Questions not Answers, Ask don’t Tell

What is a coaching approach?

Coaching is about helping people to recognise and remove blockages that may be stopping them from developing or changing. Coaching is about helping people to develop, it’s about learning. In Sir John Whitmore’s words (‘Coaching for Performance’) coaching is ‘unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them”.

In ‘The Complete Guide to Coaching At Work’ , Zeus and Skiffington say that “coaching is essentially a conversation” and that “coaching is more about asking the right questions than providing answers”.

A coaching intervention is essentially a conversation between (normally) two parties, the coachee and the coach. The coach provides a non-judgemental ‘sounding board’ for the coachee, asking appropriate questions that enable the coachee to identify those self-limiting beliefs and blocks that are preventing them from moving forward.

Fundamentals of Coaching:

Coaching is based on a number of principles that differentiate it from other interventions (such as counselling; mentoring and consultancy) which can sometimes be confused with coaching.

Some of the key principles of coaching are as follows:

  • To operate effectively, coaching requires a belief in the inherent capability of people to perform. Where coaching historically has been adopted as more of a reactive ‘fix it’ approach, we now adopt a far more optimistic view, on what people are capable of.
  • Coaching is not just about correcting under-performance or working with people who feel they are not successful. It works equally well in situations where the coachee is performing to a high standard but will still benefit from having access to a non-judgemental coach to work through issues to aid clarity and improve their performance further.
  • Coaching is about removing the things that block people’s ability to perform to their best.
  • Coaching is about recognising that the coachee ‘is where he/she is’, and moving forward from there. It is about the future rather than the past and is much less concerned with why the coachee has arrived in their current position than with determining the actions that the coachee is going to take to move forward.
  • The coach does not have to be an expert in the subject area on which the coachee wishes to be coached. In many cases, not having any expertise in the area actually delivers a better result. In ‘The Inner Game of Work’, Timothy Gallwey describes how he coached a member of the Houston Philharmonic Orchestra successfully despite not playing any musical instrument himself or having any knowledge of the particular instrument on which the player required coaching. Having little or no knowledge in a particular area means that the coach is less likely to feel that they know the answer to the coachee’s issues, based on their own experience. This being an advantage since the coach knows little and therefore can’t pre-empt the coachee or make assumptions and can focus on asking questions to really explore the situation.

How has coaching evolved?

What regular use of coaching within an organisation now shows us, is it creates a coaching culture by building coaching and development as a leadership behaviour. It enhances performance, productivity and well-being and stimulates self- observation, evaluation and improvement. It helps to build on strengths and creates optimism, which facilitates open communication. It is no longer only seen as a reactive approach, to fix poor performance.

When the intention behind coaching is to help someone develop and grow and to improve their performance, the result from the coaching process is much more effective than if the intention is to ‘coach’ someone to your way of doing things.

Who benefits?

The benefits can be many and wide-ranging not only for the people being coached but for the managers adopting more of a coaching style. Some of the main benefits that leaders report when they adopt more of a coaching approach are:

  • Less interruptions from their people who become more self-sufficient and confident in their ability to deal with issues. Through a coaching approach, people are encouraged to think for themselves and explore different options and possible solutions. As a result they are more likely to either identify solutions and apply them without needing approval from the leader, or to identify a number of options and a recommended way forward. As a result, the leader actually gains time to focus on important areas through people taking more initiative and feeling more empowered and capable, and therefore less likely to constantly be looking for answers and direction.
  • Better solutions are often generated by those people who are closer to the issue and understand more of the detail than the leader. By encouraging people to come up with solutions and to think for themselves about the consequences of these, you are more likely to arrive at an outcome that is fit for purpose.
  • Leaders learn more about the capability of their people through encouraging them to think for themselves and as a result, succession planning and identification of development needs is made easier.
  • By adopting a coaching style, leaders build a capability to self-coach and as a result to be able to deal more effectively with the issues they face day to day through thinking through the issues as if they were being coached. As a result more and better solutions can be generated.
  • Leaders also increase their level of self-awareness through tuning in to the thinking and feelings of their people in coaching sessions. Through developing better questioning and listening skills they are also better able to support and challenge their people. This helps to build improved relationships and trust. People are then more likely to ‘go the extra mile’ when things get tough.

It is important to note that coaching is not the panacea in every situation, however the more time you spend in coaching your people, will be more than repaid through increased confidence, capability and less interruptions. I encourage you to find some time to start the process and observe the change.