The technical competencies, or “nuts and bolts,” of business are important for an executive coach to understand. However, in order for a coach to be successful, he or she must also possess effective communication skills. A coach must be a competent communicator at all levels: interpersonally, within a group, and organizationally. Specific communication skills that are necessary for any coach include active listening, effective questioning, the ability to probe in a caring way, clear and simple language, reframing, and giving and receiving feedback. In the remainder of this blog, I will elaborate on how each of these skills enhances the coaching relationship.
One of the central roles of an executive coach is to engage the coachee in pursuit of relevant outcomes, whether they are behavioral, performance-based, or both. Through deft questioning, the coach will be able to identify the gap between a coachee’s goals and his or her current status with respect to these outcomes or goals. This gap provides the tension that, if sufficient, will motivate the coachee to change existing behaviors and adopt new behaviors that move him or her closer to desired goals.
How does the coach know what questions to ask? There are several sources of information available, including assessments, 360-degree feedback, and interviews with executives who know the coachee. I believe one of the most meaningful sources of information about the coachee comes from the coach’s active listening and observational skills. By being in the moment and paying careful attention to the coachee, the coach can pick up the clues that help in framing questions that are designed to elicit constructive tension for the coachee. Continued probing and active listening will help to establish an even deeper understanding of the coachee. Once the tension is identified, the coach can shift attention to guiding the coachee on behaviors that will lead to lasting change and goal attainment.
While confronting a coachee is important, the coach needs to demonstrate trust and caring. Rapport between the coach and coachee is critical. No one likes to be confronted by people who don’t care about them. The term “carefrontational” is often used by executive coaches to emphasize the importance of the delicate situation that exists when the coach must demonstrate care and understanding while asking probing questions of the coachee. Being carefrontational will help the coach stay focused on problem-solving while minimizing defensive behavior by the coachee.
A coach must remember that he or she is a facilitator whose role is to keep the coachee working toward the goal and not getting bogged down by distractions or diversions. The coaching model requires a coach to probe deeply and confront the coachee. The coach must have a keen awareness of his or her role, the goals for the coachee, and the situational context affecting coaching. The coach must have a grasp of the communication process and how he or she communicates with the coachee. Self-awareness and the ability to relate interpersonally with others will be a major factor in a successful coaching relationship.
An important skill for a coach is the ability to frame questions that lead to favorable results. Effective questions often begin with the words or phrases such as what, how, and tell me more about that. These questions move the dialogue toward clarity and problem-solving. Effective questions focus on eliciting answers around what is already working for the coachee, clarifying objectives, and agreeing on next steps. Effective questions are energizing and supportive; they create a clear target or goal and turn coercion into collaboration. Effective questions move people forward and provide them with the sense of how they can create their own results. The coach who asks effective questions is facilitating a constructive conversation that will lead to insight and goal accomplishment.
How a coach phrases questions can also have a negative impact. Some questions, such as those beginning with the word why can elicit excuses that keep the coachee from accepting full responsibility for actions or events. Questions beginning with when can lead to the coachee delaying action or putting things off if they are not related to specific goals. And questions beginning with who have a tendency to lead to blaming others or scapegoating and should be avoided.
Most coachees want clear, concrete feedback, avoiding generalizations, clichés, and abstractions. The more a coachee can offer specific examples of situations they have experienced, the more concrete and understandable the self-reflection will be. Using past experience allows both visual and experiential evidence to help define the clarity of feedback to the coachee. It also sets up an opportunity for the coachee to revisit the experience and test how alternative behaviors might have brought about a different, improved result.
In this blog, I have tried to underscore the importance of communication in coaching. Communication is not just what words are used or even how they are interpreted. There are many subtleties in communicating trust, caring, and how to use the information given by the coachee to frame questions while probing for a deeper understanding about the coachee. Change is dependent on a strong relationship between coach and coachee. Communication is the process that facilitates this relationship.