The Coaching Process
Discussing the philosophical basis, if you will, of using the Socratic method to ask questions in coaching is like studying aerodynamics and then assuming you could fly a plane. There are important procedures and you need to have a grasp of them before you walk into a coaching session. Otherwise you could crash just as you think you're taking your group to new heights.
Look for a Purpose
Coaching is a tool for helping team members learn to examine what they do, find weaknesses, and seek answers to problems. What it cannot be is a regular activity that happens on a predetermined schedule. Routine coaching is like going every week to see the doctor whether you need to or not. Eventually both you and the doctor stop listening to each other.
If you turn coaching into an activity that happens rain or shine, then you will kill off its effectiveness. Restrain the impulse and focus the technique where it can do the most good.
Clearly Express the Reason
Let's say you want to get from one place to another. You can't figure out what direction to move in unless you know where you want to go. As with a goal — because coaching is one tool to help people reach intermediate goals on their way to larger ones — you need a direction.
But setting out that destination clearly is even more important in the case of coaching. You have the presumption that a team member is heading the wrong way to some degree, and if you cannot set out in words where the person should be heading, things won't improve.
Thomas Jefferson wrote that the the goal of the Declaration of Independence was “to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.” That is clarity of reason, and the degree of specificity you must strive to attain.
You don't have to provide the exact statement of the goal. To really own the improvement, the team member will have to provide that. But understanding the reason for the coaching helps the person frame what must change, and that is a vital part of setting an attainable goal — and eventually to make coaching on the subject unnecessary.
Coaching is meant to be a nonthreatening approach to helping people discover for themselves what they need to do and how they need to change. Despite that, it is a formal activity. Do not approach it as something you can wing.
Start with preparing yourself. Write down the problem, the reason for coaching, and what your goals are for providing it. Then prepare what the team member will need: a summary of what the coaching is to achieve as well as the exact date, time, and location for it to commence.
Be practical in the preparations. Be sure that the team member is able to attend — a larger issue for volunteer organizations, where people are not under obligations to provide their time. Keep the first session between thirty and forty-five minutes. You don't want to overwhelm the person, but you want enough time for questions and discussion.
Sell the Process
The whole point of coaching is to involve people in the problem-recognition-and-resolution process so that they create their own solutions. You need their cooperation and support, and you want them to see how all this relates to the organization's goals and, importantly, to your team members' own sense of meaning. Even if people are paid employees, you'll still need their help — in fact, you need them to do quite a bit more.
As much as you need to listen attentively to the team member, you should keep an ear out to yourself. Be aware of your tone of voice, the words you choose, and your body language, and evaluate whether you are offering mixed messages — or even a unified unpleasant one. A little unconscious reaction can undo all the good you might otherwise achieve.
Approach the coaching process carefully. Be relaxed and cordial and try to alleviate any stress or anxiety team members may feel. Help them understand why they are taking part in the process. Let them know that they will largely be the ones driving change — that you are actually there for support and help.
Chances are that you'll need to have more than one coaching session. You want to see how team members make progress toward the goals they've set, which means finding ways of measuring advancement.
During one session, agree to the next step and set the groundwork for the next session. Be prepared to follow up on your mutual commitment to progress. If you've set measurable goals for a future date, plan to meet regularly to update the progress toward them. Remember that coaching is an ongoing commitment, and both you and the team member are responsible for maintaining momentum toward the results you seek. Be sure to recognize advancements and achievements — be human. Otherwise, you are treating the team member like an unthinking and unfeeling animal. In fact, even an animal would balk at such treatment.
Continue coaching sessions until the team member reaches the desired outcome. There will be times when the person just doesn't get it. When you find yourself at this point, don't get frustrated. State a more specific direction and move on from there. You're striving to lead the person to discovery, not to have someone jump through hoops and solve a puzzle.
Watching for the Dangers
Coaching is a powerful technique. As with most things of value, it isn't always easy. It will take more time and patience than just shouting out orders and giving directions.
If you find yourself feeling uncomfortable in the process, examine your emotional reaction. Coaching can appear threatening for leaders who are not secure in their self-image or skills and may be uncomfortable in letting go of control. You may even find yourself asking, “What are they going to need me for now?” The answer is simple: to help reach goals by helping others grow and develop.
Although it is difficult, it is an incredible feeling to help someone achieve something that she wouldn't have reached alone. If you find yourself struggling with the process, don't be afraid to get help from a superior, a peer, or an expert. After all, you don't lose the need for coaching just because you are a leader.