Six tips on how to have critical conversations at work

Jane Counsel, front and centre

Often the toughest challenge for an executive coach occurs before they start the job. Explaining the value of coaching to potential coachees, HR and other stakeholders requires a clear grasp of methodology. Indeed, a 2009 HBR study found that the two most important selection criteria for selecting a coach were ‘relevant coaching experience’ and ‘a clear methodology’. [i]

Now I have to say that this HBR research was based on interviewing 140 coaches, not the people hiring them. These coaches, like me, spend a lot of time thinking about and developing a sound coaching methodology. It’s natural to then assume that the client is as fascinated by our methodology as are we!

Coaching models are important – for coaches

As coaches we get very excited about the methodology and models we bring to the table. For example the same HBR study mentioned above saw coaching as a hybrid somewhere between consulting and therapy.

Another body, the International Coaching Federation (ICF) identifies a model of eleven competencies: ethical issues; setting agreements; building rapport; coaching presence; active listening and questions; communication; facilitating self-awareness; agreeing on actions; goal setting; managing progress; and accountability.[ii]

This is all important thinking, and I agree with all the skillsets mentioned, with some divergences. However, these models are all developed from the perspective of the coach, and I often wonder what matters to the client in all this? Yes they want a clear methodology and an outcomes focus, but perhaps with a ‘spare me the details’ approach!

What’s important to clients?

An interesting study from de Haan (2011)[iii] concluded that coaches cared far more about their coaching model than did the clients. The researchers found that what mattered most to the clients was the quality of listening, understanding and encouragement, with the sense of a good working relationship. The clients weren’t locked into ‘methodology’ as such.

It is not the preference for a specific technique that makes a difference, but rather the ability to employ many techniques, to use them well and at the right moment. (p.40)

These authors noted the importance of a meaningful model for clients, specifically ‘the language or conceptual model that best describes the coaching from the perspective of the client’. (p.41)

Executive Central’s Four Hats of Coaching

Through our experience at Executive Central, we’ve come to see that there are four roles that we play within a coaching engagement: those of facilitator, educator, consultant and mentor.

The Educator

The educator brings new information to the table to help the coachee decide what to do. The educator needs an extensive array of IP and depth of understanding of the field to bring to the table. This hat is not without its risks. Too much focus on education results in absorbing knowledge to the detriment of action.

The Mentor

The mentor shares relevant experiences from their own career, and therefore needs to have relevant executive experience and a strong empathy with the coachee. The risk here is in over-sharing your own history and failing to bring it back to the situation of the coachee.

The Facilitator

The facilitator, through deep listening, Socratic questioning, and reframing, helps the coachee explore what is already in his or her mind. The risk here is in overdoing the ‘therapy’. My experience with executive clients is that this type of questioning works well only if they already have all the information to resolve an issue. This is an interesting one, because many would-be coaches think they can get away with simply asking questions throughout the session.

The Consultant

Finally, the consultant uses relevant subject matter expertise in the field to advise the coachee. The inherent risk here is in too much ‘telling’. There’s a tendency for the coachee to take the easy path of uncritically acting on the coach’s advice, when the real aim as a coach should be to get them to make a decision based on their own context.

Are those four hats in good shape?

It has to be said that not all coaches are able to play these four roles. In order to wear these four hats, one needs extensive and current industry/subject matter experience, a strong career background, a high level of facilitative skill and an understanding of the ethics of advisory versus coaching roles. One also needs an intuitive understanding of how and when to flex between these roles.

Wearing the hats: Relationality and fluidity

I love our ‘ four hats’ model because it’s about relationality. In other words, it’s not just about what I’m going to do as a coach: it’s also about how the coachee is going to respond. For example, if I’m putting on my ‘educator’ hat for 15 minutes, my client is going to, almost by default, put on a student hat. It just happens, in a fluid manner. It’s a kind of mirroring.

It’s a finely balanced thing, this wearing of hats. Sometimes the shift from one hat to another is an unspoken, unseen thing. At other times I script the change explicitly, saying, “Just putting my consultant hat on for a minute, let’s talk about . . .”. Either way, I love to see the shift that my changing of hats creates in my coachee. It’s often accompanied by a physical shift in both of us. Fascinating!

A coaching model to share with clients

Describing our simple Four Hats model to potential clients gives us a shared model of coaching. It’s meaningful to both of us, and empowering for the coachee in the context of the session. Recently, one of my clients, after exploring his own values through facilitated reflection, said, “Now Rob, putting on your mentoring hat for a minute, can you tell me about your experience in that industry?” Gotta love it!

Contact Rob to discuss a coaching solution for your needs.

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