Friday, September 12, 2014

10 Not-So-Obvious points for successful Coaching conversations

Coaching conversations are very powerful tools to affect changes. And leading those conversations is a specific skill that can be learnt, practiced and honed. There are several excellent articles and videos about coaching conversations, and they are extremely useful (I can recommend this, and this, among several others). But there are subtleties that I learnt or realized over many coaching sessions, and that I didn’t find explained in a single list anywhere. Here are 10 such not-so-obvious points that a coach should keep in mind while coaching. I learnt this skill from masters like Bina Jhaveri and Steve Kiges, who are to be credited for helping me understand and realize several of the points I mention below.

1. Determine early on if the client is ready for coaching. Many books say that the first step in coaching is determining the client’s goal. I think that is the second step, because if the client is not ready to be coached or hasn’t bought into the concept completely, the coaching conversation will be utterly useless. So, don’t waste each other’s time and money. Is the client clear about the goal under consideration? Is the client’s expectation from you well defined and in-line with yours? Is the client motivated and dedicated enough to not only work with you, but also follow up on the action points after your conversation has ended? There are several such considerations to be had before having your coaching conversation.

(I am not going to talk about goal setting here because it does not fall in the “not-so-obvious” category. There are several articles and books that talk about this in an excellent manner) 

2. Let the client lead the conversation. You might have read about the thumb rule that a coach should speak only about 20% of the time while letting the client cover the rest. But, an even more important point is to let the client lead the conversation as long as it is in the general direction of the specific goal or issue in question. For example, if the client has a few options on the table but isn’t sure where to start, do not jump in and suggest a starting point. Prod, tease and elicit a starting point from the client by asking about priorities, relative impacts etc. You could ask “In the one hour we have today, what exactly do you want to focus on?”

3. Be in control, at a macro level to keep the conversation focused, deliberate and challenging. Yes, you let the client lead, but it is also important that all progress is towards the set goal. So, whenever you find the client digressing significantly, you bring him or her back on track. Whenever you find that the conversation has become largely about the past, you help the client’s focus return to the immediate goal. Whenever you find the client get into a complaining mode about people, situations or economy, it is up to the coach to swiftly pull him out of such negativity. Whenever you feel that the discussion is not a useful spend of each other’s valuable time, you steer the conversation back into relevance. Think of this as a child playing with a toy train. He lets the train happily chug along the tiny tracks but the moment its plastic wheels slip off the shiny tracks, the child immediately picks it and puts it back in the right place and direction. A coach must do this too. Ask questions like, "this point seems to matter to you a lot, but how is it relevant to the goal we are seeking today?", "with due respect to your time, we only have 25 minutes left. So, how can you exploit the opportunity you mentioned a few minutes ago?"

4. Focus on the immediate, on the “now”. I have found that most people naturally drift into past to either dwell upon some happy moments, or explain their choices/behaviour, or complain about something that hurt them in the past. While it is harmless to do so to let the client explain the context, such journeys must be quick. You must bring the client back to where the action lies- the present. You could ask “ok, that seems to explain a lot but, what options do you have on the table today?”. Similarly, letting clients dwell too much in the future is also not very effective because, they are generally in a hypothetical dreamland. Everything that the client can control lies in the present, so that is where you should help the client remain. A word of caution- usually these journeys into past or future are emotional in nature. So, be sensitive to emotions while bringing the client back on the temporal track.

5. Be non-judgmental about goals, opinions and directions. Avoid making statements like “that is an excellent goal” or “that is a noble thought” or “I think that was a wrong choice”. If you are a coach, your role is to facilitate the process, and not to express your opinions. I have noticed novice coaches do this quite often, particularly in an attempt to build rapport (I myself am guilty of this). But please remember that you must keep yourself out of the client’s context to be able to provide meaningful assistance.

6. Don’t cross the line between coaching and consulting. Or therapy. I must admit that several times, I am tempted to give specific advice where I have an expertise, or experience. Doing so is not recommended during coaching conversations for two reasons: the client isn’t leading the conversation anymore if you are the one giving advice; and secondly, why give advice if you are not accountable for the outcome? If you were “consulting”, say, a business client about increasing sales by 20% in the next quarter, then in many ways your skin is in the game too. Consultants generally charge a lot more than coaches because they fill a gap in skill or expertise, and are part of the group accountable for the outcome. Coaches on the other hand are taking the client on a path of discovery. Remember that in a coaching conversation, the client continues to be the expert. In case the client feels a need for consulting, then that becomes an action item. For example, "find a marketing consultant with expertise in selling financial products to mid-income salaried people in England". Even if you are that expert, consulting should be taken up independent of coaching.

7. Focus on the positive, look at the possibilities. Especially in the beginning of your conversation. Clients usually come with a tough goal or a nasty problem at hand. The worst a coach could do is take them down a path of negativity. It does not help, wastes times and actually makes matters worse. Focus on the positive. What has gone well? What is going well? Who is helping? What does a happy state of affairs look like? What possibilities exist today, and what can potentially open up in the near future? What are the most likely scenarios, and outcomes that will help progress towards the goal? It is up to the coach to ensure that the client is able to see the possibilities so that he or she is mentally charged to march towards the vision.

8. Focus on motivations, passions early on in the conversation. This is actually a continuation of the previous point about positive focus, but motivations are important enough to warrant their own point. Ask questions like “why is this important to you?”, “what will it feel like, if you achieved this goal?”, “Who else would share your exuberance if this is successful?”. In other words, make sure that the client visits the success in his or her mind vividly and vocally enough, as it will help you nail down the specific psychology behind the motivation. For instance, the client might have stated that his motivation for career change was to make more money. But, you might discover that the real driver behind the specific career choice was an unfulfilled childhood dream that would elate the person in a manner that mere financial success can never do. Or, vice-versa. Also, make sure that the client understands the motivations as clearly as you do. Many a time, the client also discovers the motivational structure that he or she didn’t see in its entirety earlier. Also remember to revisit the vision or goal in the context of motivations and priorities once they have been clarified. So, you should be able to clarify “You want to achieve X because…”, or “Your goal X is important to you because…”

9. After nailing down possibilities, passions and motivations, talk about challenges but only if it helps progress. Many a time, it is enough to talk about the positives to come up with an action plan. If this is the case, don’t spend much time discussing hurdles. When you do think it is important to understand hindrances and challenges, do so only to help find mitigations that can be part of the client’s action plan. You could ask, for example, “if this is a show stopper, what can be done to eradicate the problem?”, “what can you do today to prepare yourself, in the event this happens in the future?”. There are several such questions that will help the client focus on remediation rather than be bogged down by constraints.

10. Make sure that the conversation ends with a set of clear and precise action steps. Be sure to get commitments from the client and plan follow ups. I consider a coaching conversation to have failed if we don't have a clear action plan at the end. The action items must be simple enough for the client to perform in their current context, but also important enough to make a visible difference in their journey towards their vision. Try to elicit as much information about the steps as possible, including the specific action to be taken, who else should be involved, by when should this be done, are there other dependencies that need to be addressed etc. The client must feel confident that these steps are clear and achievable enough to be able to commit to you. It is important to plan your follow ups too- when will you email the client? Will you have a brief, reminder call? If you are going to have a follow up session, decide on the data and time and (if possible, say, for a corporate client) block the time on his or her calendar.

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