In the writings of Plato, Socrates talks with people, continually asking questions, probing assumptions, letting the flaws in an argument show them selves, and helping the other Athenian citizens find their own way to greater reasoning and truth. He was the epitome of a coach.
Plato's chronicles of the teachings of Socrates are continuingly instructive. Watch the give-and-take between Socrates and other individuals and see how he brings people to new understanding by gently turning them back on themselves. Start with some of the simpler dialogues, like Euthyphro, where only two characters are speaking.
As the coach you must be willing to give up some of the control you have had. Coaching is based on leading and influencing rather than directing. You achieve results through questions and discussion rather than directives, through listening and support rather than controlling. As with everything new, the process may feel strange at first, but in time you'll get the hang of it.
Asking a good question is difficult. Too often, people close down a potential discussion by framing questions in such a way as to telegraph the answers they want or to limit how someone might respond. You might as well not even ask a question in that case because you already know the answers.
Since you don't know the answers, lean toward open-ended questions, where answers are not simple. A query seeking a yes or no response can stop conversation faster than walking out of the room. With open-ended answers, you can keep asking questions, and the conversation continues.
The person is also as important as the task and problem. If a goal can't include concern for the people involved, it isn't worth the time. Bring team members to the present by first asking their thoughts and feelings about the project or task under discussion. As you get answers, you will find other questions coming to mind. Ask them as well. Follow the trail where it goes so you can see what the landscape is really like.
Asking questions is one step; you have to hear the answers for them to make any difference. Actively listen throughout the coaching session. Clear your mind of everything else. As the team member makes a point, paraphrase what you hear in response to be sure that you actually understand it. Don't be afraid to ask for clarification.
Actively listening is an immensely difficult thing to do. You can't go through a list of steps and tell yourself that you've got it. To listen, you must stop the rush of all the concerns, petty and significant, that you face in your life. What your team members tell you must become the only item of importance.
Using this skill is the key to success in coaching. By really listening, you suspend the all-too-human tendency to immediately judge someone. While you actively listen, there is no room for that type of judgment because you are concentrated on what the other person is saying and feeling. Always acknowledge a response, even if it doesn't seem to directly address the issue at hand. When you dismiss someone's words, you dismiss the person as well.
The difficult step is to use the question-and-answer process to move the discussion — and the team member — along the path to self-discovery. Yours is not the art of the district attorney's cross-examination. Instead, your aim is to build a bridge to a new place by taking answers and connecting them during the conversation.
Keep in mind what you need to accomplish in the end, and then look at how an answer relates to that. Then ask another question that starts from the answer and moves closer to the needed accomplishment — and toward the team member's understanding of what is necessary.
It's difficult to describe how to use questions as a staircase to step deeper into an issue until you reach its foundation. Perhaps more than anything else in this book, this process isn't a simple set of reproducible steps. It's recognizing connections and their importance and linking them to form a guide.
You also ask questions in a circular fashion. That is, you start addressing different aspects of the problem and potential solutions so that the team member thinks more holistically. For example, if you were asking an employee about a report, you might inquire into the following:
Sets of assumptions one might make
Topics to cover
Time frame to complete
Relation to group or organizational goals
Through your questions, you help the team member build a well-rounded view of the issue. The more thorough the grasp, the more likely the person will identify problems and see potential solutions.
As with the work of the Socratic philosophers, questions should never be used to belittle someone or to feel their own superiority. In fact, when people said that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens, he replied that it was because he understood how little he knew.
How many of us could claim even a fraction of his wisdom? Socrates asked questions to help others — and himself — better understand life. It might make sense for us to do the same. That sets the tone of the questioning. You look for a real exploration and a path to get to the goal that differs from what you imagined it might be. Just as the team member learns from the process, so will you.