I’ve been writing about the need for managers and leaders to improve performance (this post) by helping employees to think better and improve their abilities to problem solve. Until managers learn to do this, they will continue to contribute to employee disengagement.

Starting a coaching conversation is an ideal way to encourage self-directed learning. How do you initiate a coaching conversation?

Posing questions allows you to focus on your employees’ mental processes. Asking them to share their thoughts:

  • Helps them find connections in their minds
  • Makes them more self-aware
  • Encourages them to take greater responsibility for solutions

As they process their thoughts, they’ll begin to search their mental maps for insights and potential solutions.

The following questions can facilitate a constructive coaching conversation:

  • How long have you been thinking about this?
  • How often do you think about it?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is this?
  • How clear are you about the issue?
  • How high a priority does this issue have?
  • How committed are you to resolving this?
  • Can you see any gaps in your thinking?
  • What impact is thinking about this issue having on you?
  • How do you react when you think of this?
  • How do you feel about the resources you’ve invested thus far?
  • Do you have a plan for shifting this issue?
  • How can you deepen your insight on this?
  • How clear are you on what to do next?
  • How can I best help you further?

You will notice that none of these questions focuses on the problem’s specific details. Notice how the questions avoid suggesting what employees should think or do. They’re designed to help your people become aware of their own thinking.

At this point, your employees will begin to contemplate key issues on a much deeper level, which allows them to see things more clearly. This often leads to new connections in their brains that create fresh insights.

We need to abandon our need to find behaviours to fix and problems to solve. Concentrate on identifying and growing people’s strengths and abilities to think things through.

Asking Permission to Coach
An effective coaching conversation to your coach page] requires an environment where people feel safe enough to explore their thoughts and reach new insights. In David Rock’s book Quiet Leadership, the author suggests four elements should be in place:

  1. Permission: “Is this a good time to talk and explore your thinking?”
  2. Placement: “Let’s see if you can come up with some ideas in the next few minutes.”
  3. Questioning: “Is it OK if I ask you to share your thoughts with me?”
  4. Clarifying: “Tell me more about this. What do you mean?”

I agree. There’s almost nothing more personal than trying to change people’s thinking. Given that our perceptions become our reality, asking people to think differently means we’re invading personal territory. It’s therefore crucial to establish permission anytime you want to hold a coaching conversation.

As you approach the most personal questions, ask once again for permission. People can quickly become defensive and stop listening to you. Asking permission frequently helps people feel safe, acknowledged and respected. Here are some sample approaches:

  1. I get the sense you have more to say about this. Could I probe a little further?
  2. I’d like to have a more open conversation than we’ve had before. Would it be OK to ask you some more specific questions right now?
  3. Can we spend a few minutes brainstorming ideas around this?
  4. I’d like to understand more about your thinking. Would you be OK with talking more about this?
  5. I’d like to discuss some more personal matters. Would this be OK with you?

Ideas are like children; we love our own the most. ~ Chinese proverb

Advice is rarely helpful. People are far more likely to act on ideas they’ve come up with themselves.

Adult learning studies prove this is the way we acquire new habits. We find a connection for other people’s ideas in our own mental maps and decide to act. It then becomes our own idea—our own decision.