The coaching “X” factor

Having worked with coaches for many years I believe there is one stand out quality which makes the difference between a good and great coach – that is the ability to connect.

What do we train coaches?

Having been part of multiple training sessions for both managers and coaches, I see that we focus on the mechanics of how work is done and the models which we ask coaches to use.

The mechanics

Organisations invest in their leadership with endless workshops and discussions using PowerPoint slides telling them how to understand, prioritise, and help work. If people are lucky, the content also includes activities which often revolve around what they should do in a given situation and participants may even get to play a game with some balls, Lego, or similar to break the monotony.

The models

Coaching people is important so we develop models and frameworks that codify useful experience and information is codified for sharing. This helps us lift the skills of as many people creating better workplaces. Our time is short and we want it to be rich and effective so all this makes sense. Models like GROW (Goal, Reality, Options, Way forward) and FUEL (Frame, Understand, Explore, Layout a success plan) are valuable in driving important and meaningful conversations.

What we don’t train coaches

All the helpful frameworks on how to coach are limited in their impact if there is not a meaningful connection between the coach and the coachee. Empathy is an important factor, which when genuine, can build trust and help discussions be more productive. Without empathy, the discussion tends to be transactional, focused more on actions than understanding and exploring the motivations behind how people behave

As someone who works frequently with Agile coaches, I notice we spend a lot of time talking about the way we work and coaching models. What we must learn to do is to rehumanise the coachee in the mind of our coaches. One way we can do that is through role play.

Use a role play to explore empathy

  • Create a situation and cast people into roles, for example, an Agile Coach and a Team Member.
  • Provide the Team member with a background story about a problem they have and how they are reacting to it.
  • Let the session play out and then have each party provide feedback about both how the coach guided thinking to solve the problem and how they felt.
  • What usually happens?

The Agile Coach will attempt to diagnose the situation and perhaps using an established model, try to frame a productive response with the Team Member. This is all good however avoids the real opportunity of role-playing in a “safe space” like a workshop room of peers. The learning in minimal and we probably just reinforce existing habits.

How to make role-play highly valuable

Use the “safe space” to explore our own vulnerability and ask the Coach to build a connection with the Team Member.

  • Explore the body language and tone of voice. Have participants talk about what worked and didn’t work for them. It will be different for everyone.
  • Talk about active listening techniques with topics like creating comfortable silences for coachees to reflect and respond in their own time.
  • Talk about how we will react when someone shares their feelings. Get Coaches prepared to work with humans.

When training coaches, don’t focus only on the mechanics and the models, discuss and practice communication techniques . There are too few opportunities for peers to explore how they connect. We are doing a disservice to our coaches every time we don’t.