04.05.2020

When They Look to You to Lead is the Perfect Time to Coach

By Marcia Reynolds
Marcia Reynolds

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Uncertainty is the new normal. Enthusiasm has dwindled. Teams, and even friends, spend more time pulling each other down with negative speculation than lifting each other up with creative ideas. You might think these times call for you to be a strong leader when actually, this is the perfect time for you to coach.

Yes, people that look up to you need you to be open, honest, and more communicative than usual. They need you to paint a possible vision of the future that gives them hope. They need to see you as strong and confident, acting as a lighthouse shining through the dark.

You can be the beacon of light for others, but when they leave you, they will be bombarded with alarming media posts, fearful messages from family members and friends, and irritating comments by those who laugh at their optimism. No matter how inspiring your vision is, the world around them will put a pin in your vision bubble. Emotions shape our reality more than facts.

You can’t just tell people to focus on the bright side and have them stay there. Without a sense of certainty about the future, real or not, the dark side prevails. You must shift the stories they are living by in order to change their minds.

The power of coaching

Coaching is most effective when people must shift their beliefs and release their fears to stay hopeful and productive. They need to be coached so the changes in their brains are real and permanent, lasting long after your conversation with them.

The role of the leader in times of uncertainty is to coach people to think differently, not tell them what to do.

Most humans react to uncertainty by imagining the worse case scenario and believing it exists. They need you to be their thinking partner to discover what new work they are being called to do, which will help lift their spirits above the noise.

Besides, when the future is uncertain, there is no clear way forward for you to share. The best you can do is to coach them to examine their perspective so they find the opportunities in the challenges presented and the courage to be a light for others. If you start conversations with coaching, you give them the space and energy to join you in co-creating a meaningful present that could pave the way for a significant future.

Leader as coach

I’ve been teaching leaders to use a coaching approach in their conversations for 25 years. The story never changes. They love the idea of coaching but they think it saves time to just tell people what to do.

I disagree. I think it saves time to coach people to think more broadly for themselves. They become agile thinkers who don’t have to go to their bosses for answers. I often ask my coaching clients, “What will you do with the time you gain when you don’t have to put out every fire for your employees?” You don’t need to be a certified coach to engage others in ways that will expand how they see their capabilities and circumstances.

The International Coach Federation definition of coaching is:

Coaching is partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”

The key word that differentiates coaching from other interactions is partnering. Coaches act as thinking partners, helping people solve their problems through conversations where they see beyond their blocks. The results are empowering.

4 practices to make your coaching easy and effective

Add these four steps to your conversations to quickly change minds and behavior:

  1. Create safety by receiving what they offer. People need to feel safe with you to speak what is on their mind and express their feelings without being judged. Start by asking if they have a particular need they want to address. They will probably tell you about a problem they can’t solve. Then let them tell you the story that is triggering their emotions. Accept their perspective as how they see the situation right now. Once they trust you won’t make them wrong, they will be open to explore how they might change their story with you.
  2. Activate their observer mind by sharing what you hear and notice. Use reflective statements like summarizing and noticing shifts in tone of voice and facial gestures so people can think about the truth of what they are saying and what is bothering them most. Say things like, “So you are telling me…” “It sounds like you think no one will support your ideas. Is that true?” and “You got quiet and looked away when you mentioned that. Can you tell me what you were thinking?” Clarify what they believe is true about the present situation and the assumptions they are making about the future.
  3. Unearth what they really want. Once they agree to or clarify your reflections, ask them what they really want. They may hesitate because they doubt they can have what they want, or they might not know what’s possible now. At least you can agree on a destination they can move toward. It’s possible they just need to feel supported as they face surprising challenges that keep emerging. Eventually, there will be something they identify that is in their control to change in their inner if not outer world.
  4. Nudge them to agree to take at least one step. When they start to see new possibilities, ask them to explain what they are seeing or beginning to understand. Then ask them what they might do now that they see something new or different. Even if they say they need to think about it, ask what thinking about it looks like. Get them to declare a next step to take within a specific time frame. This ensures progress and growth.

Manage your mind when you coach

To coach well, you must

  • Let go of how the conversation will go. You can’t be attached to how the conversation will progress or what the outcome will be. If you can’t detach, you will end up forcing the conversation in the direction you want it to take.
  • Believe in their ability to figure out what to do. If you doubt the person can find a way forward, they will either resist your words or retreat in compliance. Remember you are there to clear the fog so they can access their own inner resources to figure out what’s next.
  • Feel hopeful, curious, and care. Don’t let your impatience hinder the conversation. Model courage and optimism. If they reach a dead end in deciding what to do next, then you can offer suggestions for them to consider without taking their power away.

President John F. Kennedy said, “After the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for our victories or defeats…but for our contribution to the human spirit.” In times of uncertainty, they need you to lead with coaching.


Ideas in this post constructed from excerpts in Marcia’s new book, Coach the Person, Not the Problem: A Guide to Using Reflective Inquiry available for pre-order now. I have bonus content for you if you fill out this form with your purchase information.