How often do you go for a walk to enable you to think things through? The answer is probably not often enough.
Increasingly I coach my clients whilst we walk. I first did this as a spontaneous response to a senior leader in London, whose eyes were ‘flitting’ between me, his computer screen, his phone and occasionally over my shoulder. I knew there was an opaque glass divider behind me and I asked him whether he wanted to ‘be with me’ or ‘be with his work’. At first he didn’t understand, until I pointed out that he’d received three emails, two messages on his phone and two people had walked along the corridor behind me. When he asked ho I knew that, I fed back how his eyes had moved between them all.
He was unaware of it, so I suggested we go for a walk and leave all of our IT there. By the time we had reached the ground floor, I could sense his anxiety and reassured him that, in the next ninety minutes, his business wouldn’t collapse and the world would still keep rotating. Once he discovered how liberating being away from his technology and work environment was, he became far more present to our conversations. On subsequent meetings he asked to go for a walk.
On another occasion I arranged a chemistry meeting telephone conversation with a lady working in London, to see whether I was the right person to help her. I remember that telephone call well. She spoke at such a speed I felt I was being verbally machine-gunned. She hardly paused for breath and clearly wanted to explain why she felt the need for coaching and what her issues were as quickly as possible, so as not to interrupt her busy schedule. She ended her tirade with, “So, can you help me and when can you come to see me?”
Whilst listening to her (or at least trying to keep up with her), I was debating whether she needed a different kind of professional. By the end of the conversation I decided to have an initial meeting with her, to better understand her and her issues. Having ascertained the town where she lived and, for a reason I have never been able to explain, I declined going to her office and suggested we meet at a National Trust estate that was half-way between us. Her initial response was she did not have time to, to which I asked whether she had time not to and she reluctantly agreed.
What an experience! As soon as we met, she was off – walking through the gardens nearly as fast as she was talking. I hadn’t realised this was a warm-up for an Olympic walking race. I let her speak and could feel her anxiety. On the few occasions I got a word in edgeways, I ascertained that she worked incredibly long hours, did not take lunch breaks and was on the go from early morning to late evening.
Having let her talk, we eventually reached an area of the gardens where there is a lake, with an 18thCentury house at one end and a magnificent view of the trees. As we reached this point, I asked the lady to do me a favour – and stop speaking for a moment.
I pointed out to her that, whilst not wishing to diminish anything that was causing her to be so anxious, the lake has been there a few hundred years; even longer than the beautiful house and goodness knows how long some of those trees have been there. Long after we are both dead and gone, they will still be there and no one is going to write on her gravestone, ‘she gave her all to this company’.
She paused and looked – and got quite emotional, realising that it was the first time she’d paid any attention to our current surroundings. We then agreed to go for a much slower walk through the rest of the grounds. What happened then was significantly notable. She walked slower and, almost by default, spoke slower. At times she even stopped to think, whilst looking at the scenery.
On returning to the car park she described her walk as a ‘magical experience’, where she could ‘be’ and take time to think and relax. She said her sense of anxiety had gone and, for the first time in a long-time, she felt relaxed.
As a result of that experience she says she now walks everywhere more slowly, breathes better and feels better. She consciously works fewer hours and encourages her staff to do the same. The other benefits to her staff are that she does not come across as always being hectically busy; she says she listens to them more and encourages them to take their lunch breaks – and go for a walk!