Coaching has become a ubiquitous term these days in the field of leadership. It can mean anything from giving advice, teaching, encouraging, training, mentoring, or even using a specific leadership style that incorporates a defined set of behaviors.
In her new book, Coach the Person, Not the Problem—A Guide to Using Reflective Inquiry, Marcia Reynolds defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” Although Reynolds clearly positions coaching as a distinct profession and process, the skills she shares applies not only to professional business coaches, but for everyday leaders as well.
Reynolds shares three keys that I believe are important for leaders to use to improve their ability to serve as effective coaches for their teams.
Build trust—No matter how talented you are as a coach or leader, people won’t be open to being influenced by you until they know you are trustworthy. Trust is required for someone to be willing to take the risk of opening up and sharing what’s on their heart and mind. A good place to start building trust is getting connected relationally. You do this by finding common ground with your team members. Get to know them on a personal level and not just as another employee showing up to do a job. Also, open the lines of communication. Extend trust to your team member by sharing information about yourself and hold whatever they share with you in confidence. Interpersonal trust is the foundation for being an effective coach.
Be a thinking partner—Reynolds stresses that coaching works best when the person being coached has some skills and knowledge to draw on, but they aren’t sure about the options, what to do first, or even the reasons behind their own uncertainty. As a thinking partner, your role is to help the team member process their own thoughts and feelings, not to give them advice or an answer. That requires you as the leader to step out of the role of being the expert, teacher, or fixer. A key word here is partner. When you provide coaching, you are focused on helping the team member use their own creativity and resources to move beyond their mental or emotional blocks and solve their own problems. A helpful way to be a thinking partner is through using the skills of reflective inquiry.
Reflective inquiry—As Reynolds points out, much of what passes as coaching today is a series of questions the coach is supposed to ask, rather than paying attention to the person being coached. In training classes, we are often given lists of common, open-ended questions that we’re encouraged to use when engaging a team member in a coaching conversation. We’re admonished not to stray from the script and instead focus on asking questions, which ultimately is more frustrating than helpful to the person being coached.
Instead, Reynolds says that coaching should be a process of inquiry, not a series of questions. The intent of inquiry is not to find answers, but to provoke critical thought. It helps the person being coached to discern gaps in their logic, evaluate their beliefs, and clarify their fears or expectations about the issue they’re facing. Reynolds says reflective inquiry is using reflective statements (recapping, labeling, using metaphors, identifying key or conflicting points, recognizing emotional shifts) plus questions (Is this true for you?) to provoke the person being coached into looking into their own thoughts. Not only does reflective inquiry help the person being coached view their issue from a higher and more helpful perspective, it frees the leader of the weight of feeling like they have to find the perfect question to ask.
Reflective statements + questions = reflective inquiry
The concept of reflective inquiry has shifted my perspective of what effective coaching looks like. Rather than solely focusing on asking open-ended questions, I can now see how reflecting back what the person has said to me, then pairing it with a thoughtful question that encourages deeper thinking, is a much more fulfilling experience for both of us. Ultimately, my job as a leader is to help my people develop to become the best version of themselves. I can’t do that by telling them what to do. They have to figure it out themselves, but I can coach them along the way. Using a reflective inquiry approach will make them, and me, more successful.