The Process of Coaching—Creating Tension and Probing Reality

The goal of coaching is to create change.  I have proposed that change can be realized through positive tension between desired outcomes and current reality.  Let’s explore the coach’s role in creating this tension. If the coachee already feels tension, the role of the coach is to create clarity around the desired outcome and the current state of affairs.  Clarity will be realized through asking questions that help the coachee focus on important, highly valued outcomes. Equally important is a thorough understanding of the current situation. How do coaches know what questions to ask? In my book, “Executive Coaching and the Process of Change” I present a model identifying four sources of information that help in asking clarifying questions.  I strongly believe that behavioral assessments give the coach a head start in learning how the coachee thinks and responds to work related situations.  Other sources of information come from the coachee’s insights shared with you, reflections of previous experiences provided by the coachee, and what you have already learned from previous sessions with the coachee. By helping the coachee identify clear goals and clarity about the  current situation, the first step in the coaching process is established.

If tension needs to be created, the second step is to identify the gap between desired outcomes and the current situation. This gap is essential to motivate the coachee to action  Body language and verbal responses from the coachee should offer a pretty good indication of tension,  Once tension is established, the coach plays a more subtle but just as important role. Let me explain.  When a gap is established, the coach will ask probing questions designed to get a deeper understanding about how the coachee approaches the gap, how the coachee intends to close the gap. and how the coachee has responded in the past when dealing with similar circumstances.  This probing will lead to several possible outcomes. Some responses may lead to dead ends. In other words, these responses were not helpful in closing the gap. Other responses may be leads with very little emotion or tension reduction. And then there are the “hits” when the tension is strong. This is when the coach senses that a “nerve” has been struck; when probing leads to breakthroughs.  This is also when the coachee gains insight about what is creating the gap.  It is important to note that although the coach asked the questions which led to the insight, it is the coachee who owns the insight.

What I just described is a coaching process that creates and then reduces tension through a process of asking probing questions.  A coach will never have enough data to support a more calculated approach.  Choosing what questions to ask needs to be determined by what you already know about the coachee and what additional information he/she gives in the coaching session. While it may seem that the coach has no agenda or preset questions, this is far from the truth. Effective coaches use the coachees responses to guide their questions,  A coach’s preparation is being familiar with the challenges or opportunities confronting the coachee, being attentive and having a strong intuitive sense about how to ask questions that lead to insights.  And, the coach does this in a way that allows the coachee to do the “heavy lifting”.

One last point.  It takes many hours of practice to get comfortable and confident in the process described above.  Most aspiring coaches struggle with the lack of ready to be asked questions.  It takes confidence in the process to get comfortable with allowing the dialogue to shape the questions.

Is the creation of constructive tension a part of your coaching process?

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