Coaching sessions are a unique type of conversation. Coaching conversations have a specific function, form and design. These conversations look, sound and feel different than the conversations that take place in a business meeting, over dinner with friends, during an argument with a spouse or in a classroom. The specific conversational "moves" that coaches make while working with a client are different than the moves that one makes while discussing current events around the water cooler with a colleague.
The difference between high-impact coaching and a "nice chat about strengths" is in the design that the coach uses to structure the conversation. "Conversational design" describes how a coach intentionally structures and adapts the direction of the coaching conversation to help the client reach their desired results. Just like how buildings are designed and built for certain purposes, coaching conversations deliver exactly what they are designed to deliver.
Why Design Matters
There's a basic design principle that states: "Form follows function." Coaching conversations must take on a form that helps clients achieve results. Formless coaching conversations result in negative consequences that include:
- unclear role expectations between the coach and the client
- coaching conversations that "wander" and lack direction
- the coach talking too much and the client not talking enough
- the client takes over the coaching process and leads the coach
- not enough time for action planning or the coach moves too quickly toward premature solutions during the conversation
- the worst of these -- the coaching session lacks impact and is a waste of everyone's time
These pitfalls can be avoided by spending time learning and practicing conversational design. By practicing conversational design and reflecting on your successes and struggles with a mentor coach, you'll discover new ways to improve the impact that your coaching has on clients' results.
High-Impact Conversational Design
The four design elements I consider vital for coaching impact are: issues, results, Communication, and actions.
These four elements are the most powerful leverage points for facilitating learning and personal transformation through coaching. These elements are the basics of high-impact design. The best coaches are masters of transitioning clients between these design elements, whether during a single session or over the course of a coaching program. Let's unpack each element below.
People seek out coaching to address a variety of issues. Issues can be concerns, problems, challenges, disputes, etc., or they can include things like questions, raising the bar on personal or team performance, winning followership, maximizing one's strengths, or simply learning more about one's potential. Cleary identifying what issue(s) are most important to your client should be your first conversational design consideration. What's going on with the client? What's top of mind for the client? How are they describing the issue? Is what they're describing really the issue? What's your gut telling you? In the course of a 45-minute coaching session, you should spend no longer than five to 10 minutes trying to identify the issue. At this point, you're simply seeking accurate information about the issues that the client would like to Focus on.
The second design consideration for high-impact coaching is results. Given the issue(s) that the client has described, what results are they seeking? What does success look like for the client? Your job as a coach is to help the client paint a clear picture of what they really want relative to the issue that they've brought to the session. You want the client's picture of success to be so clear and so magnetic that they start to pull themselves toward their desired future.
It's often the case that to help the client close the gap between their current state and desired results you will need more than one coaching session -- but maybe not. If, however, the gap is too large and complex to close in a single coaching session, it's your job, as the coach, to invite the client to decide where they would like to start. My favorite question to help focus a coaching session on a manageable issue or question is: "Given that you want [insert desired result], where would you like to focus during our time today?" This question puts the client in the driver's seat in determining the direction of the coaching conversation, and it creates a conversational contract for the client and coach to follow.
After clarifying the issues and focusing on desired results for the coaching session, you move into the communication element. Communication is where coaches should spend the majority of their time asking questions, listening actively, sharing observations with the clients, offering interpretations of the clients' strengths and raising considerations. There are a variety of coaching tools, frameworks and techniques that can be used during the communication phase of a coaching session. For strengths coaches, this phase is where we help clients develop a deeper relationship with their strengths and better understand theme dynamics relative to the issues at hand.
The communication that occurs during coaching has structure and design intention behind it. It isn't formless or haphazard. The best coaches use design thinking in the moment to direct the conversation toward the clients' previously stated desired results. They make decisions in the moment to ask the right question at the right time. The best coaches talk less and listen more. They challenge and push the client when appropriate. They refrain from directing the client or telling them what to do, and instead partner with the client to generate solutions, new ways of thinking and new ways of acting in the world.
As the communication phase reveals new insights, self-awareness and possibilities, the coach is always thinking about the clients' desired results and impact. With the last 10 minutes of the coaching session, it's important for the client to identify specific and time-bound actions that they want to be held accountable for. Caution: sometimes clients will want you to tell them what to do. That's not you're role -- it's their Responsibility. As a coach, your job is to help the client plan specific actions, to challenge them on when, where and what support they'll need to put their actions into practice, and to help the client clearly define first steps. If you've designed and effectively implemented the first three elements of this coaching framework, the actions that the client wants to take will naturally flow out of the communication phase. Trust the process. The better you get at defining issues, focusing on results and communication, the easier and more impactful the action planning will become.
Some people say they may see coaching as ill-defined "soft work" that lacks impact. I push back on this sentiment every time I hear it. Well-designed, high-impact coaching is neither soft, nor is it unstructured feel-good chitchat. The design framework described here will help you align the form and function of your coaching. Ultimately, enhancing your ability to help clients around the world name, claim and aim their strengths at performance. By focusing on the issues, results, communication and actions that are most meaningful to your client, you can greatly impact your clients' performance and help them maximize their potential.
Chris Groscurth's Top 5 CliftonStrengths are Strategic, Input, Achiever, Maximizer and Ideation.