What is coaching?

When we think about coaching we often think about sports. However, the concept of coaching people at work, to develop their skills and confidence, is growing. More business people are realising that by using effective coaching, organisations can improve their effectiveness and productivity.

Traditionally coaching has been thought of as essentially helping individuals to develop skills and/or confidence through a process that may involve all, or any, of the following stages:

  • Questioning
  • Explanation
  • Demonstration
  • Observation and feedback

Learning to drive is an example of coaching that many of us have experienced, which uses these stages. Interestingly, many of us coach, or are coached, informally by friends, colleagues or managers during conversations about issues we have.

Regularity and repetition of coaching is important in order to build up competence and confidence in the people who are being coached. Top sports people, for example, may be coached every day. The shorter the gap is between coaching sessions, the less the risk of skills decaying.

Effective working relationships

In order to motivate, lead and manage others you need to have an effective working relationship with them in the first place. This starts with looking at the level of rapport you have with your team members.

The dictionary defines rapport as:
“making a connection, having a mutual sympathy, relating to….”

The Importance of Rapport

Research has shown that the effectiveness of communication is influenced in the following ways:







Uses of Coaching

In order to create and maintain high performance teams you may be using a number of these different uses of coaching:

  • Skills transfer through 1 to 1 training – the passing on of specific skills to another person, such as how to use a new software package or how to negotiate.
  • Grooming – preparing others for promotion, an interview or other key event.
  • Correcting performance – working on improving a particular area of performance that does not meet the required standard, e.g. ineffective planning.
  • Rehearsal – running through a presentation before the event or a meeting that is coming up, and giving feedback on what they did well and what improvements could be made.
  • Problem solving – helping someone to solve a particular problem or talk through an issue to a positive resolution, usually involving action.
  • Development of poor performers – working with an individual whose overall performance is poor.
  • Working on task performance – helping someone to carry out the activities required to complete a particular task that he or she may be unfamiliar with, e.g. how to balance a profit and loss sheet.
  • Showing others how to do something – instructing someone on how you want a particular task done.


Questions are sometimes all you will need as a coach in order to help the individual realise that they already have the skills and knowledge necessary for a particular task – often the presenting issue is not really the root problem.

Open Questions

Who, What, When, Where, How, Why.
Used to get more information, expand on existing information.

Closed Questions

Do you, Have you, Did you.
Used to check facts, usually single word/phrase answers.

Leading Questions

Question includes the answer you are looking for.
Used to lead someone in the direction you want them to go.

Double Binds

Do you want to write the presentation today or tomorrow?
Used to precipitate action, gives the receiver no way of saying no.


What makes you say you are rubbish at talking with customers?
Makes the person justify their statements and opens up the conversation.

Questions are the Answer

An excellent foundation to good coaching skills – and sometimes all you need – is to ask some solution-orientated questions. These questions are also useful on you as ‘self-coaching’ when you encounter a problem or are stuck in an unhelpful frame of mind.

The unconscious mind is working for us all the time: when we are conscious, it is plugging away in the background working on problems, keeping us alive, processing information that we are not even aware of. It is a non-stop data processor, and the best way to utilise it is to ask it questions. The brain cannot not respond to a question. Unfortunately, we all too often ask the wrong questions, setting it off in an unhelpful journey of evidence gathering that does not move us forward.

For example, the question, “Why does this always happen to me?” does several things:

  • It sets the context for the brain that an undesirable situation is ‘always’ happening, so the brain will track off to find evidence to support that, screening out all the times it has not happened.
  • Asking “why?” will cause it to try to work out an answer, and if there is no positive reason, it will generate a negative one, “…because I’m unlucky, hated, useless at my job, etc.”
  • Then, ‘to me’, implies that it is you more than others, further corroborating any evidence that the brain has gathered about your lowly status in life!

If, on the other hand, you ask, “What’s the best way to solve this problem right now?” you force your brain to assume that:

  • There is more than one way (‘best’)
  • There is a solution (‘solve’), and;
  • That one is imminent (‘right now’)

This sets up much more useful parameters for processing the question through your brain’s ‘computer’.

Powerful Questions

Powerful questions come from a place of genuine curiosity. They are direct, simple and usually open. They generate creative thinking and encourage self reflection.

What do you think will happen? How can you make it be fun?
What’s your back-up plan? If you could do it over again, what would you do differently?
How does it look to you? If it were you, what would you have done?
How do you feel about it? If it were you, what would you have done?
What do you mean? How is this working?
Can you say more? What is the action plan?
What do you want? What support do you need to accomplish … ?
How will you know that you have reached it?What will you take away from this?
What will it look like? What are the possibilities?
How does this fit with your plans/values? What’s moving you forward?
What do you think that means? What’s stopping you?
May we explore that some more? What resources do you need to help you decide?
What are your other options? What resources do you need to help you decide?
Give me an example. Where do you go from here? When will you do that?
What would it look like? What are your next steps? By when?
Will you tell me more about it? What else?

Listening and Concentration

Two further skills required in coaching are listening and concentration. In order that people feel you are paying attention to them it is very important that you become aware yourself as to whether you are genuinely listening and concentrating or not.

The other key reason why it is important to concentrate is because at any moment the individual could say something which helps you unlock their potential and you do not want to miss it!

Often the coach will spot issues or solutions during a coaching session which the individual has not yet seen for themselves. By concentrating you will be alive to this situation.

Your role as their coach is to help them to find the answers for themselves, i.e. be a facilitator for them to find the way forward. There will be times when it is appropriate to make suggestions, however they have to own the outcome and therefore it is vital that they find the solutions themselves, so that they can take ownership when questioned about it later.

Blocks to our Listening

Improving listening starts with removing things which stop us from really listening.

‘On-off’ Listening

We tend to think 3 to 5 times faster than we listen, therefore we have about 3 of a minute of ‘spare’ thinking time in each minute.

Your mind wanders off on tangents often completely unrelated to what is being discussed. You lose the thread of what is being said which makes it hard to maintain rapport and to show that you understand what the person is saying and how they are feeling.

Actions to take
Spot when it happens and bring yourself back. Build up your concentration. Step into their shoes; try their world on for size. Visualise, feel, and hear what the other person is saying.

Red Flag Words

Reacting to words or phrases with an emotional meaning for you.

Stops you listening and betrays your prejudices.

Actions to take
Be aware of your red flags, if one is triggered, notice that this is happening. Notice the effect that this is having on you and disassociate yourself.

‘Eureka’ Listening

Assuming too quickly that you know what the problem is.

May lead you to interrupt with a premature summary or even a solution, when you might have wrongly identified the source of the problem. This may stop you from listening further or probing for more information as you think that the issue is now crystal clear. Sometimes, all the person wants is a sounding board, so solving their ‘problem’ can feel like not listening.

Actions to take
Ask questions to enable them to reach their own ‘Eureka’ moment. Help them to identify the underlying causes and possible solutions.

Embarrassed Listening

Showing signs that you are not comfortable with the situation or what is being discussed. For example, shifting gaze or posture, not tolerating pauses or silences.

The speaker will pick up on your discomfort and feel awkward too. They may well ‘clam-up’.

Actions to take
You can show them that you respect them as a person, even if you do not agree with their behaviour or actions. This can be achieved by consciously keeping in rapport; maintaining appropriate eye contact and allowing them freedom to express themselves in whatever way they feel appropriate.

Pencil Listening

Taking copious notes so you end up still noting down one point when the person has long moved on.

You lose the thread of the conversation and rapport, as it is difficult to watch and respond to non-verbal cues and send listening cues when you are taking notes.

Actions to take
Being in rapport will help them to think through their issues and is more important than noting down the facts. If you need to have notes, ask if it would be OK to write summary notes at the end and check out the facts with the person concerned.

Other useful coaching skills

Paraphrasing and repeating back

  • “So what you have told me is…….”, ” The issue as I understand it is……”,”You said she didn’t understand, is that correct?”


  • “So what did you learn from that failure that will ensure you succeed in the future?”
  • “How can you look at that differently, step out of the situation and view it from outside. Does it look different?”

Reframing preconceptions

We often internalise the labels that are put on us and start to believe and act as if this is really us. There may be some labels which the person you are coaching believe about themselves, but which are not helping them to be the best they can be. If there are you can ‘reframe’ them to help them see them in a different light. For example:

Old Label: emotional – Reframe: in touch with my emotions

Old Label: team clown – Reframe: know how to lighten situations

Old Label: angry – Reframe: able to stick up for my rights

Use humour appropriately

Lighten the situation wherever possible but be sensitive to the importance of the issue to the person.

State management

Your internal feelings can have an impact on those around you – positive and negative.

Conclusion – Bringing it all together

So, before each coaching session, remember this simple checklist:

  • Get into rapport with the person.
  • Check your own internal state – are you feeling positive? If not, get into a positive state.
  • Maintain a positive and open state throughout the meeting.
  • Ask relevant questions – open, closed, leading etc. to gain the information you need
  • Ensure you use questions, paraphrasing and repeating back to help the person crystallize their problem or issue.
  • Reframe negative beliefs, situations or past events to find a ‘silver lining’.

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