Sometimes the best way to learn how to do something is by learning how not to do it.
As many of you probably already know, coaching is partly the process of asking the right questions to foster improvement. A good coach works in partnership with the client to concentrate on certain issues, while remaining focused, attentive and reflective about has been heard. Offer suggestions only as a last resort—and only with permission. In normal conversations, coaches only need to speak about 25% of the time.
In contrast, here are examples of what not to do.
If you are in a position to coach someone, you likely have experience and knowledge. You are also probably accustomed to stepping in and solving problems. When coaching, it can be extremely tempting to just provide the answer, but when you jump right into solving the people’s problems for them, you aren’t coaching them. You could be advising, directing, teaching or telling—but you aren’t coaching.
The problem with fixing the problem is that just because you know the answer and would be able to implement it doesn’t mean your team can. Coaching allows you to explore the best answer based on your team’s unique talents, experiences and style. The right solution for you might not be the right solution for them. At the same time, even if your solution is correct, it doesn’t mean they are ready to implement it. Coaching allows you both to explore what challenges lie ahead.
What if you can’t focus on the coaching because you are so sure you know the answer? If you are really certain that you know the best way, I suggest saying, “Do you mind if I jump in? I have a lot of experience with this issue, and I think I have a possible solution . . .”
Share your idea, but let them decide if they are ready to accept it; then decide if you should continue being a consultant and advisor or get back to being a coach. The latter means that you’re once again ready to ask open-ended questions based on what the goal. The former means that you use facts and logic to make your case. Be explicit regarding whether you are wearing the hat of a consultant, teacher, manager or coach. Otherwise, it might cause confusion.
I used to see myself as a smart guy who could solve problems. I left coaching sessions feeling great about myself, but people didn’t always implement my suggestions. When I allowed them to solve their own problems, however, they felt smart and that I was providing great value.
Don’t fix. Coach.
Knowing the Answer and Manipulating
If you know the answer, don’t torture others into figuring it out on their own with a series of Socratic questions. That’s not coaching. At best, it is teaching the way they do in law school. At worst, it’s manipulation—your attempt to get people to come to the same conclusion about a decision. It can feel condescending, tedious and obnoxious to have to endure a series of questions knowing that the coach already has the answer.
Coaching is for situations when you both jump into the unknown. Don’t play the “What’s in my pocket?” game. If you already know the answer, simply tell them.
I worked with one manager who had a tendency to play this game. After interviewing his employees, I discovered that they called this manager’s process “torturous self-realization.” They loved his coaching style when it made sense for him to coach them, but when he already knew the answer, his employees found his approach to be inauthentic, tedious and an inefficient use of time.
Don’t interrupt when you coach. This deceptively simple rule can be hard for coaches who process information quickly. If you interrupt, you might cut someone off during a crucial moment of realization. Get comfortable with silence. Sometimes silence is the best coaching question of all because it encourages deeper thinking about an issue and goes beyond the usual.
If you are in a noisy place, have crises to handle, are on the phone or checking email on your laptop, you are not in a position to coach. Coaching requires focus, and your clients deserve your attention. Don’t coach distracted.
Stacking questions means that you ask your client more than one question at a time. For instance, “Tell me about the people involved in this issue. Also, what do you see as the main ways to resolve the issue? And, when you do resolve it, what are your action steps?”
Even if you might be thinking of many different questions, people can usually only focus on—and remember—one question at a time. Be patient. Let the process unfold. Ask one question at a time. By waiting, you might also find that the next logical question is different from what you had expected.
Checklist coaching means that you already have a list of questions to ask. There is no need to listen and no room for creativity or flexibility. Coaches who fall into this habit sometimes don’t even seem to be listening. They ask one question, maybe grunt acknowledgment and then move to the next. You can become more like an interviewer than a coach. People need to feel as though they are being heard.
Instead, let the coaching process unfold naturally. Ask questions based on what you’re told. If they know what to say, try introducing a different line of inquiry to ignite new ideas, but avoid rote, checklist-based coaching.
The diagnostic sounds like this, “Have you tried A? Have you tried B? Have you tried C? Have you tried D?” It’s similar to having an algorithm or flow chart—or similar to a doctor trying to diagnose a disease. This kind of approach is good for solving problems and for consulting, but good coaching—good coaches ask open-ended questions and allow the laboratory staff to come up with their own ideas. If you think a particular situation warrants a diagnostic approach, let others know about it.
Some coaches hide their ideas in the form of a question, thinking that asking leading questions is a good tractic. For instance, “Have you tried X?;” “What about trying Y?;” “When will you set up a meeting with him to discuss this?” It is better to be less direct and ask questions that allow other people to lead the process.
Some examples of this are:
“What are your ideas to solve this challenge?”
“What can you try?”
“Who can help?”
Fads and Trends
Some coaches are suckers for the latest trends or fads, and you can bet there are coaches waiting in line to share their insights. These coaches come across as though they’re pushing a particular philosophy. They make it seem flaky—or worse, people just want them to go away.
Don’t look for fads. Let the problem dictate the approach rather than pushing a method and hoping it solves the problem. Listen to the specific situation. Applying frameworks or concepts from various disciplines can be valuable, but wait until the situation calls for it.
Some coaches believe you can never offer advice or observations to a client. They insist on only asking open-ended questions. As a result, it feels more like therapy or becomes frustrating. One executive who came to me called this form of coaching “an expensive waste of time.”
A balance exists between jumping too quickly to suggested solutions and not offering observations or insights at all. It is perfectly acceptable to offer your ideas and insights. In fact, it’s expected. If you wait until you have thoroughly explored the issue from their point of view and then ask permission to share your insight, it’s usually appreciated.
Caring More Than They Do and Getting Frustrated
Sometimes it feels that you care more about a person or laboratory’s goals than they do. It can be frustrating. Many parents also face this issue, for instance, when their child declares they want to go to Harvard, but don’t do their homework.
When this happens, avoid the temptation of getting too attached and becoming disappointed. You can certainly talk openly this lack of effort and what might be going on, but if you start judging, become exasperated or even chide them, you have jumped into the realm of bad coaching.
What do you do if you’re asked to coach employees who are not performing as they should? One option is to go and coach them, but be careful. Sometimes coaches are asked to step in when a person just wants their dirty work done for them. It is often better to coach more effective leadership and try to influence the other person.
For instance, I worked with a client who was leading a major performance improvement program. He asked me to talk to one of his executives who wasn’t participating and improve productivity in his area.
What would you do in that situation? In my judgment, my client wasn’t asking me to coach this executive. He was asking me to influence the executive to get on board with the program. On further exploration, I learned that my client was intimidated and didn’t like confrontation. So, we worked on strategies to get over this fear.
Remember: Coaching isn’t about stepping in and doing a client’s work. It is about helping people be more effective so that they can do the work without you.
Tracking Progress and Measuring Results.
Like any other profession, coaching is about getting results. If you neglect to agree on a clear intent or outcome, you won’t know if any of your results have been achieved. If you don’t put a way to measure progress in place, you won’t know if you are on track. If you don’t track progress, you won’t know when you have concluded the engagement. Any coaching outcome—from improved confidence to new attitudes and behaviors, stronger relationships and individual or team performance—can be measured with a little bit of creativity.