My opening coaching question has changed.
I used to ask:
“What would you like to talk about today?”
Now I ask:
“What would you like to work on today?”
It may seem like a subtle shift. The word “talk” is replaced by the word “work.” Yet it is anything but subtle. It defines the nature of the conversation. We are going to “talk,” but the nature of the conversation is not to exchange information. One person (the client) will do some work that moves them forward. The coach will provide an environment where work can be done.
Let’s first explore the coach’s side of work.
Beginning coaching often sounds like this:
- What have you done so far?
- What is left to be done?
- What are you going to do going forward?
- Who could keep you accountable for this?
These questions feel more like a reminder to the client that work needs to be done rather than giving the client a template within which work can be done. Often the client feels the full force of their stuckness from questions like these. The empathetic coach cannot contain themselves from joining the work, even taking over the work, to rescue the stuck client.
Better coaching sounds like:
- Looking forward six months, what would be an ideal outcome?
- What are some characteristics of a successful solution?
- What makes this issue important to you?
- How would someone else describe the importance of your involvement?
The coach doesn’t do the work, but the coach supplies the tools. Without supplying tools, it is like hiring someone to cut firewood, but not providing them with an ax or a chainsaw. They look at the work as impossible and become immediately discouraged. The tools the coach provides don’t take away the fact that work needs to be done, but they do let the client work easier and be more productive.
Now let’s explore the client’s side of work.
Using the firewood analogy, many coaching sessions I hear sound like the coach grabs an ax and goes right to work on the uncut log, while the client stands and watches, sometimes with amazement but more often with irritation. Once the questions are asked or the observations are made, the client must be given room (usually silence from the coach) to do some work (usually in the form of thinking.) What is the previously unseen discovery? How is that connected to the topic at hand? How will that influence the next step?
The client not only discovers more about the topic but finds they are quite capable of doing deeper thinking. The client will take the tools we provide with them and begin to apply them to other situations. They take on the coaching mindset, which is far more valuable than the coaching conversation. The coach continues to provide value long after the conversation is complete.
This is an example of Creating the Coaching Agreement.
In his book, Professional Coaching Competencies: The Complete Guide, Damian Goldvarg introduces the move from “talk” to “work.”
We are very sensitive to the use of language by the coach. We believe that the coach should use the client’s language and be intentional when asking questions. For example, at the beginning of the session, the coach might ask the client, “What do you want to work on?” This language focuses on taking action, in contrast to, for example, “What topic would you like to discuss today?” By asking about the “topic,” the coach keeps the conversation at a merely descriptive level, missing the opportunity to challenge the client to identify concrete actions that can be committed to by session’s end. The coach’s task is to maximize the client’s ability to achieve greater effectiveness by clarifying goals and exploring obstacles, instead of “discussing topics.”
Clients do not naturally intuit how the coaching conversation will unfold. In my experience, they are commonly surprised by the power of it. We need to be constant educators of what coaching is and how it works. This change of wording from “talk” to “work” is an example of that education that does not require a monologue.
Give this change a try and let it be a reminder to the client of who will be doing the work and a reminder to the coach to provide an exemplary work space.