Ask, don’t tell

Written by mattsomers on . Posted in Uncategorized

Ask, don't tell

Coaching could be captured in three words:

Ask, don’t tell.

It’s all about asking questions but as we move into exploring this on my training courses I often see my participants eyes glaze over because they think they’ve covered everything there is to know about open and closed questions on a thousand other courses.

However, the reason for asking questions in a coaching conversation is subtly different.

The main point to clarify is that coaches do not ask questions to get answers. Instead they ask questions so that the coachee has to think before providing their response. If everything we do is preceded by thought, then it follows that if we increase the quality of thinking then we’ll increase the quality of action or decision.

Asking questions encourages thinking and recognizes that the people whom we coach have ideas and input and more importantly, demonstrates that those ideas are welcomed and people’s input valued. Telling or instructing does none of these things; it stifles creativity and innovation and encourages a culture of dependency on the manager; as seeing them as the person with all the answers. If you’ve ever found yourself saying (or thinking) ‘How many times must I tell you?’ or ‘If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times!’ you’ll know this to be true.

Asking questions will mean that coachees achieve a much greater level of understanding about the work they do and the tasks they complete. You can ask questions in advance of the task to encourage the coachee to think about how they might go about things and the obstacles they might encounter or you can ask questions after the task to find out what went well or badly, what was learnt and what could be done differently next time. Of course this will demand an investment of time up front from the coach – time that won’t always be available – but like any sound investment there will be a significant pay back over time. As the people you coach become more capable and confident because they’re thinking so well, they’ll become less reliant on you to solve problems and give direction. Where the coachee’s work involves repetition, a coaching style that makes good use of thought-provoking questions can save hours of going over the same ground and repeating the same instructions.

Asking questions will promote a level of learning unavailable from the more controlling, tell and instruct approach. Kolb’s learning cycle suggests that learning occurs once we’ve planned an experience, had the experience, reflected on the experience and drawn conclusions from the experience. In the frenetic world of work these days we mostly just plan and do (and sometimes the planning bit gets missed!) a few judicious coaching questions will ensure we reflect and conclude without making more formal arrangements to do so. All of this is going to lead to a much more involved and therefore motivated employee and so most importantly of all will promote a much higher quality of task completion which can be measured and quantified in terms of money spent or saved should you wish to prove coaching’s worth.

So, how do I actually coach?

Written by mattsomers on . Posted in coaching at work, Uncategorized

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The ARROW sequence

The ARROW sequence

There is an abundance of advice on my site and elsewhere that establishes the personal skills necessary to become an effective coaching manager. It might be useful to examine how these interpersonal skills can be applied within a simple and practical framework.

Coaching is typically a one to one activity, and managers usually coach their juniors, although they might also coach whole teams, peer groups and even themselves. Managers are seen as good potential coaches because of their experience and expertise. However, just as in sport, it is not necessary for the coach to have better technical skills than the learner. In fact, it can be a serious disadvantage. What is essential is a range of interpersonal skills including good listening, questioning and feedback skills, and the ability to encourage people to think for themselves. The manager also needs an understanding of different learning and personality styles, the ability to build rapport, and self-awareness.

Many of you will be familiar with the widely used GROW model as a means of channelling these sorts of skills and qualities into an effective coaching session. Although I’m going to outline a slightly amended sequence later, no serious treatment of the subject of coaching can ignore GROW so…

The framework provides a simple four-step structure for a coaching session. During the first step of the session (Goal), coach and coachee agree on a specific topic and objective for the discussion. During the second step (Reality), both coach and coachee invite self-assessment and offer specific examples to illustrate their points. They then move into the third step (Options) where suggestions are offered and choices made. And finally (Will), the coach and coachee commit to action, define a timeframe for their objectives and identify how to overcome possible obstacles.

For my book Coaching at Work (John Wiley & Sons 2006) I replaced GROW with ARROW – with Aims instead of Goals and a Reflection stage after Reality – because I sensed many coaches were using GROW on auto-pilot and I wanted to be sure my readers would think about the model. These days I use both ARROW and GROW depending on what my client prefers. However, either of these models – or any of the many others are simply mnemonics, they are not cure alls, and neither are they the be all and end all of coaching The use of GROW or ARROW without the context of raising awareness, generating responsibility and building trust has little value and coaching in this way may cause more problems than it solves. All coaching frameworks must be used in context. Indeed, in research carried out by the Industrial Society the key components of coaching training programmes were cited as active listening (80%), questioning (75%), providing actionable feedback (72%) and facilitating (63%).

It is also worth stressing that the context in which the coaching takes place is all important too. Management writer Christopher Orpen suggested that coaching managers should:

  • Coach on a regular, not annual basis
  • Recognise how their own management might be affecting the situation
  • Provide alternative examples when coaching
  • Focus on behaviours, not attributes; and
  • Use positive reinforcement wherever possible

Coaching ‘reluctant’ people

Written by mattsomers on . Posted in Uncategorized


You can't coach me if I don't let you!

Why would anyone be reluctant to work in a coaching relationship when, as we know, it’s all about helping them to access their ability and achieve success.

Once people get to know you as a manager who coaches you can expect a steady stream of motivated, intelligent, ambitious individuals to beat a path to your door. I think it fair to warn you that they’ll not just be from your own reporting line or department either. These people are likely to be performing well already, but will want to do even better.

So far so good, but what about the people you want to coach who aren’t clammering for your attention? What about the people you’re going to have to coach and help improve before more serious procedures are brought to bear? This requires more thought.

Some will be reluctant to be coached simply because they are nervous about what to expect or are simply misinformed. Coaching has been misrepresented in certain circles and some unhelpful myths have emerged. Some see coaching as purely remedial and undertaking coaching therefore as some kind of admission of weakness. Others have seen the popular media latch on to the worst of the life coaching movement and may fear that you’ll have them pretending to be a tree in search of spiritual enlightenment. None of this could be further from the truth. The antidote to such misinformation is good quality information and I would recommend that before any coaching conversations commence that you take time to explore what the person concerns understands about coaching to ally any fears and clear up any misunderstandings.

Others will be reluctant because coaching really is remedial in their situation and has perhaps been arranged as part of an overall attempt at managing the recovery of a genuine poor performer. It may even be the precursor to invoking the organisation’s disciplinary procedure. This is far from the ideal backdrop to successful coaching and if you’re being asked to be a third-party coach (i.e. coach to someone other than a member of your own team) then you need to be careful that the line manager concerned is not just abdicating responsibility because they cannot tackle poor performance. Trust will be the single most important element in the coaching relationship that you forge and I recommend a largely informal first meeting where you and the coachee can each establish a few ground rules. I also think such a meeting should look at identifying a few strengths as people in these situations can often feel a bit weather beaten and as if everyone is against them. This is not a soft approach; it is absolutely necessary to restore some self belief if there’s to be any chance of recovery. Next you can establish some arrangements to include things like time schedule and confidentiality and I always find it useful to set some coaching objectives; to define, if you like what success will look like. It should then be possible to get into detailed coaching in later sessions with many of the barriers removed.