The Coach I Never Met

Fall sunset in Joshua Tree National Park

Sometimes, people we’ve never met can have a profound impact on our lives and learning. Let me tell you about one such person, Nancy Duncan. Nancy was my mentor coach during my CTI coaching certification program last year. I had interviewed nine potential mentor coaches. Then, a fellow student recommended her coach, Nancy.

“Well, one more interview can’t hurt,” I said, and so, I called her. After our session, I knew immediately that Nancy was the right fit. She loved coaching students in CTI certification, and it showed. She also had special certification rates that only one of the other coaches I spoke to offered.

I started my certification in the spring of 2018, and Nancy and I worked together into late fall. Mentor coaches guide you through your training and also coach you on what’s going on in your own life. Yes, coaches need coaches too!

By late summer in DC, I was truly itching to get out of town and embark on an adventure out west that had been a dream for a while. However, I had taken on a consulting assignment that had morphed into something far bigger than I signed up for. It would have been challenging to manage from the road, especially as I planned to explore the southwest US on this trip; you can drive through canyons and desert for miles on end without a rest point or wi-fi signal. And besides, I had quit my job a few years earlier so I could have this kind of freedom. The assignment was turning into another job, and I did not want to be tethered to a laptop.

With Nancy’s coaching holding me firmly accountable to my vision, I ended my consulting agreement. This was not easy to do as I like to complete what I have started, but, it gave me the bandwidth to focus on something that had become far more important to me–my coaching certification and clients. It was saying goodbye to the old world I had wanted to leave behind and step into the new one.

I continued my certification and coaching from the road. My last call with Nancy in early October was from Hilo. We had one more call scheduled after that. She felt that I was ready for my exam and did not need it. She also said she was going to take a break from coaching effective immediately. I have a hard time with parting, and so she agreed to schedule one more session in November.

When I reached LA in early November, I realized that she was right–I did not need another session to prepare for my exams. We had practiced enough and gone through drills. I had also sensed something was up when I last spoke to Nancy, that she was taking a break because something else had interrupted her life. And so, when I wrote to her to cancel the last session, I also said:

“I do want to thank you for your coaching—the work we did has really helped me become a better coach, and I am well prepared for my certification. Thank you for your commitment to my growth.”

She replied on November 3: “It has been my honor and delight to work with you. Let me know once you have your CPCC [certification].”

It was a succinct reply, that I knew was heartfelt and true to how she showed up as a coach.

After LA, I headed to Palm Springs to catch up with a friend. Then, after a few days in Joshua Tree National Park, I headed east to Phoenix where Nancy lived, and from where I would fly back to DC. I had always hoped we would have a chance to meet and even have our last session in person. But we had completed our relationship, and knowing she was taking a break, that was no longer on the agenda.

I sent her a message on December 23 from DC as soon as I got word that I had passed my exam: “It feels good to be certified! I just wanted to thank you for all your coaching and diligence in making sure I was ready for this. You really are committed to your clients, and I know while you’re taking a break from coaching, there are many more out there who would benefit from your dedication and commitment as I have. Thank you again, and wishing you good transformations in the year ahead…”

I never heard back.

Almost a year passed. A few days ago, on November 9, 2019, she popped into my head. I searched online and came across her obituary. She had passed away from cancer on November 12, 2018. Her last message to me had been written in her last week of life as she was dying, and still being able to say: “it has been my honor and delight to work with you.”

I can’t think of anything that could better epitomize the service and giving that true coaches are committed to. This last lesson, coming from her heart, could not have been captured in any session. It was not something she did, it was in her beingness.

One thing I’m relearning from this experience is the power of appreciating and acknowledging someone, not only for what they may have given, or how they helped, but for whom they’re being in the expression their gifts.

Acknowledgment comes from the heart, not the intellect. A “thank you” may precede it, but it is not thanks nor praise nor flattery. It doesn’t seek anything in return. Something gets created in an acknowledgment–it is generative.

Be generous in your acknowledgment of others. Don’t hold back—true acknowledgment is authentic, and it asks us to be vulnerable. Look the person in the eye as you acknowledge them. If you’re on the phone or writing an email to a person you have never met, don’t worry, it will be received and felt as powerfully. And don’t wait.

I’m very saddened by Nancy’s death. She was a joy to work with, comforting, concerned, optimistic, and ultimately, someone who held me accountable to move forward on my new path despite my fears. While she would not have read my last acknowledgment, I know she got it–both in our prior communications and the unseen intimacy we can choose to have with another person.

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