Lesson 1: Coaching is About Asking Questions, Not Giving Advice
The “old school” approach to managing people in a business was simply to make all the decisions and then tell people what to do. It took a long time for business people to figure out that employees have their own concerns and challenges, and that if the employees feel like they don’t have a voice in the organization, they won’t be happy—and unhappy employees are inevitably bad for business.
Then businesses got smart—they came up with mentoring programs and coaching programs, where managers (or, in some cases, dedicated coaches who weren’t managers) worked regularly with employees to listen to their concerns and help them become more successful in their jobs. The key shift here was from “telling” to “asking.” And when you ask, that also implies that you’ll listen to what the employee has to say. Coaches are, in effect, professional listeners.
But even someone whose main job is to listen to others and help them achieve what they desire can fall prey to the same listening pitfalls as anyone else. For coaches, especially, who are generally tasked not only with listening to an employee but also with helping the employee find solutions to his challenges, there’s the ever-present danger of getting antsy and accidentally jumping too soon to give advice. And as we’ve seen, slipping into “advice mode” can come across as preaching, leading the employee to become defensive and resistant.
Here are three general best practices for coaches:
1. Have conversations, not interviews
In the coming lessons, we’ll cover some effective coaching questions that can be useful in structuring coaching conversations of different types. But a word of warning right up front: asking too many questions too quickly can seem more like an interview—or worse, an interrogation—than like a conversation.
As we’ve discussed previously, a good listener lets the other person do the bulk of the talking. Ask a question, then be patient and listen. While a coaching session is a little different than a normal conversation between friends, it should still have that relaxed, conversational feel. Don’t be too quick to jump in and ask the next question on your list, or you’ll ruin it.
2. Ask “what” questions, not “why” questions
“What” questions open things up and don’t come off as judgmental (“What did you do?” “What else could you have tried?”), whereas “why” questions sound confrontational (“Why did you do that?” “Why didn’t you try this?”).
3. Avoid rhetorical questions
Questions that start, “Did you consider…?” or “Have you thought about…?” aren’t questions at all. They’re advice with a question mark at the end. The other person is smart enough to see that you’re trying to sneak your own ideas into the conversation.
The single quality that makes a coach exceptional is a questioning mindset. The best coaches are those who don’t go into a conversation with an employee with an agenda in mind. They ask honest questions and seek to understand the employee’s problems and needs, and only then move into problem-solving mode.
Even then, they know that the employee is only likely to try to implement solutions that he comes up with himself, or at least has some input into. The less directive the coach is, the more ownership the employee takes over the plan that emerges from the meeting.
For one week, practice being less directive in the conversations in your everyday personal life. For example, if you’re the parent of a teenager, instead of giving advice 24/7, try asking open-ended questions.
Instead of saying, “If you keep driving around for an hour after school every day and spending your allowance on gas, you’re not going to have enough money left to go out to the show this weekend with your buddies, as you planned. You should probably come straight home from school for the next few days,” you could say, “I noticed you’ve been filling up your car and driving around for a while each day after school lately. How are you going to make sure you have enough spending money left at the end of the week so you can go out with your buddies?”
If you don’t have a teenager at home, choose anyone in your life that you interact with regularly and with whom you tend to slip into “advice mode” to practice on. Think before you speak and if you notice that you’re about to give advice, stop and turn it into a question. This may be harder for you than you think.
Once you’ve given this a try for a few days, use the worksheet provided to reflect on the experience. What have you learned? What do you still need to work on?