There are many ways to approach coaching an employee—what topics are covered, what questions you ask, how you respond, etc. However, there are some elements that should be part of every coaching conversation.
Get very specific on what issue they are trying to address. Sometimes an employee will ask you for general help, such as wanting help getting along better with another staff member, or preparing for a leadership role. Unfortunately, you can’t coach effectively around topics this broad. When coaching an employee, request that they be very specific about what they need, emphasizing that you will hold what they say in strict confidence. Have them name names, explain the particular problem, and/or recount exact dialogue to paint a clear scenario. The more clear and specific your employee is, the easier it will be for you to ask good coaching questions, identify themes and patterns, and help guide them toward a shift in thinking. The good news is that the insight your employee gains by deconstructing a particular challenge can usually apply in a variety of other circumstances. So ask for details until you feel you fully understand the situation, can ask good questions, and help them move toward an “aha” moment.
Explore possibilities. Once you and your employee are clear on what they specifically want to take away from the coaching conversation, it’s time to explore possibilities and options. The questions you ask will help your employee look at their situation from different angles and perspectives. You might ask questions such as, “When in the past have you encountered this type of situation before?” or “What would your ideal outcome be?” or “What do you think is getting in your way?” It’s important to ask neutral questions, even if you already think you know what the real problem is or how to solve it. The power of coaching is in helping your employee see their challenge in a different light. Asking objective questions in a curious and compassionate way helps them shift how they are thinking or feeling about their issue, which in turns helps them come up with a different (and better) solution.
Look for the coachable moment. The “coachable moment” is when you get a clear sense of how a person’s beliefs, pattern of thinking, emotions or behaviors may be keeping them from achieving their goals. This is not the time to tell the client what their problem is, but rather to ask simple, powerful questions that help them see it for themselves. This takes both discipline and intuition. For example, your employee may feel intimidated by another team member and avoid interacting with them. Instead of saying, “There’s no reason to be afraid of her, she just likes to be in control,” you might ask, “What would an ideal relationship with this person look like?” and “What would you need to change to achieve that?” If the employee is a visual person, you could ask them to sketch what the relationship looks like now, and where they want it to be.
Help your employee reach an “aha” moment, but don’t force it. You can then respond in a way that reinforces their new insight, without sounding like you’re giving your approval (which shifts you back into “boss” mode). For example, say “It sounds like you’ve really changed how you think about your relationship with so-and-so,” rather than, “Great job! I knew you had it in you to not be afraid of them.”
Always move toward action. Coaching can be inspirational and transformative, but it also needs to be grounded and pragmatic. When a person changes how they think and feel can lead to new behaviors and actions. To that end, make sure every coaching session with your staff member ends with a “call to action.” It can be as simple as reading an article, writing in a journal, pondering the answer to a question, or observing others’ behaviors. It can be as complex as committing to a difficult conversation, changing engrained habits or rituals, writing a presentation outline, or creating a business or marketing plan. The employee decides whenthey are ready for action and what that action should be, although you may make suggestions if they are at a loss. Usually, though, the “call to action” just summarizes what the employee has already decided to do during the course of the session.
The more specific the goal (think S.M.A.R.T.), the more effective the action. Help them move from “I’ll have a heart-to-heart with my co-worker,” to “I’ll schedule a one-hour meeting with Jane on Tuesday to discuss A, B, and C.” And next time, follow up on their action steps to see what went well or not, what obstacles kept them from doing them, etc. Rather than admonish them for not “doing their homework,” ask what got in the way of their taking action—there may be important insights in their answer.