8 Tips for Managers Who Want to Be Better Coaches

Being an effective coach is one of THE most important management skills to cultivate if you want:

  • Employees to perform at their best.
  • A highly engaged, motivated, “can do” workforce.
  • To be the “Go To” employer for talented employees.

Just look at any of the research studies on employee engagement and what today’s employees are looking for in an employer, and you see that employees place a high premium on:

  1. A manager who is skilled at giving feedback.
  2. A manager who is interested in their employees’ professional development and jobs that provide that opportunity.
  3. A manager who shows interest in their employee as a person.

Here are eight guiding principles to keep in mind if you want to cultivate your coaching skills. These principles and practices will help you be “more than just a boss” to your employees, but instead, someone who helps them perform at their best, continuously improve, and grow professionally.

1. Try to resist the temptation to showcase your brilliance, reveal your amazing observations, or instantly offer the solution to your employees’ problems.

By the way, this is often really hard for even professional coaches to do. You might have experienced that yourself. Instead of doing this, try to foster self-discovery by asking questions. Examples:

  • “Can you imagine if the roles were reversed and Jeanne had said that to you, how do you think you might have felt?”
  • “Looking back, how might you have handled it differently?”
  • “What was your intention when you brought that issue up to Jeremy in the meeting?”

2. Related to the previous point, pay attention to how you introduce a new perspective or point out something that the person is not noticing or aware of.

Avoid “Gotcha!” type remarks that come across as provocative and almost gloating. For instance: “Interesting that you have been putting all your attention on what he did to you and I haven’t heard you talk about your part in the conflict.” Instead you might say: “You’ve been focusing on all the inconsiderate and downright rude things he’s said to you, which is totally understandable. While it’s natural for us to do that when we’re angry at someone, if we don’t balance it with looking in the mirror, we will miss out on some really important information about how to improve our relationships. Do you know what I mean?”

3. Recognize that being certain about your point doesn’t mean it’s right; being certain and being right are separate phenomena.

In the fascinating book On Being Certain, Robert Burton, MD writes how the feeling of certainty is not related to whether we are right or not. It is produced in a very primitive region of the brain, not in the brain regions responsible for analytical thought and reason. In fact, the felt sense of knowing and truth can be triggered by seizures.

Burton further notes that feeling certain is also intrinsically rewarding, i.e., it feels good to feel certain. Knowing this, it’s useful to be judicious with our use of certainty when making recommendations — “You MUST do X” — or assessments — “That’s your fear of success kicking in!!!”

Instead, ask questions to explore whether your hypothesis resonates with the other person, such as, “What do you think about doing X?” or “Here’s something that’s coming up for me. I don’t know if this will fit or not, but here it is: could your reluctance to do Z have anything to do with being afraid that if you succeed at it, it will bring about some unpleasant outcome, which will bring you pain or discomfort?”

4. When making recommendations and explaining “The Why” of your feedback, experiment with asking them what they think the rationale for the recommendation is.

For example: “I’m thinking that this might be one of those times when a more direct approach is in order. Any thoughts about why that might be the case?”

Doing this not only makes coaching more interactive, it also spares the person from having to listen to an explanation they don’t need. I believe this is especially important to do with really intelligent, accomplished people, and Type A personalities, who have little patience for that kind of thing.

5. If you’re explaining something — especially if you tend to be extroverted or verbose — stop every now and then and ask, “Do you have any comments or questions?” or your own version of that.

Just the pause helps keep the person from becoming saturated and tuning out.

6. If you are using teaching stories, try to make them brief, one to three minutes; if they are longer, intersperse them with questions, such as, “Can you relate to that?”, “Have you had that kind of an experience?”

This helps the other person — especially if they are an extrovert who wants to talk — stay engaged and it helps them connect the dots between your story and their situation.

7. Before using a teaching story, be clear about your intention and the advisability of sharing the story.

Ask yourself, “Am I telling this for MY sake or for theirs?”

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If you share your inner world — your thoughts, feelings, and reactions — as part of your story, you might want to say something like, “I’m sharing this much detail because I want to get you thinking about your own internal responses.” I will do this at times if I suspect the person might be puzzled and wonder if I’m sharing TMI (too much information) or telling the story because I need to get it off my chest.

Related to this last point, I recommend that you do NOT tell stories about things that are still unresolved, situations you still have anger or hurt about. Not only is that an example of telling a story because WE need to tell it rather than because it’s in the person’s best interest, it also is likely to cause discomfort in the other person.

8. Use analogies to help people empathize with situations and people they find it difficult to empathize with or understand.

If someone has a hard time empathizing with someone, especially if it’s someone on the receiving end of their behavior, try to come up with an analogy that they’re more likely to relate to:

“I understand why you think your Jack is being rude because he often interrupts when you’re trying to explain something. I know I can’t stand being interrupted either. I wonder if this might be going on. I remember you talking about how much it drove you crazy in the electronic records rollout meeting when Skyler gave a 10 minute overview of what’s been happening when two minutes would have done the trick, and you and the others were nodding your heads trying to give her the non-verbal signal ‘Yeah, we get it. We know that.’ Could that be happening with you and Jack?”

Excerpted from my Coaching and Mentoring Skills for Managers seminar.