Four Modes of Coaching Magic Part V: Respond Mode - Magic Happens Inside the Conversation

Aug 10, 2022

An important principle of coaching that I have learned over the years is that magic happens inside the conversation. Conversations, when structured well, get to the heart of real issues. I’ve observed that many bosses spend more time worrying about possible outcomes of a conversation than they spend conversing with their people. Although I love the concept of deliberate practice, worrying is not considered practice. Neither are good intentions.

In the summer of 2018, I decided that I wanted to start playing the piano again. Because I know the concept of deliberate practice, I bought sheet music, researched the best keyboards, set a practice schedule and set up the space to be exciting and rewarding. After a few practice sessions, I got off track and worried that I wouldn’t meet my new goal. I rearranged the area, bought different (easier) sheet music, and adjusted the practice schedule. None of that worked or counted towards the actual practicing of the instrument. The only thing that worked was putting my fingers on the keyboard and just spending time with the piano and the music. I see this same thing happening with leaders. They spend time reading articles and books, attending trainings, asking others for advice, worrying, journaling about, meditating on, and praying about their people and their people issues. But none of this counts toward the practice of having great coaching conversations. The only thing that helps you become a better coach is to actually coach! The medium that coaches use is conversations. Nothing magical happens outside the conversation. I’ve also noticed that leaders are fearful of having conversations because they might elicit an undesirable reaction or response from their team members. This fear is not unfounded. Every individual gets to choose their own response. They may react in a harsh way, but that is their choice, not yours. Easier said than done, right? I hear you! So, I have a gift for you! An unlimited, all-access season pass of “do-overs!”

 Unlimited “do-overs”

As I’ve grown as a coach, I’ve certainly messed up. I’ve said things that have clearly triggered responses of fear, guilt, shame, or resentment. In one particular situation, while working with a new client, I took a bold approach with a leadership team member who was sensitive to public coaching. Unaware of the situation (I was not observing at a Coach level), I continued to ask probing questions that held him accountable for his results in addition to offering him a different approach, all within about one minute. I was doing all the talking and focused more on my checklist than on him. About a week later, the owner of the business called me and reported that this leader was anxious and worried and didn’t feel like being in the room with me. Ugh, that hurt. Although I was just following a process that had worked 100 times before, I fell into a pattern of checking my list vs. connecting and coaching in a deep way. Here’s something positive I’d like to offer as a takeaway from this painful story: I apologized. I had a conversation with him a few days later, admitted that I was not in my best coaching mode, and asked for a do-over. Our relationship is now deeper and better because I messed up! So, feel free to mess up as you are coaching, and be ready to apologize. The apology connects and creates a shared accomplishment. You now have unlimited use of this season pass of do-overs! Knowing this will help you jump into a conversation without the requirement that it be perfect. It will help you just start coaching. 

Back to the step at hand: Initiating the Coaching Conversation. I’ve observed that there are two primary ways to engage in this step. The first way is when someone comes to you. They initiate the conversation.

When they come to you.

When they come to you . . . everyday. The fastest way from point A to point B is a straight line. You are their straight line. You are (by default) the fastest and easiest way for them to get an answer. And while you absolutely want to make time for them, your goal is for them to need you less and less for direction and more for support and critical thinking collaboration. Humans love to find the path of least resistance. We do this because we are human, not because we are lazy or disengaged. We are biologically designed to conserve energy and thinking expends energy, so, if we think we can pop into our boss’s office and ask a quick question and get a quick answer, we’ll try that first. Our brain knows this is the path of least energy spend. When your people come to you, getting an answer is their main priority. From now on, when your people come to you, your main priority is to engage them in thinking.


Next time, we’ll talk about the best ways to do that.

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