Coaching is the process of asking questions that help people discover the answers that are right for them. It’s a style of management primarily characterized by asking people questions to help them fulfill their immediate responsibilities more effectively and advance their development as professionals over time.
Stop teaching, start coaching
Teaching serves to transfer knowledge but it is lossy, coaching is to allow the person to discover and grow in new ways. Teaching creates a dependency, coaching promotes independence. In general, ask more than you tell and you’ll be on your way from teaching to coaching.
Teaching is a directive approach used for instructing and providing answers. Examples include having someone shadow you on a task, and “work together” with someone when you’re either doing the work or giving the instructions.
Coaching is a supportive approach used to encourage independence and serve as a resource. This allows someone to learn on the job, even if it means risking mistakes. Examples include asking the person what they’ve tried, what they think they should try next, and direct them to others who can also help.
Transfer experience, not knowledge
Aiming to transfer your knowledge comes from a teaching mindset. Instead, you should aim to transfer your experience by doing less and allow the person to do more. Your role is to guide them while they practice, observe, problem solve, and experiment in their jobs.
Practice: Let them do the work. It’s all too easy to “show them the ropes” and end up doing the work for them. Your job is to review their work, give pointers, and let them know what they’ve done right and what could be improved.
Observation: Before giving your insights, ask them what they’ve observed, researched, and learned about the topic and task. Your job is to fill in the knowledge gaps they missed, not fill in the hole.
Problem solving: Before proposing your solutions, ask them what they think should be done. Your job is to vet their solutions, not to solve the problem yourself.
Experimentation: Ask what they’ve experimented with to solve the problem. Your job is to promote innovation by expecting people to try new things and reduce the success/failure feedback cycle. In other words, help them fail and recover quicker.
Ask before you advise
When someone presents you with a problem, you probably feel an immediate urge to respond with a solution. That may seem like a logical and efficient way to provide support, but it comes at a price. You limit the range of possible solutions to your own ideas, diminish a person’s ownership of the situation, and increase their dependence on you.
Resisting that urge is a critical step in helping people help themselves. Emphasize your role as a questioner rather than a source of solutions. So, when someone seeks your support, start by asking questions, not giving answers. Follow these guidelines:
Expect them to do the work: It’s always a good idea to start by asking them what they have tried, what worked, what didn’t, and what they can try next.
Avoid yes/no questions: Questions that elicit a yes or no answer stop the conversation when you want the other person to reflect more deeply on their experience. Ask open ended questions to give the other person more room to answer.
Embrace questions that sound naïve: Deemphasize your expertise and ask simple open-ended questions like “What’s the goal?”, “What will success look like?”, “What problems do you anticipate?”, etc. In other words, don’t ask leading questions. The goal is for them to work out their own answers, which can be different than yours.
Ask “why” with caution: Asking people why they did something can trigger defensive rationalization. Better use phrases like “Help me understand this…”, “What’s happening here…”, etc. This isn’t to say you should always avoid asking people why they did something, but keep in mind they might feel like they’ve done something wrong.
If people are accustomed to coming to you for answers, and you’ve readily supplied them in the past, a sudden emphasis on asking questions may feel jarring or frustrating to them unless you provide context for it. Explain why you’re asking the questions and what benefits you hope to obtain by doing so.
Grow a culture of coaching
Even companies lucky enough to have a growth mindset and culture can fall into the trap of teaching as the default way to transfer knowledge. If you want to grow a culture of coaching you must talk about it with everyone, not just managers within your organization. Inertia is a powerful thing so it will take some effort, coaching people on how to ask for help in ways that show they’ve done the legwork beforehand, and coaching experts on how to help others by not giving them the answers but guide them towards their own answers instead.