Blog Post: Coaching When There’s Not Much Time

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In most of our coach training classes we ask students to coach one another, typically in 30-minute windows of time, but sometimes in as little as 10 minutes. Many coaches find it difficult to conduct a coaching session in such a narrow span of time. And some of us even struggle to conclude a coaching session on time when we have a full hour. Life doesn’t always afford us an hour (or more) for a coaching conversation, so let’s unpack four truths related to coaching effectively when time is short.

There’s no such thing as too little time. When it comes to brief coaching sessions, one of the common complaints sounds something like, “The topic was too big for the amount of time we had.” To be honest, if you want to be a great coach, you can’t think like this. The simple fact is that every coaching session is limited on time, which means there’s always a need for discretion, focus, and prioritization. A 15-minute session will certainly look and sound different than a 60- or 90-minute session, but it’s enough time to coach.

Time is always a limiting factor. Time isn’t the only factor limiting what can happen in a coaching conversation, but certainly the amount of time available will contribute to determining what aspects of a coaching topic will be addressed, how much new awareness can be created, and how thoroughly new actions can be designed. Only in some magical, make-believe world is a coaching conversation conducted without limitations, so we need to accept limitations as a rule, not an exception.

There’s no ideal coaching path. Some coaches mistakenly believe that for any given coaching session there is one “right way” the coaching conversation should unfold. There’s not. Of course, there are many bad ways a conversation can unfold, but there are also dozens, if not hundreds, of possible good ways a conversation can proceed. A coaching conversation is not like a treasure hunt (Let’s find “X!”) but is more akin to surfing (“Lots of waves, let’s catch a few.”). Okay, I’ve never actually surfed, but I think this is true.

Find the version that fits the time. When you allow that there are many right and good ways a conversation can go, you open up the possibilities for right and good versions that occur in shorter timeframes. Instead of wringing your hands in frustration that there’s not more time, it’s far better to lean in and coach with the time that’s available, while fully believing there to be perfectly valid and helpful ways to coach within the time you have available.

Once we adjust our thinking to embrace the truths of time constraints, we need to employ some best practices. These apply to all coaching conversations but especially to those when we feel pressed for time.

  1. State how much time you have from the beginning, without apology. Wise people know truth and adjust to it. If your truth is 15 minutes for coaching, say so and do it without whining and without making it into an excuse. You want to partner with the client on the fact that you have 15 minutes, but you don’t want to plant the seed in your client’s head that 15 minutes is somehow inferior.
  2. Don’t let the client ramble, especially after the first couple of minutes. Partnering with your client involves holding the coaching space and keeping the client productive in that space. As the coach, you are the process expert, so it’s not “breaking the rules” for you to encourage the client to speak in ways that match the reality of the time you have. Interrupt if you need to but do so with respect and in order to serve the client.
  3. Ask, “What aspect of this can we address in the next 14 minutes?” You don’t have to ask this exact question, but some variation of this question invites the client to take ownership for deciding how to fit the topic into the time.
  4. Explore forward. I think of coaching conversations as moving forward and outward. Exploring outward concerns using the coaching process to expand the topic by inviting the client to enlarge his or her field of vision and the scope of the topic. In Thomas Crane’s model this would involve expanding the learning loop. On the other hand, exploring forward concerns helping the client move the topic through the coaching process. When you’re short on time, you want to favor exploring forward.
  5. Land the plane quickly, if necessary. Ideally, you want not only to identify actions, but also to design those actions. When there’s less time, there’s less time for design work. I compare such a situation to landing a jet on an aircraft carrier: it’s not the smoothest way to land, but it fits the context.

When you don’t have a full hour to coach, just remember, God can work in both eons and microseconds. Be confident your coaching skills, combined with your client’s resourcefulness and God’s goodness will result in a helpful conversation, no matter how much or how little time is available.

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