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Ten Tips for Coaches

Here are 10 tips gleaned from the experiences of successful business coaches.

by Peggy G. Hutcheson, president of The Odyssey Group, Atlanta, Georgia

Accept that the coach is not in control. Just as the tennis coach does not hit the ball, the business coach does not control the coaching conversation. The best results occur when the person being coached sets his or her coaching goal and takes the lead in accomplishing that goal.

Listen. Even though this skill is included in virtually every interpersonal skills course, most of us still have not mastered it. A good coach is able to listen with full attention, taking in information that leads to insightful questions and genuine understanding. Doing this requires listening at levels most people are not accustomed to. An effective coach creates a mental picture of the situation from the other person's perspective.

Pay attention to what is not being said, as well as to what you hear. The detective model of coaching comes in handy. Keep looking for "one more thing" to be curious about as you piece together all the parts of the puzzle. Don't hesitate to point out something that you still do not understand. Listening between the lines can move the coaching discussion from a superficial performance or development discussion to a deeper, more meaningful level.

Coaching Session Structure

Help the other person create a clear goal for the coaching session.

Give both of you a complete picture of what is currently happening in regard to the goal.

Provide an opportunity to generate a number of options for closing the gap between what's happening now and what the client wants.

Establish commitment to pursue the next steps.

Probe for information without conducting an inquisition. This is a matter of style and form. Questions such as, "Why would you do that?" can sound pretty threatening. "Tell me a little more about your thinking behind that," is an invitation to explore. The coach's work is to find what is interfering with the other person's ability to accomplish what he or she wants. Pulling information by using open-ended questions is far more effective than pushing with leading questions or requiring an accounting of someone's efforts or behavior.

Coach, don't judge. As a coach, when you evaluate an idea or behavior as good, bad, right or wrong, you may be arriving at a solution too soon, thereby depriving the person you are coaching of problem solving. Instead, ask the person about the likely consequences of one course of action over another. This helps your client gain a sense of reality and the commitment to follow through on the actions selected.

Guide the other person to his or her own solutions. This does not mean that you should ask leading questions. For example, "Don't you think you should try this approach?" may be a good tip for the person you are coaching, but it does little to empower him or her to discover solutions. Instead, "Tell me what you've thought of," opens the door for exploration and ownership of the result.

Suspend your expertise. You do not have to know the answer to be a good coach. In fact, it is usually difficult for a technical expert to withhold opinions and solutions enough to coach well. Instead, in a team environment, someone who knows little about the technical aspects of product development may be the most effective coach for a design engineer who feels stuck. Without being encumbered by a need to understand the technical "symptoms," the coach can help the engineer uncover the causes behind the problem.

Monitor your own beliefs. As you coach, it is easy to let past experiences with the other person or doubts about yourself get in the way. For example, during the discussion, you may remember that the person you are coaching has let you down in the past, or you may feel frustrated because you believe you should have smart options to suggest. Some of the beliefs that coaches often need to confront include: I should have the answers; You are bright (or stupid); I'm a great (or poor) coach. Excellent coaching occurs when you are able to put aside what you believe about your roles, the other person's ability, and the situation you are discussing. This opens the way for you to guide the other person to examine these beliefs realistically.

Watch what you are doing. The old adage, "Stupid is as stupid does," applies to coaches, too. Subtle, or not-so-subtle, behaviors from a coach communicate more to the person being coached about what you really believe and expect from coaching than any words you may use. Credibility as a coach comes with using coaching skills over time, honoring confidentiality and commitments, and handling all information with integrity.

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