When I see a great interview on TV, it seems to flow very naturally. The person being interviewed opens up and tells us some really interesting things while the interviewer laughs, nods, sighs and gasps.
But when I see a bad interview, it looks really painful. Sometimes the interviewer seems more interested in talking about themselves, while at other times the interviewer seems to be working really hard but the person being interviewed is as communicative as plank of wood.
There are many things that differentiate a good interview from a bad one, but one of the common themes is the extent to which the person being interviewed trusts the interviewer to guide the interview and the extent to which the interviewer trusts their guest to do the talking and thus control the content.
Establishing trust is a starting point
Coaching is different to interviewing people, but it is similar in that there is a high level of trust involved, that allows both people to perform their role well.
The person being coached trusts the coach to focus on the structure of the conversation so they can explore and improve their own thinking.
Similarly, the coach trusts the person being coached to explore and improve their own thinking without the coach needing to even understand the problem or guide them to to the right solution.
So when we learn coaching, one of the first lessons we need to take on board is to build rapport before moving into the potentially tough conversations . This rapport enables both people to have a robust, fruitful conversation, without fear or hesitation.
This is where permission to coach comes in, but it also goes a bit further than just establishing rapport.
Permission to coach and to be coached
I think I am quite good at establishing trust but I sometimes struggle with permission to have the right conversation. This applies both when I am coaching and when I am being coached
In some cases I have found myself talking to someone for about 15 minutes about their day and the value of coaching and the need for a new TV series about a team going agile. Then we finally get down to the business of coaching.
This 15 minutes can be one of two things:
- A nice, mutually beneficial chat as we shoot the breeze; or
- The “banter tax” that gets consumes a percentage of the coaching time available.
Banter tax in formal coaching
I am not against having a nice chat, I even think that it is sometimes more useful than a coaching session. But it is not really coaching.
In a formal coaching session, I might have 45 minutes available before I am off on other adventures . If I spend 15 minutes shooting the breeze before getting into the guts of the conversation, then I have consumed a third of the time available. This means that each coaching session has a “banter” time tax of 33%.
If I was paying for a coaching session (and people do pay by consuming their own time and energy) then I would want to minimize the payment of tax and maximize the value.
But on the other hand, I would be quite shocked if I went to see someone and they asked “tell me about your inner angst” before I even said good morning.
So there is a skill in switching from banter to coaching, which I am currently working on.
OK, let’s get down to it, what’s on your mind?Formal coach – moving from banter to coaching
Banter tax in informal coaching
Banter tax also applies in casual conversations that turn into a chance to explore thinking.
An informal coaching conversation might last 10 minutes and start with someone saying “That really annoys me.”
This can be an invitation to coach, or not. So once again I could jump into coaching mode, only to annoy someone, or I could spend 10 minutes using secret ninja coaching skills to trick the person into being coached for their own good.
An alternative (which I think is a better alternative) is to check-in and see if the other person wants some coaching.
This can be quite simple, as long as it is deliberate:
That sounds annoying. I’ve got some time available, would you like me to act as a sounding board?Informal coach – offering to focus some attention without being sneaky
Strangely I have also encountered times when someone wants some coaching but is not sure how to ask. They chat for a bit and then say “sorry to burden you with this …” when in fact I was quite happy to be in the conversation. So maybe it is also worth asking permission to get some coaching …
This is bugging me – do you have some time to sit down and act as a sounding board?Someone offering the opportunity to be coached
So this is something I am working on at the moment – clarifying the moment that coaching might start, without making it a long drawn out process.
So far, I have found the easiest approach is to just get straight into the question – “what’s on your mind?” rather than trying come up with anything more sophisticated.
Permission to scope coaching
I have worked with some great agile coaches over the years and I recommend having them around. But sometimes I have also found them quite annoying.
One of the things that I have found annoying is that coaches sometimes have no boundaries.
The annoying coach will come up to me and suggest we chat. They then offer me a coaching session that quickly turns into an interrogation about my views on the meaning of life. This, apparently could lead to great personal growth on my part.
These annoying agile coaches have been learning to be great “life coaches” and they want to help me be a better person, which is very kind of them and I am grateful for their offer. But sometimes the agile coach is not the one I would go to for this service.
The unbearable lightness of being a coach
I remember once I had this guy who I thought was meant to be working with the team to help improve their team dynamics. Instead though, but he kept escaping to spend time with me and other stakeholders to help us find the meaning of life and unleash our inner beings.
That would have been a great service, but it is not what I wanted from him. I wanted to know when the team thought I could do something different to help them, but not to be coached to become an improved version of myself.
That was a long time ago, but I still remember how his “aura” would seem to change as he sat for a coffee and then said
James – what can I help you with today?Annoying coach, sounding innocent
Let’s talk about how the team is goingMe, wanting to find out what he wants to talk to me about
The team are going well. Would you like to take this time to focus on some of the issues you are facing?Annoying coach, offering to be of service
OK, what do you think we need to do to improve the showcase?Me – not noticing in time what was about to happen
Why don’t we use this time to talk about you. What is the best place to start if I am to help you with your own work and your inner lightness of being?Annoying coach, moving into full coaching mode
Let’s get these coffees to go. I think we have covered our agendaMe, using subtle re-framing to move the agenda forward
That was an experience that I got very little out of. Some might think it was my resistance to growth.
In fact I am quite happy to explore how to unleash my inner wizard or give light to my inner being. I’m just not interested in talking to an agile coach about it. I would rather the coach spend more time helping the team to improve their collaboration.
The opposite problem – zealot disguised as coach
Similarly, I have had coaches who constantly want to coach everyone in stand-ups and effective use sprints when people really just wanted help with collaboration, or whatever it is that the team are looking for help with.
Hi James – what would you like to talk about todayZealot coach, disguised as a normal scrum master
I’m annoyed at how long we spend in meetings. Do you think we are abnormal in the amount of time we re-cover the same topicMe, thinking without discipline
You definitely need some zen-kanban with a touch of limited WIP. Let’s talk about setting up a kanban kai zen thingCoach – springing a trap
I’m more thinking that we can have shorter meetings, not Japanese posters with increased gossip through-put. Let’s get these coffees to go and I’ll leave you to kanbanise the coffee shop servicesMe – cunningly distracting the coach with a new victim
But wait – am I that annoying coach?
All my life, I have been very skilled at identifying when other people are annoying. It seems to be a natural gift of mine.
But then, there might also be a chance that I too am coaching people in deep and meaningful things when they want to just sort out their stationery, or that I am helping people solve problems that they don’t really need help with when I could help them explore their own thinking in the same amount of time.
So maybe I am also incurring a “relevance tax” in my coaching. Spending time on solving problems or moving to benefits that are less important than allowing people to have time to think.
So the final part of getting permission to coach is to check-in on what the coaching the other person wants to focus on more often. This includes checking in between sessions but also during coaching sessions, to ensure that I am actually helping rather than “coaching at” someone.
I hope I am not as bad as “annoying coach” but I have sometimes tried to over-engineer coaching or lose sight of the real agenda.
What next then
This would mean that, say, one in two coaching sessions add value. This would then give me the following formula
I guess that leaves some room for improvement. Instead of just focusing on how to improve my questions and listening during those 40 hours of good coaching time per whatever time period, there will be some benefit in reducing my coaching taxes.
- Time available for coaching: 100 hours
- Less establishing rapport and trust tax (10%): (10 hours)
- Time available for coaching: 90 hours
- Less time lost to relevance tax (50%): (45 hours)
- Hours of relevant coaching: 45 hours
- Less banter tax (33%): (15 hours)
- Actual conversation time focused on good coaching conversations: 30 hours
OK, maybe I also have a tendency to be a little too mathematical when I am discussing subjective concepts, but it works well for me…
In order to experience good coaching we do need to expend time and energy on creating the right environment and stuff. It just seems like a high tax rate if 70% of coaching energy is being paid in order to get 30% time focused on the core things we want to get out of it.
So what am I doing about if for myself?
I am currently trying to focus on coaching in little things. To let people have some wins and either solve a problem or build some resilience. Small wins involve less “coaching taxes” and they also set the scene for future coaching with lower taxes.
I would love to help people find great epiphanies and make huge breakthroughs because I get a real kick out of that, but I am trying to remember that coaching does not need to be a major event, rather it can be a small step or single chat that moves things forward.
If that happens enough then there will be real momentum, rather than great coaching showmanship.
So for me at the moment, permission to coach is about two related areas for improvement, both of which involve permission to coach.
The first is specifically moving from banter to coaching but getting permission to have a serious conversation.
This is about minimizing “Banter tax” with an opening question that focuses the conversation.
You can read a great approach to this in “The coaching habit,” by Michael Bungay stanier. For me at the moment it is about practice.
The second area is checking in during the conversation more deliberately to ensure the conversation has the right focus.
This is about placement and giving people permission to choose where they want to focus their energy. It’s also about listening while they think, rather than talking to them while they could be thinking.
You can read a great approach to this in “Quiet Leadership,” by David Rock. For me at the moment it is about checking in and letting people choose their focus, rather than coaching for an impact I hope to see. It’s also about pausing to reflect on what conversation I am having at any point in time.
Once I can be confident that the coaching conversation is focused on the right things, then I can tackle “mindset tax” and have solid conversations about growth, problem solving or fish and chips.
But those are areas I am comfortable with, so maybe I will share my views on them in a different blog article.