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7 Essential Behaviors for Better Coaching Conversations

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Alan Fine HR West Key Note 2015By Alan FineHR West 2015 Keynote

Coaching drives results. Having spent all my adult life (and half of my teenage years) involved in coaching of one sort or another, I should be more specific: good coaching drives results. When coaching is not done well, you don’t just get the same results, you actually risk getting worse results. There are seven essential behaviors, that in my experience, leaders can do that will allow them to be great coaches.


Today coaching is recognized as the #1 talent management best practice, and is now as regularly practiced in the workplace as it has always been in sports and music. Leaders who consistently implement these seven essential coaching behaviors will begin to have better coaching conversations, and make a meaningful difference in business. In this article, we will define and explore each of these behaviors and show how every leader can become a stronger coach through the implementation of each one.  


The 7 essential coaching behaviors are:

    Effective coaches believe that their “coachees" have untapped greatness within them; their intention is to free up that greatness. There is much research showing that what we believe about the people we coach is a key driver of their performance—it’s often called the Pygmalion Effect.* What a coach pays attention to creates their beliefs and what a coach believes, drives and filters what they pay attention to. These create what are called “self-reinforcing loops”. So if the coach believes their coachee has talent, they are more likely to bring it out and vice versa. It’s a statement of the obvious, but if we don’t believe that our coachee has untapped greatness, why would we waste both their and our time trying to coach them?

    When we comb our hair in the morning, we look in a mirror in order to have an accurate perception of what we are doing. In order to know whether we have an accurate perception of our own thinking and/or behavior, we need a mirror. Great coaches serve as a mirror for the coachee by providing objectivity to help them more accurately observe their own thinking and behavior. They use words and phrases such as, “My perception is…,” or “How it shows up to me is…”. The coachee is then better able to know whether what they think they are doing is what they are actually doing.

    One person’s “noise” is another person’s inspirational music. Art that looks inspirational to one person, looks “blah” to someone else. Cricket arouses the passion of sports fans in countries such as England, India, and Pakistan and bores Americans to death. People act based upon how the world shows up to them, in other words, their beliefs about the world. Great coaches come from a mindset of possibility which helps coachees see the world differently. Coachees can begin to think of options beyond the limitations their beliefs and assumptions have created. The coach brings a set of beliefs and assumptions that allows for a dialogue in which the coachee is able to see more possibilities than before.

    One thing that separates great coaches from other leaders is that great coaches are clear that their role is not to be the “expert” giving answers to the coachee. They recognize that providing solutions (giving advice), however well intended, can have a long-term consequence—it can disable the coachee over the long term. Unintentionally, it can create reliance on the coach’s expertise and a tendency for the coachee to avoid taking ownership and finding solutions. Think of the child whose parents give them the solutions to their math homework! Great coaches see their role as helping the coachee find solutions in a way that they will be able to do it for themselves in the future. In other words their role is not to fish for the coachee, but to teach them how to fish. An important consequence of this is that the coachee gets to experience ownership of both the problem and the solution and therefore gets the acknowledgement for the success, with the coach becoming almost invisible to the outside observer. Great coaches do not take responsibility for solving the coachee’s issues. They take responsibility for freeing up the coachee to take responsibility for solving those issues.

    One of the most important factors in accelerating a person’s learning and therefore their performance is a safe environment. The fastest learning takes place in childhood when we are open to all experiences. What slows down this extraordinary ability— and it’s an ability everyone has—is the internal conversations that go on in our minds, the ones that say, “Don’t screw up,” or “Everyone’s watching,” or “Don’t trust him.” We develop these internal dialogues in response to the threats that life throws at us including, toddlers being shouted at by their moms or dads, being told we’re stupid in school, and being advised we don’t have the talent at work. Once we develop those internal conversations (usually in response to the threats that show up in our lives) learning slows down. Perhaps the biggest single contributor to creating this safe environment is the coach being nonjudgmental about the coachee. The coach may have opinions about what will generate the desired outcomes, but she or he should listen to and observe what the coachee thinks, says, or does without passing judgment about whether it is good or bad, right or wrong. Great coaches create a safe environment for the coachee where the coachee can “look in the mirror” without fear of judgment.

    To me there are four important factors that impact human performance—knowledge, faith, fire, and focus. And while they are each important, the most important one is focus because it drives every thing we do. It’s what separates our good days from our bad days at any level of performance. When we are focused, we do things well, whether it’s solving a problem, having a tough conversation, or playing golf. When we are focused our minds are quiet and undistracted. Focus is the driver of human performance and great coaches help their coachees discover what’s important to focus on and how to sustain that focus over time.

    Effective coaching gets past symptoms and addresses root causes. It will help a coachee become aware of and test the underlying assumptions that drive their view of the world and therefore their behavior. This often results in coaching discussions that go in directions that neither the coach nor the coachee anticipated. Then the coachee becomes more aware of the preferences and biases that are driving their actions. Great coaches are comfortable with the uncertainty that goes with not knowing where the path of a coaching conversation might lead and what the discussion might reveal. There are of course, many more things that great coaches do. But these seven behaviors have stood out to me as being present in all the great coaches I have seen, whether they were sports coaches, music coaches, or leadership coaches. My invitation to you is to think about which of these you might begin implementing to have better conversations, to create more of an impact, and improve your abilities as a leader and as a coach. HR Looking for more on how to be great? Join Alan at HR West® for more strategies. 

*Pygmalion effect (Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia), or Rosenthal effect, is the phenomenon in which the greater the expectation placed upon people, the better they perform. The effect is named after Pygmalion, a play by George Bernard Shaw.


Alan Fine’s Keynote session is sponsored by ScholarSHARE College Savings Plan. He is scheduled to speak on March 2, 2015 from 5 to 6:16p.m.


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