Coach panic: ‘Don’t Know What To Say!’

My good friend and colleague Jane Cook of Linden Learning (www.lindenlearning.org) raises the question of how to prepare inexperienced and trainee coaches for life after our courses. She reminds me that on the courses we run together, one of the most frequent dreads expressed by our participants is of being struck dumb with their real life clients: ‘Can’t think what to say!’

I remember it well, that horrible feeling that the client can see into your brain and that they are thinking, ‘Thought he/she was an expert! What an idiot, can’t even ask a question …’

Many of these inexperienced coaches have learnt during our course that what they have previously thought to be ‘coaching’ is no such thing because it has almost always involved either advice-giving or just making vaguely supportive noises. They now understand that intensely self-aware questioning is at the heart of good coaching: focussed, brief, warm. They know now that coaching blends high support with high challenge and that this is hardly ever what we experience from friends, family and colleagues. They understand that this is what makes a coaching conversation so special. They have discovered that asking the perfect question is nothing like as simple as it seems. You can ask a good question too soon or too late, or maybe ask a well-intentioned question which is so wrapped up in complex sentences that the client has no idea what you mean, let alone how to answer.

What is the solution for these beginner coaches, desperate to improve? Is it to offer them one of those whole books of coaching questions? Is it to spend more of our limited time on these courses teaching further questions, for instance, questions that will work when it’s a relationship problem, or a career problem, or a performance problem?

My own instinct is that this is a false trail. The context matters and it is important to use your listening and summarizing skills to show the client that you are paying attention to it. But the best coaching questions are context-free. They will work anywhere. Learning an apparently simple framework like GROW or our own favourite, OSCAR*, (Outcome, Situation, Choices and Consequences, Action and Review) each of its stages with its own subset of useful questions, is a huge challenge in itself – and in my view, plenty to be going on with.

Where the inexperienced coach goes wrong is usually in getting so self-preoccupied, so paralyzed with performance anxiety that they don’t listen carefully enough to what the client is actually saying, then, consumed by yet more anxiety, they don’t pay attention to nuances of language. Then they leave out whole chunks of OSCAR. Most commonly this means never setting the goal (Outcome) or omitting the ‘S’ stage, Situation, which includes the vital questions, ‘What have you already tried?’ and ‘What might your own contribution to this problem be?’  I have heard many sample coaching conversations which go a bit like this:

Coach asks, What’s the problem?

[Coach then accepts that the problem is exactly as the client has stated it rather than reframing it as a goal or asking, ‘What help do you need from me on this?’]

Coach then jumps straight to

‘So what could you do?’

No wonder the client is baffled. If they already knew what to do they would not be asking for coaching.

In her email, Jane says, ‘It does seem that getting to grips with using real questions in real situations is one of the most common blocks to trainee coaches or managers wanting to use coaching approaches. If they don’t have the OSCAR prompt in front of them (and sometimes even then) they just can’t think what to say, or if they’re managers, they duck the opportunity.’

Almost all of these inexperienced coaches have been highly successful in their earlier careers. They are used to achievement. If they have had a coach themselves, and many of them have, that coach may have made it all look fluid and graceful with apparently minimal effort. But this is the art that conceals art.

It is dismaying to learn that coaching is not easy and that it takes many hundreds of hours of practice before you begin to grow well-grounded confidence. The new coach wants to leap from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence immediately, something that I believe is impossible. You just must pass through that pain barrier of delivering some coaching that goes horribly wrong and of making clunking mistakes (which, by the way, will always happen however experienced you are).  You need to record your sessions then play them for joint discussion with a tough and merciful supervisor, looking hard what was successful and what wasn’t. If this doesn’t happen, the temptation to revert to previous habits can be overwhelming. Then of course, the coaching doesn’t work and at this point the tyro coach is tempted to give up.

Here is my advice:

Trust the process. Learn the OSCAR framework and customise those questions so that they sound like you and you can say them with confidence

Listen hard

When you watch demos of an expert coach at work, scribble down any unfamiliar questions that seem especially powerful and add them to your repertoire, giving them a try and seeing how useful you find them yourself

Keep it simple

Keep practising

Get feedback

Keep learning, especially about the psychology of human change.

That’s it.

*There is a full account of how to use OSCAR in the new 4th edition of my book: Coaching Skills, The Definitive Guide to Being a Coach