Do you truly know what coaching is? I asked a group of 20 managers what they thought coaching is. Some responded coaching is telling people what they need to know to get a job done. Others said it is a way of dealing with poor performance and providing support and weekly check-ins to make sure the performance improves. A couple suggested coaching is similar to facilitation – moving people towards a specific behaviour or goal.

There are many types of coaches – the sports coach being the one that most people are familiar with. Many a young athlete has been reduced to tears by a soccer coach yelling at them from the sidelines or a dance teacher pushing them harder and longer than they can endure. I am not saying these are ineffective techniques, although as a borderline athlete at best, they did not work on me. I simply did not have the skills or, frankly, the desire to do what it took to excel in sports. And being yelled at did not motivate me to try harder.

Imagine using these techniques in a business setting? Well I did have a boss who yelled at employees, but she did not even pretend she was coaching them. She was just downright nasty and thought that was performance management. I left that job – life is too short, right? I digress, back to coaching.

Coaching in the business world is not training, instruction, providing advice or mentoring, or performance management. Coaching is listening to what the person is saying and helping them find clarity in specific situations, make decisions or up their game by asking probing questions that make them think differently. Having a coaching conversation can also be a regular way of communicating, not just a way to deal with problem situations.

Some coaches or supervisors also wear a mentor hat, but need to be careful to not give advice too freely. The reason is that people are more committed to action when it is their own idea. As an HR Leader, I often had people come in to my office with complaints. If I suggested a way they could deal with the problem, the chances of them doing it would be pretty low. However, if I asked them what they thought the best way to deal with the situation was, after they took some time to explain and talk about it, they would more often than not come up with a solution on their own – and they would be more likely to try to implement it. Those of you with kids have likely had the same challenge – tell them what to do or help them figure out what they should do – which is more likely to be successful?

To see the benefits of coaching, you do not have to hire a professional coach – just try having a coaching conversation. I would like you to try this the next time a coworker, friend or child comes to you with a complaint or a challenge:

1.      Listen to what they have to say (so often we just cut them off because we already know what they are going to say or don’t really listen because we have heard this before). Be present. Ask them to give you more information so you understand their challenge. Ask what else… questions to get all the information.

2.      Ask them to describe the ideal situation or relationship. What would they like to see?

3.      Ask them what the real challenge is?

4.      Ask if anything is becoming clearer for them. Most often, by this time, they will have had some sort of breakthrough and have some clarity on how to fix the situation.

5.      Next, it is time for a commitment to action. Ask what their next steps will be and when?

6.      Ask what way you can support them?

A trained coach will be able to adjust their questions depending on the answers (like when they say “I don’t know! That is why I am asking you.” but you can also try these possible responses: What do you think? What is your best guess? What if you did know?) The point is that the person who comes to some sort of plan during a coaching conversation is more likely to take action because it is their choice and their plan.

Other coaching conversations you may have could include someone who is looking for clarity regarding a decision they have to make, someone looking for some direction on what to do with their future, a plan for how to make it to the next step in their career, or sometimes just an opportunity to talk something through. The questions above form a good place to start a coaching conversation, but sometimes getting a professional coach to help in these situations can be helpful because these tend to be longer term changes.

Things to remember (aka things I learned in coaching school):

1.      WAIT (Why Am I Talking?) – post this on your desk where you can see it when you are having a coaching conversation. The coach should do more listening than talking.

2.      It is about the coachee – not about the coach. You may think you have the answer, but that is your answer. They need to come up with it themselves. If they are stuck, one way to help them out is by telling a story – perhaps a time when you had a similar situation and what you did. Or ask them whether they have been involved in any similar in the past and how they handled it? Is there anything they did then that they might be able to use now?

3.      Coaching is about the future and moving forward. Counselling is about the past. Leave the counselling to the professionals. You can (and should be) empathetic to whatever the person is going through, but ultimately, your job is to help them figure out a path forward. That is the direction they are going.

4.      Stay away from leading or yes/no questions such as “Is this even important to you?”. Turn those into open ended questions like “What is important to you?”.

As I noted before, coaching conversations are not just for the workplace. My relationship with my then teenage son, improve dramatically when I stopped making assumptions about his behaviour and really listened to him. I had to stop myself from passing judgement (ie. why was he underachieving when he had a genius IQ) and I asked questions instead. I explained my concerns and told him I wanted to change the conversation to a coaching conversation if he was okay with that. Some of the questions I asked were: What did he think was going on? What was important to him? Did he understand the consequences of not doing well in high school? No wait, that was a yes/no question – stay away from those. What did he think the consequences of not doing well in high school might be? What did he think he needed to be successful? Wait, back up a question… what did he think success looked like? What was he prepared to commit to? What supports did he need from me (A math tutor was his suggestion. Someone to keep him accountable and help him get organized was another). What was our plan should he slip into the same patterns?

The end result was we had a different, better relationship going forward. And we have had multiple coaching conversations since. He still took an extra year to finish high school and he discovered several years later that he had to do upgrading to get into the program he wanted in college. But he is in college, working towards a career he is very excited about. Interestingly, when I had a problem in the workplace a while ago that I could not get past, he came to me and said, “What have you done before when you have had a bad boss?” Not bad….