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Coaching has become a recognized leadership skill over the past decade. Leaders who coach are more adept at triggering people’s imagination and creative thinking skills. Also, coaching has proven to be a strong engagement and retention tool because people appreciate a leader who helps them grow their minds as well as their skills.

Many leaders avoid coaching because they aren’t sure when to coach and how to mentally prepare for the conversation. This post will look at when is the best time for you to use a coaching style of leadership and what conditions are needed to ensure your coaching is successful.


When do you coach?

Picture yourself sitting in a conversation with a woman you know is smart and committed to her work but she is complaining about a situation and feels stuck with no solution even though many people have told her what she should do. You are wondering why she can’t see what’s best for her. You want her to quit focusing on the problem. You want her to try something new. You want her to move on. You’ve given her feedback. She discounts your view. You’ve suggested solutions but the conversation just circles back to what is not working. This is a perfect time for a coaching conversation!

Even if the person has rudimentary skills and knowledge, you will get better results with a coaching approach than an instructional agenda. Coaching is based on using reflective statements and questions to make people stop and think about what they are saying and doing. Once they step back and look at how they frame a situation and what is stopping them from moving forward, they will see for themselves what options they have to take.

A common leadership misperception is if someone isn’t performing well, she doesn’t know what she is doing and needs to be told what action to take. Nothing is more annoying than being told how to do something you already know. If you have been doing this to someone, you may be the source of her dwindling motivation. The choice to tell, teach, or advise someone should not be taken lightly. It is better you ask about and discover together what gaps she has in knowledge and skills through questions instead of sharing your opinions.

Start by understanding what she already knows and is capable of doing. Then if you both determine that company, project, or task knowledge is needed, you can share what you know or provide resources. If skills are wanting, you can pinpoint what specific training will help. Most likely, the competent person you are speaking to needs help expanding her view around an issue and in understanding the impact of her behavior and decisions. These needs are the perfect criteria for having a coaching conversation.

When the person has sufficient skills and knowledge, you will be more successful when you energize her building on what she knows than by exhausting her with what you know.


What you need to think in order to succeed

Believe in the person’s potential

A coaching conversation must be based on your belief in the person’s potential to grow. Ask yourself the following question: “Is it more important that the conversation is about discovering how he or she is able to work best or that I steer the ship so goals are achieved?” If you believe in the latter, people will wait and see what you decide before they risk thinking for themselves with you.

People have to feel you believe in them possibly even more than they believe in themselves. Even if you aren’t happy with their behavior in the moment, you believe they are capable of achieving more once you figure out together what is holding them back.

To be successful with this stance, you must be willing to develop your capacity for self-observation, including recognizing in the moment or soon after when you have judged someone and reacted negatively. Do ongoing work on recognizing the impact you have on others, especially when you are upset or frustrated. If you get irritated, breathe and remember that you are there to bring out the best in the person in front of you.


Be clear on your purpose for coaching

Before having a coaching conversation, be honest about your expectations. Have you already decided what the acceptable next step will be? If so, you won’t stay curious enough to hold a successful coaching conversation. You can’t be attached to how the conversation will progress or what the outcome will be. If you can’t be open to this, you will end up forcing the conversation in the direction you want it to go. Your purpose is to encourage the other person to think for himself, not to tutor, cajole, or influence him to see your point of view.

Also, the person needs to feel the purpose for the conversation is for him to get closer to his goals or desires. These aims should be in alignment with what you want, but your goals are secondary to his. Unless the conversation is based on something the other person truly wants, you won’t be able to fully engage him to explore with you. You have to consider what this might be before you have the conversation, and then be open to discovering that he might have a different desire that would inspire the change during the conversation. Never assume you know someone too well to ask him what he wants.


Choose your emotions

As the leader, you set the emotional tone of the conversation. You need to hold a positive emotional intention as well as a developmental purpose throughout the conversation.

How do you want him or her to feel—inspired, hopeful, proud, or encouraged? You must consciously choose this tone before you speak. Then continue to feel this emotion as much as possible throughout the conversation.

Be careful not to lose your emotional grounding; the emotion you choose to feel is your anchor. Your coaching conversations may be uplifting experiences but they can also trigger different emotions when people discover their own blind spots and gaps in their logic. Yet these moments are important to creating long-lasting positive change. In the uncomfortable moments when people question what they know is when they are most open to learning something new.

If something unnerves you, say the emotional word you chose quietly to yourself to shift back to the feeling you want to express. You might also choose to feel other emotions such as calm, courageous, or kind to support your active listening, but your anchor word will keep you on track.

Also, before you meet with the person, check in with your feelings. When you think about the person and the situation you want to address, do strong emotions arise? Will you be able to release these emotions if they surface during the conversation? If you angry or disappointed with the person and can’t let this go, you might need to wear your manager hat instead of trying to coach.

Before having a coaching conversation, envision what could happen, including the worst case scenario. Choose how you want to respond emotionally as well as verbally. A clear vision acts as a dress rehearsal that will help you get through the real thing.

Don’t give in to your frustration. You need to stay calm and emotionally intentional throughout the conversation.


Develop your patience

You also need to practice patience during the conversation. Their style of processing new perceptions could take longer than your own. Changing a mind can take time.

While you are coaching, you are asking someone to share her perceptions and opinions. You will need to acknowledge the person’s perspective as valid even if it varies from your own. Never make her feel wrong or you will lose the trust necessary for having a successful conversation. If she trusts you are holding her best interest throughout the conversation and that you will give her time and space to process the conversation in any way that works for her, she will stay with you even when the tension is thick.

A good coaching conversation is a hero’s journey. You are taking someone on an adventure of self-exploration where she may need to battle mental habits. You need to create a sense of safety before going deep into the conversation, and then maintain this sense of safety until the next steps are set.

There will be times when someone refuses your coaching. You can’t make people want to look at themselves. If, however, they trust your intention is for them to improve based on the potential you see, you should be able to engage them. Stay with the process of coaching for a while before you decide instead to manage or mentor.

If you want to make a real difference for someone, learn to use strong coaching skills. You can find a model and specific skills to practice in the book, The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs. Opening someone’s mind to new solutions and a broader self-concept is one of the most rewarding things you will do as a leader.



Dr. Marcia Reynolds works with organizations worldwide providing executive coaching and leadership training. Her passion is shifting leaders from having transactional to transformational conversations so work is more meaningful for everyone.

She is the Training Director for the Healthcare Coaching Institute and regularly works with coaching organizations in China and Russia.

She was a founding member of the International Coach Federation and was the 5th global president. Her doctorate is in organizational psychology. In her spare time, she writes blog posts and authors books, including her latest, The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs.

Tags: better leader, coaching, leadership, management, team,

2 Responses to “What you should know about leadership coaching”

  1. Cheryl Capito

    Very good, we’ll written article and I would love to read your book. I am a trainer and hopefully I not only provide guidance, but positive guidance. Kudos!

    • Marcia Reynolds

      Cheryl, you are right in guessing that you can use these skills in many conversations and situations. We all want to be heard and held in high regard more often!