Four Modes of Coaching Magic: Respond Mode - Helping Others Choose Their Response

Nov 10, 2022



When you’re coaching someone and you’re in Respond mode, you are first choosing your response. Now let’s talk about how to help those you’re coaching choose their responses. We do this by getting them to think about their own thinking and getting them to identify clearly what we are really trying to solve before we create the solution together. What I’ve observed is that the longer I spend in this phase (getting others to think clearly about choosing their response to the stimulus), the better the eventual solution sticks. If I skip this part for time or if I’m not truly present or interested in the coaching that I’m doing and I just jump to the Co-create step, the issue eventually comes up again. Spend more time here and the outcome will have a better chance of being favorable over the long term.

As you focus on adding your energy to helping them become their best, remind yourself that in this mode, you truly do not know or want to have the answer yet. You ideally want the answer to come from the person you are coaching. This is where you, the coach, prove you have a possibility thinking-based approach. You are confident that the “magic” is in them, not you. This is a big shift for most of you! You’ve gained this leadership position because of the things you know and the answers you have. Now, I’m asking you to put that aside for a bit and really get curious by asking vs. telling.

Here are three ways to help you spend more time helping others think about their thinking:

  • Ask the question behind the question: The first stated question or issue is rarely the issue. (Our ego protects us from dealing with the real issue.) Getting to the root takes time (but sometimes only 30 seconds) and a question! Our brains can’t ignore questions. When I’m coaching a client, the initial issue they ask for coaching on is rarely the real or core issue. Keep asking questions until you think they’ve really spent time thinking about the root issue. 
  • Do they need direction or support? It’s key that you know how they are coming into the conversation. Do they need your direction because they really are out of ideas? Or do they just need your support, meaning that they just need you to listen and add your “two cents,” or give a thumbs up for confidence? Both of these options involve getting the gears turning, but your approach in asking questions may be different. Try starting with the question, “What are your first thoughts?” to help you determine if they need direction or support. If they just need your support or need you to poke holes in their plan/idea, they’ll most likely start talking about the plan. If they need direction, you’ll get a little less interaction at first. Caution: When an employee just needs support and you give them direction, it offends their “ego,” in the psychological sense. They’ll get emotionally defensive or offended, even if it's subtle. This puts friction between you and them, rather than fostering connection. Keeping this simple, you can also try just asking, “Do you need some direction or support in this?”
  • Active silence: While getting them to think about their thinking and choose their response, plenty of silence on your part is often a welcome gift. We live in a busy world with so much noise. Providing the space for them to think in silence is an oasis for the brain; positive effects can be observed in as little as two minutes. You can use this in a casual way by reminding yourself to talk less; they should be doing most of the talking. An acronym that I keep close by on a sticky note as I coach is W.A.I.T. It stands for “Why Am I Talking?” If you need to take a more organized approach to silence, try this: say, “How about you and I both take two quiet minutes to think about (insert topic or question here) and write down our thoughts, then we’ll share?” The third option is to just ask the question and shut up. Humans are uncomfortable with silence. Be comfortable with silence and the real issue will often quickly be vocalized. 
  • Have a lamppost mindset: Even if you were as inanimate as a lamppost, it would be beneficial for them to have this experience. Don’t worry too much about asking the right questions or being perfect with this. You are not the one that is important in this conversation. This is about them. Your only job is to be present with them as they think and talk. 

A final word about being in Respond Mode: when they are really effective, Observe Mode and Respond Mode have a slow, effortless, curious feel to them. The pace is thoughtful, full of gaps of silence, exploration of different questions, and deep listening. In our busy, achievement- and speed-oriented world, easing into these modes can feel counterproductive. That’s when you know you are doing it right! What I’ve experienced as a coach is that when leaders spend more time in Respond Mode, the next mode, Co-create, is faster. They find the right solution because they took the time to think clearly about the issue in the right way. In the first two modes, you almost tell yourself that you don’t want to know the answer: you just need to ask the right questions and be a good listening partner. 

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