How Not To Start Your Coaching Conversations

12 August

Do you want to use your coaching skills to help people develop and reach their goals? Then you need to know how to give a strong start to your coaching conversations.

Since your coaching conversations are confidential, there is no one to observe them and give you feedback. That’s why it’s good to know in advance what the common errors are so you can avoid them.

I teach tech managers coaching skills and I was able to observe how they tend to start their coaching conversations. I will show you typical anti-patterns and explain what you should do.

Avoiding these errors will put your coaching conversations on track right from the get-go.

So let’s have a look at the following interchanges between a client and a coach.

Client: “I feel at the moment that I’m stuck in my career. And my main challenge is to decide which direction to go. Currently, I’m a developer, but I want to do something else.”
Coach: “How long have you been a developer?”

This is asking an informational question. Why is it bad? Because coaching is meant to help other people think, not to fetch information to you. These questions don’t encourage your coachee to think.

Why do people ask these kinds of questions? Mostly, because they have a habit of providing advice. And to do that, they first collect the data.

Instead, ask with the intention to help them think deeper. Ask a question for which there is no clear answer they can give you right away. Some examples: “What is stopping you from deciding which direction to go?”, “How will you know that you’ve chosen the right direction?”, “What makes you want to do something else?”

Client: “I’ve joined the company as a manager and I feel that I’m losing touch with the technical side of things”
Coach: “Would you like to go back to active development?”

This is an example of guessing. Your job as a coach is not to guess, but rather to help them find the answer.

Why do people guess? Some of the reasons are our desire to appear smart or to be on the same wavelength as others.

What should you do instead? Don’t be smart, be curious. Don’t guess, ask open exploratory questions like the following: “What would you like to have as the result of this conversation?”, “Why it is important to stay up-to-date technically?”, “What do you feel about the current situation?”

Client: “As a team, in our conversations with clients we often start looking for solutions too quickly, instead of exploring their problems first. How can we change that?”
Coach: “What is your deadline for changing that?”

Client: “I have a customer who tends to schedule last-minute meetings. And I want to learn how to say no to such meeting requests.”
Coach: “When you say a customer do you mean a certain person or a customer with a bunch of stakeholders?”

These are examples of getting into too much detail too soon. Yes, it is important to know when a certain goal needs to be achieved or whom they are talking about. But the very first thing you should focus on is to establish what the goal is. Also in most cases, as you explore the initial topic they brought up, they will reveal the smaller details as well.

Instead of getting into details, you should ask what they want to achieve and why. You should also ask how they will know they have achieved that goal. So you should either:

1. Help them concentrate on the most important thing they want to work on. For example: “What would be the best solution for you?” Let them choose what the most important aspect of their problem is.
2. Or, listen carefully to what their need is and explore it more. In both of these examples, people have indicated what they want to achieve. Ask for example: “I’m curious about what ‘exploring the problems first’ will look like”, “What does ‘saying no’ mean to you?”

Client: “I need help to improve the performance of one of my team members. I’m trying to understand how to increase his performance.”
Coach: “Do you want to focus on the performance improvement of one of your team members, right?”

Paraphrasing can be a great tool. But sometimes people overuse it. If you decide to use it, do it intentionally.

In coaching, it is most likely done:
– to help the coachee consider what they have said, especially if they have talked for a long time or appear confused, or
– to allow them to reflect on an important insight that they just have had, or
– to empathize with them to build a deeper relationship.

Just rephrasing the very first thing they have said, in most cases, won’t get you anywhere. It is just standing around.

When I’ve seen people doing this, the reasons were either because:
– they didn’t know what to ask. So they were buying some time. If that’s the case, better pause. Or if you like, tell your coachee, that you need to think for a moment, or
– they interpreted the first thing the coachee said as the goal. By paraphrasing it, they were saying something like “Is this a thing you would like to work on today?” To do it first thing in a conversation can solidify the coachee’s focus on the current version of the problem statement. So explore first and ask: “How can I help you with that today?”, “What result would you like to have from this conversation?”

These are the biggest anti-patterns I’ve seen which skew the direction of the coaching conversations right in the beginning. Found yourself guilty of any of these?

Now, being aware of them and knowing what to do instead, you can powerfully start your coaching conversations.

Still struggling with how to use coaching with your teams? Shoot me an email at and I will help you find out why your coaching conversations are not getting the results you want.


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