A few years ago I started to really dive deep in the coaching stance, which is an absolute must for an Agile Coach. Remember, the framework asks for it! But honestly a coaching stance is something that can help any Scrum Master, any manager, and basically anyone who wants to be able to truly help others by means of their own individual resources.
What do I mean by that? Coaching is helping people to unlock their own potential. By coaching someone you are helping them grow. You are not just solving "today's problem". You are giving people tools for thinking and developing. How rewarding is that!
Like me, you will make many mistakes in your journey of adopting a coaching stance. So, first things first: don't be so hard on yourself. In this post I would like to share with you how I managed to overcome two obstacles in tuning into my coaching: one is related to curiosity and the other is related to being an expert on my field.
1 - Keeping your curiosity at bay
If you are a natural curious person, it can definitely be hard to not be very interested in other people's stories. What's worse, so many famous books about coaching these days seem to place an importance on "staying curious longer" as a formula to resist the temptation to give advice. While I get the general idea they convey, I would not say remaining curious is necessarily a great idea if you are attempting to adopt a coaching stance.
Speaking from personal experience, here are some issues you can run into if you just "stay curious":
You might end up asking too many questions. First off, it is a great reminder that the coachee is not there to serve your personal curiosity. By asking too many question you can overwhelm them, you can become intrusive, and you can take up too much space and not really leave room for actual thoughts to happen.
You can focus on details. Have you ever heard stories that start so long-winded that you keep wondering "where are they going with this?" That is what details can do. They are not necessary for anyone to understand the bigger picture. If anything, as a coach, your responsibility is to help your coachee to filter through the noise, so all your questions should matter. Coaching questions aim at the core, not at details. With too much detail we might either "spin around" or just go so deep that we might lose sight of what the central issue is. Unhelpful.
You can get too involved. As a coach, your role is to get the coachee to arrive at a comfortable point of accountability: when they understand something about themselves, when they can commit to next steps by themselves.
What I do now
PLAYBACK. Asking questions is a huge part of coaching, but not all questions are created equal. I would not just come up with formulas on how to run a proper coaching session, because every individual and situation is unique, but I realized that not all power of coaching lies just in questions. I discovered the power of playback. I listen to the story and detect moments where something is worth being validated and or mentioned. I ask my coachee permission to play back my understanding of what I just heard. This allows both coach and coachee to get into the same page, but the true magic in that is when your coachee catches inconsistencies or have a breakthrough. And it is all from something that they already voiced.
LOOK FORWARD. Questions, are, however, a paramount tool in the coaching toolbox. It is important to learn how to use them. My favorite questions have a future-looking flavor to them. Even if you are not adept of a Solution Focus approach to coaching, I cannot recommend enough to approach your questions from the perspective of what is possible, not of what happened. You see, no matter what happened the only possibility is to move forward. In my experience, those questions are always helpful. This can be rather challenging, though, if like me you come from a field of problem solving, such as science and engineering. Give yourself silence and time to think when in session with your coachee. Do not rush your questions. I guarantee you will be able to find at least one helpful, forward-looking question to ask.
2 - Tell less, listen more
For certified coaches this is a non-issue. They are coaches first. People come to them looking for true coaching. The problem with professions such as Agile Coach or Scrum Master is that you are paid for your expertise in Agile and Scrum. People want to see you in action, solving for things. A lot less coaching and a lot more of advice is what people seem to expect. Nonetheless, it is possible to become more "coach-like", even if what people seem to demand is an easy answer about story points or backlog refinement.
The bigger problem I see is when you want to give advice and come up with solutions. You build our career on your knowledge and you want to showcase that. I know I did. Many times without even realizing I was "solving" issues still in the middle of the conversation and offering my nuggets of Agility. I will not claim there is a quick and easy solution for that, but I will say that for me it all resides in internalizing that coaches are not Problem Solvers. Coaches are Potential Enablers. That means accepting and respecting your coachees as the truly unique, capable and amazing human beings they are. Allow yourself to be passive just a little bit and prepare to be amazed.
What I do now
WRITE AND DOODLE. Recognizing that some of the advice giving might stem from the need to be "in action" I doodle a lot during a coaching session. It is a clear part of my coaching contract: I explain that I doodle during sessions. Not only am I active while drawing or writing during the coaching session, my doodling is specifically about drawing my coachees journey. In that way I am actually processing their story and keeping myself very attentive. I look passive, but in reality I am fully in motion.
DESIGN THE COACHING CONTRACT. Another thing I do is separate clearly in my mind proper coaching sessions from just having a "coach-like" stance. As an example, in meetings that I facilitate, I can use my coaching toolbox to ask the most powerful questions possible, but my attention is about keeping the meeting running towards the intended outcome. However, whenever I get a chance to actually have a proper coaching session, one in which I get to explain beforehand what coaching is and what is in my coaching contract, I make sure to put in clear words that I will not be giving any advice. Period. I explain the benefits of operating that way and how the power resides in the coachee's hands. I never had any complaints to this day. Trust me, everybody loves being empowered.
GIVE SPACE FOR SILENCE. A final tip from my coaching toolbox is to give silence a try. Honestly, it does not take much. Give it two or three seconds of silence and the coachee will resume sharing their reflections. It is not uncommon that a lot of things said by the coachee were verbalized out loud for the very first time in that coaching session with you. People think, write, draw, but not necessarily express out loud what they mean. Verbalizing, speaking to someone else, is a whole different thinking pattern. So, in honor of your coachee's time, allow those extra seconds between reflections and if, and only if, the coachee does not restart speaking, then give yourself permission to come in with another question or a paraphrase.
Adopting a coaching stance is not the same as becoming a coach. It is a more lightweight approach to coaching in your everyday journey. It is still rather valuable and a necessary step on your path of becoming a better coach if, like me, that's where you are going.
For the most part, what I shared above can be incorporated to any of your interactions with peers, team members, and employees. And the best part? These are not hard to internalize as habits. It only starts with picking one and applying it intentionally for the next few weeks. Which one of the five tips would you be interested in trying? Or maybe this post gave you a completely different insight! Feel free to leave comments to let me know. I'd love to learn from you in your journey to adopting a coaching stance.
I would love to offer you one more thing: a thinking sheet. I use this type of tool a lot, in which I contrast ways of thinking and of doing. They are super simple, yet so helpful to design your new future. In the sheet I offer you a few examples on how to move from a telling stance to a coaching stance. It is non-extensive, based on my personal experience, and I do invite you to complete the sheet on your own time, with your examples, to continue gaining insights.
Get your From Telling to Coaching sheet here.