use of my time.
I began to understand I am not someone who can learn by reading a book. I need you to show me. What are the modalities of learning that best match my style? That’s another piece of scaffolding. Two others. One, just what are your tricks and strategies for focus? I have a bouncy ball that I sit on sometimes so I can have motion while I’m sitting. I don’t have one now. I was demonstrating, but I’m sitting in a chair.
I chew gum sometimes. It helps me. I don’t know what, but it does. If I had to say one thing for me, I’m not saying it for everyone. The categorically most important thing I have done to scaffold my ADHD is to exercise. Hands down. There is tons of research on the effects of anxiety, depression, and ADHD. One way of thinking about ADHD is that you are low in dopamine and you need to get dopamine hits. You need more of it. There are healthy ways to get it and not-so-healthy ways to get it. There’s much more coexistence of addiction with ADHD and a super healthy way to get dopamine is through exercise. I do it every day, some way or another.One way of thinking about ADHD is that you are low in dopamine and you need to get dopamine hits. You just need more of it and there are healthy ways to get it. Click To Tweet
That’s why I wanted you to describe scaffolding and your examples are very helpful because it does take different forms. It’s not just, “I have got this process or this system.” You described exercise. You described chewing gum as a form of scaffolding. At the end of the day, it’s whatever helps us. I’m watching the neurodiversity discussion play out in the work world.
I first heard it probably several years ago mentioned in the context of a population that we should be thinking about when we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion. At the end of the day, we all learn, work, and interact differently. You think if we all are in tune with how we all do those things or how we each individually do those things and we can talk about how we do those things, it gets a lot easier.
There’s still a lot of stigma in Corporate America. There’s less stigma in startups, early stage, and high growth. Still, a lot of parents don’t see it as a failing of their child or a weakness or a debilitating something and they don’t want to see it. Attitude change takes time. We have made huge strides. There are examples of corporations that have made great strides. A lot of the tech companies, statistically, some of the folks on the engineering and tech side, there’s higher levels or population of neurodiversity. That’s brought the issue to the forefront, too, but it’s still something clients don’t always want to share. They feel it will be used against them.
We make jokes about people being on the spectrum, which isn’t the most polite thing to do. When I hear that at work, my response is, “We are all on the spectrum.” It’s a way of making it as it’s an everybody thing. It’s not just a subset. I know that’s not completely fair either because some people are severely autistic in a way that the vast majority of the population isn’t. It’s my way of trying to get people to understand that we are all neurodiverse to varying degrees, and the more that we can understand each other, the easier it’s going to be to work together.
I use DISC quite a bit with workshops and I sometimes half-jokingly say, “This is where the DEI work can start. There’s diversity in our styles and our personalities. Let’s embrace that.”
My team did the DiSC framework and talked about it. There was a lot of commonality in the group, which surprised everybody.
You use the DISC and I think you are a CD.
You are exactly right. I was a DC, but you are close. I know we have time constraints. I want to make sure we spend a little bit of time talking about your background. What were you doing in the early part of your career before you got into coaching?
I had a few different ones. I worked in microfinance internationally, helping entrepreneurs set up businesses and training programs. I also worked in the Canadian parliament. I went back to business school and worked in management consulting. I went back to consulting and then leadership positions in some large nonprofits.
Right before I started coaching, I opened the office of an organization that helped low-income women start businesses out of California, and nonprofits don’t go bankrupt. That’s not the language, but essentially, that’s what happened. It ran out of money. We’d been successful in New York in creating this programming and getting funding, but we didn’t control the purse string. It went back to California.
As things were winding down and I was exhausted, I brought in some pro bono coaches who worked with some of the clients of the organization. One of them said to me, “What are you going to do now?” I said, “I don’t know. I’m burned out.” She said, “You should take my coaching course. I do a summer intensive. You are a natural.” I never looked back. It was like what I was made to do.
You have been at it now for several years.
Your coaching philosophy. Describe it a little bit in the book. You say it’s grounded in positive psychology. Can you provide a little bit more on how you think about working with your coaching clients?
The essence of positive psychology is to focus on the strengths. Also, psychology isn’t something for folks that have tremendous challenges that you can bring psychological principles into relatively well-functioning humans but help them get from good to great or okay to good. It’s strength-based, not weakness-based. You are not solving a problem. You are creating a solution. That is how I approach it and how I reframe things. Also, I help my clients understand that they have agency and that they have options and possibilities. That can be so powerful when you feel like you are in reactive mode.
You wrote this book. How do you advise people to think about when they should get a coach and when they should try to work it out? Read the book and work through it on their own.
I would say that there are three ways to use the book. One is if you can’t afford coaching. There are now some online coaching platforms that are very good if you have less money. Be a very critical, demanding consumer. There’s a huge variety of the quality of coaches. Be demanding. If you don’t think the coach is right for you, switch.
The book is great for people who can’t afford coaching because you can go quite far if you are resilient, determined, and have embraced a learning mindset. Secondly, it’s helpful for people who are thinking about going into coaching. “Let me get a little more familiar with it. Let me try this on. Let me get engaged before I get married.” I mentioned this. The book is evergreen in the sense of whether you have a coach or not. “Something is not right on my team. Let me look at that chapter.” “My bedtime routine is not helping me. Let me look at the chapter on habits.” It can be used that way, too.
Last question. What’s ahead for you other than the idea of writing another book?
What’s ahead for me is I am going to walk the Camino de Santiago Compostela in Spain. I know the root. I’m going to do the Primitivo Rainier, but more solitary. I’m going to carry my pack. I’m not going to ship it ahead day to day. I am slowly going to think about what this book looks like and how to research it.
I’m saying this out loud for the first time. I want to speak more. I want to speak more about what’s in the book. I want to speak more to empower people. I’m particularly interested in how to empower some of the folks joining the workforce, “When do you need a coach? When do you need a mentor? How do you get a sponsor?” There’s a lot in this book, and from my experience, “I can’t solve all your problems. I can’t take the journey for you, but I can give you some tools, strategies, and tidbits that might shorten it, and make it more of an enjoyable learning journey.”
We will call it there. Thank you for doing this with me.
My pleasure. Those are great, thoughtful questions. Thank you.
We had a good conversation. I appreciate your time and enjoyed getting to learn some new frameworks from the book. Thank you for that too. Thank you again for your time and have a good rest of your day.
Thank you. You, too.
I want to thank Antonia for joining me to cover her new book, Coach Yourself. She covers some of the frameworks in the book and uses them in her coaching practice. A little bit about ADHD and neurodiversity more broadly and her career journey as well. If you are ready to take control of your career, visit PathWise.io. If you’d like more regular insights, you can become a PathWise member. It’s free. You can also sign up on the website for our newsletter. Follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok. Thanks and have a great day.
- Antonia Bowring
- Coach Yourself!
- Crucial Conversations
- Radical Candor
- LinkedIn – PathWise
- Twitter – PathWise
- Facebook – PathWise
- YouTube – PathWise
- Instagram – PathWise
- TikTok – PathWise
About Antonia Bowring
Antonia Bowring is an ICF-certified, New York-based executive coach who works primarily with founders, C-Suite executives, and leadership teams. One of her areas of expertise is helping neurodiverse leaders create the necessary scaffolding to leverage their gifts and maintain their focus. She is a frequent speaker and a member of the Forbes Coaches Council. The American Reporter named her one of the 10 leadership coaches to watch in 2022.
In addition to coaching, Antonia has a strategic facilitation practice that includes facilitating the CEO Forum (East Coast) of UCLA Anderson School of Management, Chief core groups, offsite leadership programs, and team cohesion projects. She holds a B.A. in Political Science, a M.Phil. in Development Economics, and an MBA.