Working as a ScrumMaster or Agile Coach for a team, you know that one of your most important objectives is to help people better themselves. “Ask the team” we often hear, but actually, our job is a bit more complicated than that. Asking the right questions can be a challenging task, especially if you already have the “right” answer in mind. If this sounds familiar to you, there is help in the curriculum of professional coaches.
The first important ability you have to learn is to be silent and listen. When coaching individuals and teams, you are not the important part. They are! Therefore, active listening and awareness of which level you are listening on, is essential. Professional coaches talk about three levels of listening:
Level one is your level if you are unaware of active listening. Here, you relate what is being said to your own world, situations your past recall, your strong opinions about the matter and so on. Most likely, you end up being the one talking, sharing your own experiences and giving advice. Is this helpful for the person or team in front of you? It can be, but it might also be that you have been providing the right solution to the wrong problem! When it comes to helping the one in front of you, to better their own capabilities, you definitely did not succeed.
When you are on level two, you are focused on the person or team in front of you. You are connected by eye contact, deep listening to what each person is saying and what the person is saying “between the lines”. You are trying to understand the perspectives and intentions of this person by letting yourself see the world from their position.
At level three, you are doing the same as on level two, however, you are also sensing the feelings; the happiness, frustration, the sadness of the one in front of you – and you reflect those feelings back.
When you are listening, it is almost impossible not to be at level one once in a while. It is not bad to be at level one, but you should try to find survival techniques to move you from level one to level two or three when you realize that you are on level one.
So what are we listening for?
One technique to apply is to be listening for keywords. Keywords are words that stick out in the conversation – words with a deeper meaning. When identifying keywords, you can repeat them to yourself to memorize them and use them to form new questions. In that way, keywords help to unlock the understanding of the topic you currently are discussing.
When using keywords, do not take anything for granted. Be curious about the obvious things and ask clarifying and verifying questions.
If you are in doubt whether a certain keyword is important or not, there is a simple and efficient way to find out. Just ask if it is important or not. You will get an immediate answer.
With the use of the levels of listening and asking questions based on keywords, you are on your way to being acting more as a coach than a mentor. There are of course more advanced techniques that you can learn but start by practicing these basic techniques before going further.
It is important to remember that not every conversation is suited for coaching. If you have a fixed agenda with the purpose of providing tough feedback, coaching is not the format to use. Coaching is for well-functioning people, who want to reflect on a matter and find new ways to act with the purpose of improving their situation. As a coach, you do not take the one in front of you to places that they do not want to go. A coaching conversation is a conversation, that you design together as a shared responsibility.
By the end of each coaching conversation, remember to ask for feedback so you can learn and improve. What did you do during the conversation that was especially useful? What did you do that was not so useful? Which questions did you forget to ask?
If you are interested in learning more about professional coaching in the context of agile teams, you can get extended agile education through the Advanced Agile Team Coaching course developed by agile42. Through this course, you will, in addition to acquiring professional coaching skills, learn about the Coaching Structure and tools that are part of our Team Coaching Framework and used on daily basis by agile42 coaches.
Read the second part of the series, “Your Strategy for Asking Powerful Questions”.