Would You Choose Blake Shelton or Pharrell Williams… To Be Your Doula?
Posted by Kyndal - Sharing Trust

In our house, we love NBC’s The Voice. It is one of the few shows that can still bring our teenage boys into the living room to watch television with us. We’ve watched all but the first season and enjoy that this wonderful show puts the focus on what should truly matter about a singer – their voice. We love that the coaches on The Voice have no idea what the vocalist looks like as they listen to them singing. Age, race, body-type, play no part in whether the coach will turn their chair in hopes of working with the singer. Sometimes, even the singer’s gender is a complete surprise to the four iconic musicians who sit in the now iconic red chairs.

This season as we watched the “blind auditions” my sons and I noticed that each coach has a particular style of approaching the contestant as they try to convince him/her to join their team. As we identified those ‘signature’ approaches, it occurred to me how each “style” reminded me of something I see with newer doulas (and even some experienced ones) who are being interviewed by expectant parents. Before I go on, I should say that train birth doulas. Everything I am going to mention here, I cover in my workshops, so where I am going with this isn’t news to the doulas that have taken my workshops but it might be something for parents to look for as you interview doulas and it might hit home with a few doulas too.

This observation of the coaches’ signature approach started this year with the return of Gwen Stefani to the show. We noticed that, initially, Gwen had some very ‘stock’ pitches for the contestants. “I have had the longest career” was her go-to pitch. There were others too, some gender and fashion-related, and the one that confused us the most, but let’s examine the first one.

Having the longest career. This resonates with me because I have been a birth doula for 20 years, first in Seattle and now in Boise. I get the value of being around long enough to have seen so much. Notice I didn’t say ‘seen everything’ because if I know anything it’s this – just when you think you know something about birth it humbles you. Now I get that experience often means a lot of education, perspective and wisdom, but the truth is, just because you have been practicing a long time doesn’t mean what you’ve been practicing is what clients want or need. We all know about care providers whose client load is full but evidence-based practice is not what happens in that office. And how can expectant parents find out what that experience translates to in action if they only see the doctor for 7 minutes in a visit. The same is true in the doula profession. The longer I practice the more differences I encounter among doulas. For example, some doulas do one prenatal visit, some do two (or more) and fascinatingly, some do none at all. Some book enough time and different ways to connect with their clients and some limit appointments significantly. If relationship and familiarity is what you want/need in your doula (and to me that is what having a doula is about) then make sure there is time and place for that to happen.  The busier I am the more creative ways I have to find to get to know and spend time with my clients.

If the longest career pitch didn’t work for Gwen, she started down the list of alternatives but the one that had us all scratching our heads was the one where she tells the singer how she is working on an album and she needs someone as wonderful as them to inspire her. This “I want to be your coach for what can you do for me approach” I am happy to say I don’t see much with doulas because as a general rule, most tend to come with pretty big “helping hearts.” But it does rear its head sometimes in the form of doulas who feel desperate to get all of their certifying births out of the way. Certifying births refers to the minimum number of births that a doula needs to attend for her/his certification (it varies between organizations but 3 is a common number.) Sometimes doulas get fixated on getting those births out of the way to check off that requirement. What they forget is two-fold: that not every one of those first three births may qualify and every birth – from the 3rd to the 300th is going to teach them something which is far more valuable than the first three that qualify.

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So, if you are still trying to get those qualifying births – know this: that desperation feeling leaves quickly if the doulas value their training, their time, their talents and themselves. That value is defined by charging what all of those things are worth as a professional. Just like the nurse right of nursing school doesn’t work for free. The doula right out of training charges a professional fee. That takes the desperation right out the picture and allows doulas to focus on what brought them to the work – the desire to help their clients.

Next, let’s look at Coach Adam Levine. The lead singer for Maroon 5 has won The Voice twice so he clearly brings something to the table. His style is a really a combination of three strategies. Let’s break them down.

First, one of Levine’s approaches is to tell the singers what he would change or “fix”.  In my 20 years practicing as a doula, this might be the single biggest mistake new (and a few ‘seasoned’) doulas make when they meet prospective clients. Some doulas really do have very strong feelings about what parents should or shouldn’t do. For example, they hear that a prospective client is planning a natural childbirth in such-and-such hospital or with a particular care provider who the doula knows (or perceives) is not natural childbirth friendly. The doula lets the parents know that it will be very difficult for them and that they might want to look elsewhere for another provider. That doula carries the business cards of other care providers to interviews just in case the parents need a recommendation. I am not saying that being honest with expectant parents isn’t a good idea.  We do need to be honest AND we need to keep our opinions to ourselves until and maybe even IF the parents ask. HOW we share information as well as how much we share is very important. Perhaps a doula learns that the client isn’t planning to breastfeed.  Armed with the evidence about the benefits of breastfeeding, the doula launches into the research and the importance of colostrum.  Not a bad thing…until the doula finally learns why the couple is planning to bottle feed.  More on that later.

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The second of Levine’s approaches is an extension of the first. Here, Adam lets the contestant know how much he knows – “I play drums. I play piano, too.” This is not, in itself, a bad thing. But again, what significance does it have to the singer at that particular moment in time – while they are trying to decide which vocal coach to choose? It begins to feel like tossing of the pasta to see if it will stick.

The classic doula version of this approach is the brand new doula who, despite great training, feels worried about a lack of experience and so begins sharing an inventory of knowledge.  If not asked about a specific topic it can be awkwardly attached to another question leaving the parents to connect the dots…or not. We cover this in my workshops because it is a common trap for nearly every service profession and possibly every human.  This is because this approach is akin to the dance of worthiness – that thing we do when we aren’t sure we have enough to offer or feel like we can’t justify our very appropriate professional fee.  It is important for all of us to hold the magnifying glass up for a closer look and ask the question of ourselves – can I tolerate not knowing all the answers?  Can I stand being in the place of discovery and still be valuable to this person?  The answer is yes, for both the doula and the voice coach.  And it is deeply important to embrace that fact. Otherwise, you end up at Levine’s third approach which looks and sounds a lot like begging and you might find yourself in some variation of the “pick me” posture seen in the first three photos (photo credit: NBC).

Which brings us to Blake Shelton. The country singer has won The Voice 4 times and he shares that frequently. Good salesmanship? Possibly, as “selling” the contestant on why they should “pick me” is what all the coaches seem to do when it’s their turn to talk the singer. Shelton is clearly a compassionate heart though he hides it behind a funny, if somewhat sad, self-deprecating style – that is, when he isn’t gloating.  I thought it would be hard to connect this approach to anything I see with doulas, but eventually, I did notice something I sometimes see which is the attention-getting drama of comparing all the players.

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Shelton focuses on the differences, first between him and Adam, and now, Pharrell Williams.  The story Shelton wants the singer to believe is that there is so much difference between him and the other coaches that the contestant who identifies most with him must go with Shelton for any hope of success.  Grasping for straws, looking for anything to compare and turn into a “value-added statement”, Shelton finally turns to how his fellow coaches wear their jeans!  At that point, it has become comical.   What isn’t comical though, is that what first appears like a compelling inference – “Go with the ‘winner’.  After all, you want to model your career after mine, yes?” soon becomes a shallow presumption where the coach thinks he knows what the singer wants through some quick checklist of behaviors or qualities or, in Shelton’s case, where the contestant lives.

For doulas, this comes down to whether there exists the same humility with regard to saying we have any idea what a person might be like as there is about saying we have any idea about how a particular birth is going to go. It takes time, attention and valuing the person beyond “closing the sale”. And that brings us to Pharrell Williams.

What stands out most to me, as a doula, a doula trainer, and a human being, is how Pharrell listens. He does what we ask doulas to do – listen deeply.  He doesn’t make his interactions with the contestants about himself.  He keeps the focus on them and he asks them questions.  As a result, he opens the door for rich answers and unexpected moments to reveal themselves.  The best example of this was Evan McKeel’s blind audition where all four coaches turned their chairs to hear his wonderful performance of Typical by alternative rock band, Mutemath.

After the other coaches do their best to convince Evan that he should go with them, Pharrell does something different.  He asks a single question:  “What would it mean to you to advance?”

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Such a simple question and so worth watching what happened next.

What would it mean to you?  And from that question, everyone saw a completely different kind of singer than they experienced moments before.  One question with one intention: to better understand the person in front of us.  To move toward each other rather than apart. To understand rather to be understood.  Pharrell’s willingness to ask a question instead of pitch himself gave Evan the opportunity to respond in what Levine called such an “elegant” way.

Good questions do that. They unlock doors and throw open windows and lead to answers that have meaning.  They aren’t always easy to ask.  The asking requires letting go of the need to know everything or have control or be perfect.  And the asking might lead to feeling vulnerable and not knowing whether you’ll be chosen.  Ask a question and you might find that the client is not planning to breastfeed because she is a breast cancer survivor and, in her case, breastfeeding is no longer an option.

The pearl in this story is in Evan’s answer to the next question “who do you choose as your coach?” His choice wasn’t easy.  He valued something about each coach.  Just as a prospective client will likely value something about each doula or a doula value something about several different providers or even find value in different organizations, there is something for everyone.

After listing the many reasons he might go with any one of the coaches, Evan chose the one person who asked a question.  He chose Pharrell.  That was no surprise to me.

I would choose Pharrell, too. Every time.  And I actually really like all of the coaches very much.  I know much of what they do is entertainment.  But I also know that what is happening truly matters to the contestants just as what happens in the birth matters greatly to the parents.

I would choose Pharrell because his approach is like mine.  He stays present so he can see what is really happening with the person in front of him.  He chooses connection instead of separation.  And he chooses the contestant’s story instead of his own.  He knows, just like good doulas know, that his client’s success has very little to do with him.  After all, Pharrell won The Voice last year with Sawyer Frederickson, but when asked what it was like, he said Sawyer was proof that any idea that you must do something one way to be successful is just not true. Sawyer did it his way and Pharrell just watched him make his choices about what had the most meaning to him.

As much as I appreciated Pharrell’s approach to Evan McKeel’s blind audition, I appreciated his response to being chosen as his coach even more.   There was no chest beating, no thumbing of the nose at the other coaches.  Just a quiet gratitude.

An equally elegant response.

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