Honing Your Skills as a Peer Coach

Okay, let’s say you and a few colleagues or friends have formed an informal peer coaching network dedicated to helping each other improve performance. What’s next? As I described in my last post, you can be either directive or nondirective in your coaching approach. Here, I’ll offer ideas for how you can increase your ability to do both forms well, and so enjoy the benefits of being part of a fruitful and fun coaching community.

The Directive Approach — Giving Useful Feedback

The essence of directive coaching is providing feedback. Take this approach when your goal as a coach is to instruct others on what they’ve done well and what they can do to improve.

As a coach, one of the main gifts you have to offer to anyone who you’ve seen in action is to express to them your observation of that action and its consequences. It’s best to present your impressions straightforwardly and with compassion. The quality and sensitivity of a coach’s feedback can make a huge difference in spurring growth. On the other side, to be an effective client (or coachee), the primary challenge you face is to remain open and manage your natural tendency to be defensive in reacting to feedback — information about your actions and their consequences — that is in some way inconsistent with how you currently view yourself. Getting good at both giving and receiving directive coaching requires practice. Very few people are naturally gifted in this essential skill.

In providing directive feedback, your main responsibility is to identify strengths and clarify areas for improvement that address your client’s goals, while at the same time finding ways to reduce his or her defensiveness. You produce value as a peer coach when you give feedback that, first and foremost, addresses goals that are a real priority for them, not for you. It’s useful, too, for you to push your clients to stretch and go as far as they can in pursuing the goals that matter to them.

I’ve found that the best way to offer feedback is to prepare what you’re going to say in advance and to make sure it’s balanced, not overly positive or negative; a mix of both is best, not least because it enhances your credibility and your client’s trust that you’re being candid. Be direct and specific about what you’ve seen and the consequences of your client’s actions. Of course, if you are being constructively critical — pointing out a client’s mistake or area for improvement — you’ve also got to offer a constructive suggestion or two.

When you give directive feedback, you want to make sure that what you’ve said is what has actually been heard and understood by your client. The easiest way to do this is to simply ask your client to repeat back to you how she took what you said and what it means to her. Finally, it’s almost always a good idea to conclude an offering of directive feedback with an expression of your interest in providing follow-up assistance, leaving the door open for future opportunities for you to help.

The Nondirective Approach — Asking Smart Questions

The essence of nondirective coaching is simply asking useful, probing questions. Many people fear change because it forces them into unknown territory, where things are unpredictable and unfamiliar. And yet there are predictable stages people go through when they undertake intentional change. In taking the non-directive approach, your goal is to help others to see and feel the need to create meaningful, sustainable change. Here are the stages and some of the key questions to ask in helping your clients to face the challenges associated with each:

What’s the problem?
The first step is identifying the need for change. This can be difficult, as many of us ignore information that disconfirms our current perceptions or threatens the status quo. Coaches can help identify blind spots — by encouraging self-reflection about things that aren’t obvious to their clients. As a coach, basic questions to ask to increase awareness are:

-As you think about your goals, what’s not working well in your life?
-What are the consequences of this issue for you and for the important people in your life?
-What is the source of the need to change — is it in you or is it external?

Why bother?
The next stage is about the belief that the need to change is urgent enough to take action. Because we naturally tend towards continuing the status quo, if doing something new doesn’t feel urgent, it’s not likely to occur. Coaches can help raise urgency by asking questions such as these:

-Looking ahead, what will happen if you don’t change?
-What will happen if you do change?

What’s your decision?
The decision to change is a crucial moment because it marks the point when your mind shifts and you begin to see a different future. It is also a fragile point in planned change processes, fraught with temptations to revert to the way things have always been and distractions away from the focused effort that’s required to do something new and make it stick. However, coaches can help clients reach and move beyond this point by asking:

-What have you decided to do differently and why?
-What is the ideal outcome?
-What are your new goals?

What steps exactly?
What are the possible step-by-step actions the client can take to make this decision real in his or her work and life? Good coaches ask clients to think aloud about what to do differently, how to overcome obstacles, and what skills or sources of support are needed. You can help your client discover specific ideas for how to better accomplish goals by asking:

-What exactly will you do, and when will you do it?
-How will you measure progress?
-What stands in the way, and how will you overcome these barriers?
-How will you generate needed support?

Are you really in?
Generating sufficient commitment to follow through is one of the most challenging aspects of any change process. Because commitment wanes without a sense of urgency, coaches should continually test for this. Coaches can ask:

-What if this is harder than you think?
-What are the first steps — and the next steps — you will take?
-How will you maintain your sense of urgency?

How will you sustain it?
Even if a client has made it through all of the prior stages, it is crucial that he or she receive reinforcement for the positive outcomes gained. Encouragement at every small step builds momentum, and coaches should provide frequent reinforcement and celebrate their clients’ successes to bolster confidence and help clients avoid slippage. The key questions here are:

-What impact has your new behavior had on you and others?
-What accomplishments are you proud of achieving?
-Is there a smarter step that might help you build momentum?
-How can I (as your coach) reinforce your commitment to action?

Get in the Game!

Directive and non-directive peer coaching can make a real difference in helping people change. Try both methods and then find out what works and what doesn’t by asking your clients to critique your actions. Like any other skill, practice as a peer coach — with follow-up assessment of what works and what doesn’t, along with support from people (that is, your clients) who are dedicated to helping you become more adept at helping them — makes perfect.

One Response to “Honing Your Skills as a Peer Coach”

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