Wednesday, 17 June 2015

A saucerful of secrets - coaching demystified

Coaching is often seen as a bit of a 'black art' - like the experimental and mysterious Pink Floyd album above, recorded in 1968 at Abbey Road. What works for music might not be as good for coaching, though. 

This post aims to go some of the way towards demystifying coaching, summarises a recent 2-year Masters-level qualification, and offers a broad view of the major approaches. It's been good for me to reflect and summarise, and hopefully will be useful to readers who coach, manage and lead.

What's the point of coaching

Whether we are talking about a business or an individual, a coach is someone who helps people to:
  • define what success means, and what is really important;
  • close the gap between where they are and where they want to be;
  • maintain and extend 'best' qualities and remain successful, even when under pressure; 
  • tackle current issues and opportunities ... and anticipate those yet to emerge;
  • get out of the swamp of immediate challenges and focus on strategic needs and vision.
Who couldn't do with some of this? In my opinion coaching is best deployed developmentally, and not just remedially (i.e. for 'fixing broken managers'). 

Coaching, mentoring, and counselling

The core skills of listening, supporting and questioning are common to all three - along with a clear flexible process and an appropriate set of tools and approaches. Strategic coaching also needs high level analytical skills, and a deep and wide understanding of leadership, if it is to add value.

Pragmatically, applying all three depends on the situation, and much hair-splitting has been done to seperate them out. The difference, for me, mainly comes from scope and boundaries:
  • coaching tends to focus on specific known performance issues, and mentoring on these plus overall growth; both tend to focus more on work issues than on non-work issues.
  • coaching tends to be shorter-term and mentoring tends to be longer-term in focus; both aim to help the individual evoke excellence in areas that they choose, and in a way that suits them.
Counselling is clearly aimed at clarifying and working with the deep beliefs which drive how anyone understands the world, and tends to focus on how this affects home and personal life. That's separate territory from the other two, and a boundary to flag up if it arises.

Finally: all the above are broadly non-directive. Offering models and ways of looking at things is OK but a counsellor, coach or mentor who offers a lot of advice is asking for the client to become dependent. They are also putting more on the client's plate than they have already.

"Senior managers agreed that when people were allowed to think for themselves, they solved their own problems and any improvements made were longer lasting".... The Inner Game of Work, Timothy Gallwey p 215 1.

Core attitudes

Good skills and a clear and flexible process are important, and some foundation core values: commitment to evoke excellence from the coachee, and commitment to their own development from the coach.  These two together are the essentials of being a coach (and mentor) 2.  

More assumptions and beliefs for coaches 3 : a commitment to support the individual; the relationship built on truth, openness and trust; the coachee taking responsibility for the results they are generating; focus on what the coachee thinks and experiences; the conversation built on equality.

Finally, Nancy Kline 4 suggests that coaches and mentors should avoid listening with suggestions and direction in mind; resist the urge to drive a client to action prematurely; and avoid confusing competence with how much input and direction is given. Many don't do this!

A clear and flexible process

Having a process in mind, even if it is in the background, helps give overall direction to a series of coaching conversations. A range of processes to choose from includes: 
  • The GROW model 5 : what is your Goal, what is the current Reality, what are then your Options, then:What are you going to do / When are you going to do it / Will this action meet your goal / Who needs to know /What support will you need / How and when are you going to get that support / What certainty 1-10 have you of carrying out the actions agreed / What prevents it from being a 10?
Often forgotten in GROW is to first ensure Awareness and Responsibility, i.e.: In what way will this help?  What other problems might there be? What else? What would you gain / lose by doing / saying that? I don’t know where to go next with this – where would you go?  Imagine having a dialogue with the wisest person you can think of. What would he or she tell you to do?
  • The CLEAR model 6
1.      Contracting: opening, setting  scope, desired outcomes, and ground rules
2.      Listening: active listening to understand the situation, and generate some insights
3.      Exploring: to understand the situation and explore ways to tackle it
4.      Action: support in choosing a way ahead and deciding the next steps
5.       Review: reinforcing ground covered, decisions made and value added; feedback on what was helpful about the coaching process, what was difficult and what could be different in future.
  • The ‘skilled helper’ model 7What do you want?  What will be different when you've gained your result? What resources do you already have?  What other resources can you draw upon? What is the next step?
Questions to set a supporting context

This means anything surrounding the actual conversations which might help or hinder, from physical aspects to ground rules and shared expectations. 'Contracting' above covers it briefly, the ‘Four Ps’8 are another option:
  1. Procedural: Where? When? How frequently? How long? What about contact between meetings? 
  2. Professional: What specific aspect are we going to work on? What do you want to achieve? How does that sound to the mentor? How are we going to work together? How about confidentiality?  
  3. Personal: How are we going to celebrate success? How will we deal with any setbacks or disappointments?  
  4. Psychological: How open, effective and trusting is this all so far? Are there any particular issues to deal with?)
Questions to help set real goals

It can help to habitually begin a coaching session by asking a goal for the session itself : 

-        What would you like to get out of this session?
-        I have an hour for this, where would you like to have got by then?

Achieving rapport and openness will be a helpful by-product when you can discuss, and then explore in more detail, short or medium-term goals / end goals / ultimate vision with questions like:

-        What are the key challenges you face at the moment?
-        What’s in your Green, Amber and Red zones just now (going well / worrying / going badly) 9
-        What is your picture of eventual success? What gives you the most energy in your work?
-        Bearing this in mind, which challenge would you want to explore first?
-        Is there some activity within this which you’d like to be more fluent with?
-        How will you know when you have got what you’d like in this?
-        If you had ______ , what would that bring you? How will that feel?
-        How much influence do you have over this?  Who else wants this to happen?

Questions to help see past obstacles

Depending on the situation and the individual, obstacles might need to be flagged up:
-        As you think of making progress towards this – what might stand in your way?
-        Are there any negative consequences of having this?
 At other times, questions can help to re-frame obstacles which seem overwhelming:
-        How can you build on what you can control?     How can you manage what you can’t control?
-        If _____ [obstacle] were removed, what would you then focus your energy on 10 ?

Questions to help stop the coach giving 'answers'

If all the above questions seem not to be succeeding in creating progress, coaches may be tempted to give answers – not the best example to be offering. A better option is to make an observation to encourage the thinking process, with comment on particular items if you wish:

-        So what you’re saying is, you  _____ [summary of what has just been said]?
-        Well, you said you _____ [summary], and I was wondering what else you might have done?
-        _____ [summary]  came as quite a surprise to you then? Tell me more.

Interrupting with questions

By definition interrupting usually means you stop listening. However, Gerard Egan makes the point that “when interrupting promotes the kind of dialogue that serves a problem-management process, it's useful .11

In other words, as long as it is not mid-sentence, and comprises a gentle gesture and a summarising comment like “You’ve made several points. I want to make sure I’ve understood them”, interrupting can be a useful tool in the mentoring process – for both parties.

Questions to review how things have gone

Asking review questions assists a culture of openness, lets both parties appreciate the benefits accruing from coaching, and tackle issues as opposed to waiting for feedback  - which might not come until too late:

-        How was that last exchange? Is this session working well so far?
-        How did things go after the last session? What impact has the last session had on things?
-        What three top benefits have these conversations brought to your work since we started off?
-        Is this style and approach working for you? Can you see a need for things to change later on?
-        Are there any issues which might not be working as well as you’d expected originally?
-        Are we still on track to meet the original goals for the partnership – or do these need to change?
-        If you hadn’t had these sessions – what would be different now?

Finally, some questions for a coach to ask themselves
How true is each?
Very true  -   Not at all
5     4     3     2     1
How important is this?
Very much  –  Not at all
5     4     3     2     1
-        I can listen and hear what is said – really  hear

-        I can  question and challenge others...and my own thinking

-        I can summarise and reflect back to others

-        I can give and receive constructive feedback

-        I can point out connections and contradictions

-        I can display empathy and understanding with others

-        I can encourage problem solving and seek solutions

-        I can recognise and acknowledge emotions

-        I can  trust others and build trust with others

-        I can be open and honest with myself and others

-        I can challenge, positively

To pinpoint where things are going  well and where there may be a development need, compare the difference between the column scores: no difference =  OK (‘I do a lot of this and it is important / I don’t do much and it isn’t important’);  difference  =  some issue (‘I don’t do much … but it is key /  I do this all the time … and it doesn’t help’).

  1. Timothy Gallwey, The Inner Game of Work,  2000
  2. James Flaherty, Coaching:evoking excellence in others, 1999
  3. Julie Starr, The Coaching Manual, 2010
  4. Nancy Kline, Time to Think , 2005
  5. John Whitmore, Coaching for Performance, 1992
  6. Peter Hawkins, Coaching, Mentoring and Organisational consultancy, 2007
  7. Gerard Egan, The Skilled Helper1998
  8. Julie Hay, TransformationalMentoring, 1999
  9. Mike Pegg, The Mentor’s Book, 2003
  10. Nancy Kline, Time to Think, 2005
  11. Gerard Egan, The SkilledHelper, 1998.

Feedback on any aspect of the content and style of this material welcome – and feel free to distribute to any who might find this bulletin useful.

 Nick McBain FCIPD
more detail and resources at: 

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