Why and how to improve your coaching skills

This month, we look at coaching skills as a method of helping you optimise the performance and long term potential of your people.

Please read on to find out more…

Why and how to improve your coaching skills

What is coaching?  

“Coaching is the art of facilitating the performance, learning and development of another…The role of the coach is to enable the coachee to explore, to gain a better understanding, to become more aware and from that place, to make a better decision.”
Myles Downey, Effective Coaching

Coaching is different from mentoring – coaching is asking questions to enable the other person to think for themselves, whereas mentoring is offering your advice and experience.

You might have read The Inner Game of Tennis by W Timothy Gallwey. In it, he explains that top sports people often have a similar level of physical skill; what gives them the edge is their state of mind. Using a tennis analogy, he writes: “The opponent within one’s own head is more formidable than the one on the other side of the net.”

Note that coaching is focused on where someone wants to be in the future, not on looking back to the past.

What qualities make a good coach?

Here are the main skills you need in order to do coaching well:

  • Be agenda-less
    Although it can be hard to coach someone in your team, don’t have your own agenda; be focused on theirs. Don’t try to influence or steer the outcome, otherwise you won’t build trust or support the individual to think for themselves.
  • Be ego-less
    Focus on the needs and motivations of the other person; not your own. Don’t let your ego or pride interfere in any way. (There is more on this in my previous article What’s the role of the leader.) Assume the person has the answers within themselves – it’s more powerful and motivating when they come to a decision through self-discovery rather than being led or told.
  • Demonstrate good listening skills
    Really listen and be intensely curious about what’s coming next. Just listen fully, without filtering or jumping to conclusions. (For more information, see my article on How to create time to think.) Your attention generates their thinking.
  • Have an aura of calm
    It’s important to make the other person feel relaxed and safe so they can explore in a freer way, rather than try to second-guess what you are thinking or feel pressured to hurry up/respond in a particular way.
  • Watch your body language
    Body language can give away so much. Coaching is a powerful role and most people want to make a good impression on you. So if you show any emotion, your coachee will react and adapt what they are saying, which negatively impacts their thinking space.
  • Be interested and respectful
    When someone knows you genuinely care about them and what they want, they open up and take more risks. If they think you’re not interested, you are not giving them the respect and care they need.
  • Keep your mind open and non-judgmental
    What works for you may not work for them. Your role is to help them get what they want, not what you think they should want.
  • Be supportive and challenging
    Be supportive so they feel you care – but don’t let the session get too cosy. Stretch their thinking about what’s possible. Challenge them in a supportive way if their self-awareness is low or they are in denial or avoiding something. Reassure them you are on their side and the reason you are challenging is to help them get where they want to be.
  • Believe in human potential
    Sometimes people say that someone has ‘hit their ceiling’, but I have a philosophy of lifelong learning, and believe it’s always possible to grow. A good coach holds an expectation that their coachee WILL be successful. If you hold complete faith in them, it builds their self-belief and enables them to stretch beyond what they thought was possible (this links back to Gallwey – so much of what impedes a person is their own inner critic.)
  • Don’t take responsibility for the outcome
    The coachee should take responsibility for their own goals. That way they demonstrate more commitment and have more chance of success. If a coachee asks your opinion, only give it after you’ve already asked all the questions you can to help them work it out for themselves.

When is coaching right (and when not)?

Daniel Goleman talks about six distinct leadership styles and when to apply each:

  1. Coercive leaders demand immediate compliance
  2. Authoritative leaders mobilise people toward a vision
  3. Affiliative leaders create emotional bonds and harmony
  4. Democratic leaders build consensus through participation
  5. Pacesetting leaders expect excellence and self-direction
  6. Coaching leaders develop people for the future

Email me for more information about Leadership That Gets Results (or see the Books page of my website).

Great leaders show versatility; they have the emotional intelligence to know which style to use and when.

The coaching style is best used when helping employees improve their performance or develop long-term strengths. It is not appropriate if the coachee is resistant to learning or changing their ways, and should be used with caution when disciplining under-performers (it’s worth trying only if their motivation to change is high.)

Often, coaching is not used as much as the other styles, because it’s perceived that it takes longer. However, coaching can be very powerful and motivating, and can deliver better results. What’s more, once a coaching relationship has established some momentum, it can be done quickly.

Coaching principles

  • When your coachee is looking at options and trying to make a decision, encourage them to think AND rather than EITHER/OR. That way, they are likely to come up with other insights and good ideas.
  • Start with the end in mind – establish both what your coachee wants to get out of the session, and their longer-term goal/s.
  • Pick up on their body language and pay attention to what they are NOT saying. I plan to cover this topic in a future newsletter, but meanwhile, please contact me if you’d like help with this.
  • Remember, not all coaching conversations have to generate an outcome; it may be sufficient to stimulate their thinking. (There’s more on this in my How to create time to think article.)
  • Go at their pace; don’t rush.
  • Even if you think it would be helpful to offer your opinion, try to keep your insights to a minimum. Phrase it as a thought rather than a definitive answer, such as “I sense…”, “What’s going through my mind is…” This makes it easier for them to reject your input if necessary.
  • Coaching doesn’t always have to happen in a formal block of time. It can take place in just five minutes, especially once it’s a routine part of your relationship with someone to have that type of dialogue with them.
  • Silence is very powerful and often enables more thinking, so don’t feel uncomfortable in silence.
  • Confidentiality is key, so ensure the space is quiet, free from interruptions and private. Be the master of discretion. If you are coaching someone within your organisation, confidentiality needs to be explicitly discussed and agreed, given your roles; it’s not as straightforward as it would be for an external coach.
  • Try not to write notes (or not many) so you can focus all your attention on the other person. It can help that person’s thinking and action planning if they make their own notes or mind-map.
  • If it would help you to have a process in mind when coaching, then try the simple GROW MODEL. (More on Wikipedia.) This sequence is particularly useful for the first session but can begin and end at any stage when progress is underway:
    GOAL: For the session, as well as short- and long-term
    REALITY: Explore the current situation
    OPTIONS/OBSTACLES: Alternative strategies and courses of action
    WAY FORWARD: What is the coachee going to do, and when

Good coaching questions

Here are some ideas for coaching questions that make all the difference:

Starting questions

“What do you want?” (Begin with the end in mind)
“What would that do for you?”
“What would you see, hear and feel when you achieve it?”
“What would others see, hear and feel when you achieve it?”
“What’s stopping you doing this for yourself now?”
“What options do you have for how to deal with those?”

Other questions

“What is the wildest thing you could do?” (This may seem wacky but can often throw up options that can become viable once they’re worked on)

“What would you say if you could say anything to x?”

“If you knew the answer, what would it be?”

“What is working for you right now?  What can you learn from this that you can apply to your challenge?”  

“What are you assuming that is stopping you from [whatever it is they want to do/be]?”

“What does your intuition tell you about [person or situation]?”

“What is a challenging step you want to take in your life right now that you are not taking?”

“Who can help you with [goal]?”

“How motivated do you feel to meet your goal? What would make it a 10/10?”  

“If you don’t resolve [challenge] what’s at stake?”

“If you only had one hour per day to do your job how would you spend it?” (This is good for helping individuals identify their priorities and highest value contribution instead of trying to do everything)

“If you were on a desert island with x what would it be like?” (This helps to understand dynamics in a relationship and then decide how to work through any difficulties)

“If you didn’t need to earn an income, what would you do?”

“What’s the first step you need to take to reach your goal?”

“What will you have been able to do by the time we talk or meet again?”

I hope you find this information useful. As always, I welcome your feedback. Please let me know if you’d like my help to improve coaching skills within your organisation.

Next month, we look at handling conflict.