What are the essential skills that a good coach needs?
Whether you’re a professional coach, a leader or manager using a coaching approach to help your team members develop, or using your coaching skills in a less-formal environment, there are a number of key skills that will help you to become a great coach.
The most important attribute of any coach is that they want to help the person or people they are coaching to learn. A good coach doesn't see themselves as an expert able to fix all problems and having all the answers. Instead, they see themselves as supporting the process of learning.
Our introductory page: What is Coaching? explores the term 'coaching' in more detail and examines some of the differences between coaching, mentoring, counselling and teaching.
Internal vs External Coaching
There are two main types of coaching relationship. The first is with an external coach who is not part of the organisation or line management structure in any way. The second is an internal coaching relationship, where a manager or leader acts as a coach for their team. The two require different ways of working as coach, although they share some similarities.
- In an external relationship, the coach has no subject expertise and no vested interest in the outcome of any decisions, except insofar as the person being coached is pleased with the outcome of the coaching. They also have no preconceived ideas about the person being coached: they probably don’t know them in a work context and have no idea of the quality of their work performance.
- In an internal relationship, however, the coach may well have a strong vested interest in the quality of the decision-making, as well as knowing a lot about the subject. They may well know the person being coached very well: they may have been managing them for some time and have some preconceived ideas of the likely outcomes of coaching, which may not necessarily be positive.
The internal coach, therefore, has to work on several issues that the external coach does not encounter:
- Putting aside any preconceived ideas about the person and their effectiveness. Try to focus on the coaching process, and what you learn about the individual through that.
- Parking your own subject expertise, and helping the individual to develop their own solutions. One good way is to make an effort never to offer a comment, but only ever to ask open questions (so not ‘Have you thought about doing x?).
- Not leaping to solutions but, instead, allowing the person being coached time to explore the problem in their own way. Again, continuing to ask questions about the nature of the problem, or what might be a possible solution, is a good way to do this.
- Being aware of assumptions made, whether about the person, the process or the subject. See our page: The Ladder of Inference to help you recognise and avoid some of the pitfalls.
Intention and Meaning
We mentioned the danger of making assumptions, but one particularly key area of communication, especially for coaching, is the way that you say something. This often determines whether the immediate response is hostile or receptive.
However, the meaning, or intention, behind your words is also important.
Consider some examples:
|What was said||What was meant|
|You won’t mind if I leave early, will you?||I’m going to leave early even if it’s inconvenient to you|
|Would you mind if I left a bit early?||I’d really like to leave early, but I won’t if it’s inconvenient|
|Shall I drive?||I’d like to drive|
|Do you want to drive or shall I?||I am entirely open to suggestion on who is going to drive|
|Will you drive?||I don’t really want to drive|
It’s not just your intended meaning, either, but also what someone hears as your intended meaning.
For example, if you say “I’d like to leave a bit early today, is that OK with you?”, you may be genuinely concerned that it might not be convenient for your colleague.
However, your colleague may hear “I’m going to leave whether that’s OK with you or not, and you’ll just have to stay here until late if necessary”.
It might, therefore, have been better to have said “I’d really like to leave early today, but I won’t if you need to leave too. If you’re OK with me going early, can I repay the favour another day and you can have an early evening then?”
Why is this difference important in coaching?
Coaching is all about a supportive, permissive relationship. The coach does not tell, but seeks permission to make suggestions and ask questions, respecting the person being coached.
There is a world of difference between saying:
I’ve found that a coaching session often works best if we’re off-site, so would you be OK with going to a café?
We’re going to meet off-site, because that always works better.
The first gives the person being coached an option to say no.
The second says “I know what’s best, so just do it”. It does not show respect to the opinion of the person being coached and is unlikely to lead to a productive coaching relationship.
Other Key Coaching Skills and Attributes
Great coaches tend to have a number of key skills and attributes.
- Coaches generally have high emotional intelligence: they’re good at understanding and relating to people, and they’re interested in people. You have to genuinely want to help others develop to become a really good coach. It’s no good just paying lip service to the idea.
- Coaches need to be able to show empathy and be good at building relationships, including building rapport.
- Good coaches also have strong communication skills. For more about developing communication skills in general, see our pages: Communication Skills, and Developing Effective Communication Skills.
- Coaches are good at gathering information and then clarifying it for the person being coached. They generally have strong listening skills, including active listening.
- They don’t jump in straight away with the answer but rather make sure that they’ve fully understood the issue by reflecting and clarifying.
- Similarly, coaches have usually taken time to develop strong questioning skills. It’s been said that coaches should never offer opinions, but instead only ask questions to guide the person being coached through the issue. This is similar to the role of a counsellor.
- Coaches and coaching leaders give space and time for people to try things out. They don’t get over-excited or angry about mistakes, instead they concentrate on how to recover the situation calmly and with the involvement of the person who made the mistake. They are skilled at providing feedback and using tact and diplomacy.
- Coaches may also use various models of learning and thinking, such as Myers-Briggs Type Indicators, and have training and expertise in various tools and techniques, for example, psychometric testing or neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).
A Cautionary Note
Great coaches and coaching leaders are pleased, if not delighted, when the person they are coaching achieves something.
This sounds obvious but in practice, and especially if you’re a leader rather than an external coach, you may well feel a niggle of doubt: ‘Maybe they’re actually better than me?', 'Perhaps I’d better put them down a bit and keep them in their place?’. Strive to overcome this.
Remember that a great leader uses their team’s skills to balance their own. A really good coaching leader can develop a highly skilled team, and this is a sign of real strength. After all, a team should be greater than the sum of its parts.
The team’s glory will reflect on you as leader and support your own self-belief: “Look at me, I’ve built a great team and together this is what we’ve achieved!”
If you’re ever tempted to put someone down because you think they may be reaching a level of expertise beyond yours, remember the adage that:
You should always be nice to those you meet on the way up,
because you may well meet them again when you’re on the way down!