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7 Steps to a Successful Coaching Conversation

By Peter Pearson - 8th Jul 2016

7 Steps to a Successful Coaching Conversation

How can ‘non-directive’ coaching be both structured and rigorous? This sounds paradoxical, but the paradox is resolved by the realisation that while it is never appropriate for the coach to impose their ideas, model of the world or solutions upon the client, it is wholly appropriate for them to structure the conversation to give it a clear sense of direction.

This is what helps move the client from being stuck/problem-focussed/confused to a state of clarity about what they want and what they are going to do to get there.

The following 7 steps work with just about any coaching model though they contain some elements missing from most models (eg ‘establishing ownership’ and the ‘congruence check’).

  1. Clarify the current situation
  2. Establish ownership
  3. Find out what the client has already tried
  4. Explore the solution state
  5. Create a ‘well-formed outcome’
  6. Check out any possible negative consequences (safety check)
  7. Commit to action

Let’s explore each step in more detail.

1. Clarify the current situation

Ask a mixture of open-ended and closed questions to gather information about what’s going on:

  • Tell me about…
  • How long has this gone on for…?
  • Do other people see the situation in the same way?
  • How big a deal is this to you?

[It is preferable to use neutral words like ‘situation’ or ‘challenge’ rather than words like ‘problem’ or ‘issue’ which could unconsciously reinforce a state of ‘stuckness’.]

If you sense quite a bit of emotion it may help to surface this

  • And how is this making you feel?
  • Am I sensing some frustration/anger/anxiety here?

When you have gathered enough information to gain some understanding of what’s been going on, summarise back to the client what they have said, using their own words as far as possible, eg

  • I think I’ve heard you say there are five things going on...[list them].. is this right?.... which would you like to focus on now? [This could be the biggest challenge, the one causing most irritation or else the one with the best prospect of a ‘quick win’]

This reflecting back/summarising is extremely valuable for the client to gain some objectivity over what’s going on, and for the coach to check out that they have correctly heard where the client’s main concern or area of interest lies.

It may be appropriate at this point to ask the client for a first statement of their goal ..’I want my second in department to pull his weight’ ‘I’d like to be more organised’ ‘I want to be less stressed’.

2. Establish ownership

In my experience in as many as 50% of cases the initial goal contains elements outside the client’s control, usually to do with other people or matters over which they have no influence. It is often useful to state this directly:

  • You’ve said you’d like your second in charge to pull their weight, but as we know it is not possible to change other people directly ... are you wishing to explore how you have behaved with this person and whether by changing how you behave you could get a different result?
  • What can you take ownership of in this situation?

The client can change how they think, what they do and what they say. They cannot change how other people think, behave or act. It is only worth hearing about other people’s behaviours to the extent that it provides useful information about the situation and how it affects the client. After that point the focus needs to make a clear shift to what the client can think, do or say.

Be prepared to repeat this stage as many times as is necessary to get the client to focus on their own circle of control.

3. Find out what the client has already tried

Eg by asking

  • What have you already tried?... what was the effect of that?
  • Have you tried anything else?... Anything else?

Summarise back to the client

  • So you’ve tried two approaches and...

This can help the client see the situation and their own behaviours more objectively, from ‘third position’ in NLP-speak. This can help them prepare internally to consider what may be new and more effective ways of behaviour.

4. Explore the solution state

Here are a few really useful questions you could ask to help the client explore what the solution might be like:

  • Imagine things have worked out better than you could have thought... what will you see, hear and feel?
  • Imagine you wake up one morning and everything’s changed... as if by magic... what will you notice is different? What will you see that’s different...  hear... and feel?
  • If you could take a pill, which gave you all the resources you needed, what would you do... how would things change?
  • Can you think back to a time when you were faced with a challenge of a similar size to this one that you managed to overcome... can you remember what caused things to shift? Would this work again this time or do you need something a little bit different?
  • Taking as long as you need to think, out of all the people in the world, who it is that would handle this situation really well … it could be some one you know or a figure from history or even from the world of fiction... What is it that they would do or say that would make a difference?

(Most of the time coaching questions are short and the client is talking more than the coach: occasionally though the coach will slow things down, and ask a longer question, with pauses, which gets the client into a space in which they can think new thoughts)

5. Create a well-formed outcome

Once the client is clear about what the solution looks (sounds, feels) like, it is time to turn it into a ‘well-formed outcome’.

This is a course of action so compelling that the client is almost certain to carry it out.

It has the following criteria:

  • It is wholly Positive, ie what the client does want rather than what they want to avoid. Only ‘clean’ positive language is used, eg I want to breath clean, healthy fresh air rather than I want to stop smoking which is unconsciously reinforcing the undesired behaviour! (You can only think about stopping smoking by thinking about smoking!)
  • Definitely Owned by the client ie what they are going to think, do or say, not hope for some one else to do or say!
  • They are definitely Congruent about, ie if you ask them if they really want to achieve their goal they say YES without any signs of doubting or hesitation. On the contrary, what they say will accompanied by a sense of energy, often their eyes will shine brightly! If there is a lack of congruence it is helpful to reflect this back to the client Am I hearing some hesitation here ....? what would need to happen for you to be really sure about this?

Clients often try to please others by stating the goal they think they should be going for! Yet it’s hard to be inspired by a second hand goal. Keep going until you get real congruence! (In NLP-speak this stage is called the ‘ecology check’).

Finally the outcome or goal is expressed really Specifically and concretely, stating the exact time, place, actions, words that will take place

  • So you’re going to meet with X at 10 am on Tuesday in their office, shake them firmly by the hand and say ‘ABC’ , you anticipate these possible responses .... to which you will respond by…

Of course you will get the client to work all this out by asking the relevant questions!

It could well be helpful to ‘micro-coach’ or rehearse every last detail, eg get the client to say the words they will say, in the manner they will say them, with the coach giving feedback and checking back until the client is as clear and confident as they can be over what they are going to do and say.

6. Check out any possible negative consequences (Safety check)

If the client is at all worried at what they are going to do it can be helpful to explore all the possible down-sides of their course of action

  • What is the worst that can happen .... what would be the consequences of this?
  • Are there any possible downsides to this?

Often the client’s worst fears will seem far less powerful by being spoken aloud. Occasionally though there could be some real consequences or even danger from a course of action and this needs to be explored carefully. Weighing everything up, do they still want to proceed?

7. Commit to Action

Coaching that doesn’t lead to action is a waste of time and money, apart from the few cases where the ‘action’ is for the client to ‘let go’ of a situation that they have realised is not actually their issue!

Scaling questions are very useful for establishing the level of commitment to the actions agreed

  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely are you have done this by Wednesday morning/the next time we meet?

If the answer isn’t a 9 or a 10 then it is worth checking out what could get in the way of successful action, and asking

  • What would need to happen for this to become a 9 or 10 out of 10?

Depending on the agreed protocols this could be the time for the coach and client to jot down a few notes detailing the actions agreed and the time and place of the next meeting.

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