Have a structure for your coaching conversation

This blog post is the third in our series about professional coaching skills for agile coaches. If you have not yet read the first blog post, “Listen, be curious and ask the great questions!”, or the second one, “Your strategy for formulating powerful questions”, we suggest you read those before continuing here.

A coaching conversation is not just a small talk about how things are going or not going. Coaching conversations are for committed individuals or teams, that want to make a significant change or get wiser about an important matter. To help you succeed as a coach, you can apply a structure to the coaching conversation that helps you and the coachee or team to focus on talking about the important matter and find specific actions to carry out as results of the conversation. It is important to remember that a coaching conversation is something that you design together with the one or those that you are in service of, at the moment when the conversation is wanted. As a coach you never take the coachee or team to places they do not want to go – this would be strictly out of line. What you do instead is help them to go where they want to go, while helping them reflect on the important matters.

The two levels of the coaching conversation

As shown on the figure below, a coaching conversation is conducted on two levels: A) The conversation level and B) The meta level. As coach you are constantly acting on both levels. The coachee or team is primarily on the conversation level, but will from time to time be invited to the meta level by you.

The two levels of the coaching conversation

The conversation level is where the conversation happens. Here you are using the levels of listening, and you will form questions based on keywords as mentioned in a previous post. The coachee or team will answer your questions on this level as well.

The meta level is where you are designing and reflecting on the conversation. Here you are deciding which powerful questions to ask (possibly based on the Karl Tomm model), which hypotheses to formulate and in which direction to take the conversation next. As a coach you can imagine yourself as having a third eye observing the conversation from this level and your awareness about the flow of the conversation, and the answers you get will help you make the right decisions.

Meet up at the meta level

As mentioned, you will from time to time invite the coachee or team to join you at the meta level. The purpose for this is to have a conversation about the conversation, collaborate on designing the conversation, reflect on the learnings so far and make decisions about where to go next.

There are normally at least three opportunities for meeting at the meta level: 1) establish the contract for the conversation, 2) a time out during the conversation and 3) when you do the summary of the conversation. But before digging into making the contract, you should spend a little time on establishing contact with the one(s) you are coaching. Here chitchat is okay, as long as you are steering towards starting the coaching conversation. Establishing the contact helps people relax and feel confident in speaking freely.

How you can establish the contract

When you are establishing the contract, you invite the other party to a talk about the conversation you are about to have. Here you can ask questions like: “What is the topic you want to elaborate and get insights on?”, “How can I best serve you during the conversation?”, “Are there questions you especially want me to ask or questions you absolutely do not want me to ask?” and “When this conversation is over in (for example) one hour, where do you expect to be, what do you hope to have learned?”. I find it to be good practice to have the coachee or team formulate the goal of the conversation in one short sentence – and I usually also memorize it by writing it down on my own.

Now the coaching conversation can begin – usually by formulating questions based on keywords extracted from the agreed goals for the conversation.

Make timeouts

During the conversation, you can from time to time make a timeout to evaluate the conversation. Here you can summarize the learning so far and decide where to go next. Timeouts help to co-design the conversation on the fly with the purpose of bringing the most possible value into it. Think of it as a sort of inspect-and-adapt on the meta level.

You can use timeouts when you feel the conversation is at a crossroad so you have to make decisions on which path to take next. Be humble and do not take for granted that your personal decision will be the best path. Instead ask the one(s) you are coaching and follow their choice. Remember: it is not about you! It is all about them!
You can also use timeouts to re-negotiate the contract if you realize that another topic seems to be more important.

You can make as many timeouts as you feel necessary, asking questions like: “Let us summarize: We have been discussing …. and …, figuring out that …. . Do you want to expand more on this, or would you rather move on looking at other options? What would this be?”, “As I see it, we can either go in the direction of … or in the direction of … . You might see a third direction. Where do you want to go from here?” or “In the beginning of this conversation we agreed on speaking about the topic: … . It seems to me that we are more discussing the topic: … . Do you want to return to the agreed topic or is the topic we have been discussing lately more important? Do you want to change the agreed topic?”.

When the timeout is over you can continue the conversation taking into account the decisions you have just made together.

Define the next steps, starting with a clear summary

By the end of the conversation, it is time to make a summary focusing on the specific steps the coachee or team is going to do, in order to have the desired change. Have him, her or them speak out the summary instead of you doing it. That fosters the sense of responsibility. Remember: it is not your solution – it is their solution!

It is great practice to ask, as a follow up to the conversation, about what will be the next step, when will be done, and how you will know that this has been achieved. To the last question the one(s) you coach will usually answer something like: “You will get a mail, letting you know how it went”. Your reply can, in service to the other part, then be: “And if I do not receive this mail, will it be helpful for you if I ask you about how it went?”. This attitude sharpens the awareness about the coaching conversation as something that serves a purpose, rather than just being a small talk about life, the universe and everything.

End by asking for feedback

Finally, by being a coach that wants to improve your skills, you should also ask for feedback about the coaching conversation. Ask questions like: “How was this conversation for you?”, “What did I do that was especially useful for you?” and “Which questions did I ask, that were useless or disturbing for your understanding of the matter?”. Receive the feedback with gratitude, maybe ask clarifying questions, but do not go into arguing about where either the feedback was right or wrong. The important matter is how the coachee or team experienced your coaching – there is most likely a point behind the feedback where either you liked it or not.

Previous parts published on August 16th and October 7th. Graphics from the author, accompanying illustrations from High resolution jigsaw puzzle pieces set by Horia Varlan/Flicrk.