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Aidan Stoate

Coaching in uncertain times

What is coaching?

There are many definitions of coaching out there, but fundamentally it is a structured conversation that aims to achieve a measurable outcome. In an organisational context, it is focused on identifying objectives or challenges, and enabling individuals (or teams) to work towards them through powerful questions that create enhanced clarity or generate new and unique insights.

What can coaching look like?

Effective coaching conversations will involve a coach and a counterpart or ‘coachee’ (or several coachees in a team coaching dynamic). The coach will use questioning techniques to enable the coachee to work towards a particular goal, or if they're struggling with a specific challenge, help them to reframe their thinking and approach towards it. Often with coaching it can be easier to define what it should not look like. For example, for leaders in an organisational context there are regular demands to hold different types of conversations with individuals and teams depending on the situation or circumstance. Some forms of dialogue may require a more directive style, others may require more consultation or mentoring.


Coaching is different. The effective coaching dynamic is one where the coach enables others to establish their own path forward through the use of powerful and targeted questions. In a coaching conversation, there isn't as much input or guidance as you would see within other aspects of leadership interactions. With less input comes a higher degree of accountability and ownership for the coachee; which enables a stronger opportunity for personal or professional development. This is where coaching conversations can be used most effectively.


What role does coaching have in these uncertain times?

The current lockdown environment is one where effective coaching can be used readily and can be a fundamental support mechanism for how people perceive – and make meaning of - a challenging situation. Coaching can take place by phone or through video conferencing, so there needn't be any restrictions in terms of isolation and working from home/remotely. 

One thing that the current circumstances have taught us is that everyone has been impacted by the lockdown and is experiencing some degree of transition and volatility. That will manifest in different ways for different people, depending on their circumstances and their outlook. But this situation has been a great leveler in terms of everyone feeling uncertainty, ambiguity, and helplessness to some extent. Those are all behavioural areas of concern in which coaching can be a vital intervention.


At its core, coaching can enable people to adapt their perspective or their relationship towards a challenge and achieve greater clarity within moments of significant uncertainty. For that reason, it has a crucial role to play in the current environment. Part of the coaching craft is to distil what can be interpreted as a very broad and complex challenge into some succinct areas from which appropriate actions can be established. Supporting individuals with that process is of significant benefit at times of high stress, anxiety and uncertainty, such as those we currently face on a universal scale.


What sort of conversations could people be having in this unique situation when working from home?

There are a number of distractions for us working from home. We're trying to juggle family commitments, social connections and professional obligations, from within the same physical space. Few people, if any, have mastered that balance yet. Whether coaching or otherwise, the right conversations to be having are ones which embrace those imperfections, and ones that promote psychological safety and genuine care and support for each other. Our current situation is evolving so quickly that sometimes the plans that we create, or intentions we have are almost irrelevant within a matter of hours. It pays to adjust our mindset to that ambiguity and be open to the concept that not all problems can be solved immediately, and full clarity may not always be achieved.


If you look at that within a coaching context, an effective coaching conversation would be to try and identify the biggest challenge that the individual is facing with everything going on, remove any additional interference, and drill down into that area of concern to then use that as the platform to determine what an effective path forward might be.


Narrative coaching and what makes an effective coaching interaction

The transactional level of coaching is about focusing on what the challenge is at a superficial or informational level. More advanced coaching explores what that person's relationship is to their challenge through a landscape that includes individual/subjective content, in addition to collective/objective mental modes. Working across this landscape is when you get into some interesting territory on how individuals create meaning; from how they think about themselves, the environments and systems in which they operate, their relationships with others and also the narrative or experiences that they share.


This is the basis of 'narrative coaching' which is essentially a platform from which the coachee can ‘re-author’ their own story. Narrative coaching assumes the principle that we are all authors of our own story and, what we share (and how we share it) can offer valuable insight into our perspective towards challenges and goals. The idea being that the coachee can eventually move from their current position to their ‘preferred story’ or outcome. Through asking powerful, layered questions within a coaching interaction you can move beyond the transactional level of dialogue and that is when the coaching relationship can really evolve. This enables you to increase both trust and tension, which are the two fundamental principles that make for an effective coaching interaction.


Reframing coaching

Reframing is part of coaching and inviting your coachee to think of a time when they've experienced similar challenges in the past within different contexts can create new paths of thinking and new perspectives. For example, when was another time you faced a significant amount of uncertainty and ambiguity? What did you think about that challenge? How did you approach that particular issue or area of concern?


Sometimes the reframing is important for coaches to reach moments of breakthrough, but what is also important is to not impose your own meaning into the conversation. There are many ways to interpret information; through body language, facial expressions, tonality, language etc. and sometimes misinterpreting these can compromise the coaching dialogue. We all have a very personal relationship with our issues and objectives, so the coach must act as the custodian to enable the coachee to find their own meaning, rather than interpret or impose their own.


Trust and tension in coaching

Tension is a really critical part of an effective coaching conversation. There are a number of different ways to create tension, for example, silence. Allowing a coachee to sit with a moment of key insight or reflection is a really important way to ramp up tension. Within a coaching context tension is actually something that builds value. We often think that in a professional environment tension can be a negative thing; if we feel tension increasing in a general conversation at work, our instinct may be to try and remove that tension as quickly and amiably as we can. In a coaching interaction, allowing someone to sit with tension can often be a moment when they are able to create new meaning around their challenge. Not avoiding those moments but actively encouraging them is a healthy component of an effective coaching conversation.


Discomfort in coaching

An effective coaching conversation can (and often should) feel uncomfortable at times. Breaking old perspectives, creating new insights and exploring meaning is not an easy transition and takes time and reflection. Sometimes the discomfort is experienced by the coach too. One of the biggest challenges for developing coaches in an organisational context is they often battle a strong impulse to interject with a solution, or apply some form of mentoring within the coaching interaction, especially if the coach has some advice or guidance in the area from a previous experience that was familiar to them. So coaches need to manage their impulse to jump in and solve the situation for their coachee.


A coach needs to think about what they bring to the interaction. An effective coaching conversation is one that is fully in service of your counterpart, it's not about you achieving your goals or your objectives but it is about you being an enabler for somebody else to achieve those for themselves. A lot of leaders want to solve problems for people and make life easier for people, and that is a vital part of leadership in any context. Sometimes a coaching conversation is not what needs to be had – other conversations may be more appropriate given the situational context.


Overcoming the impulse to advise

Building that intuition around when and when not to have the coaching conversation is important. It is okay to not always use a coaching approach and for leaders to know that they can move freely between those different disciplines as required by each situation. One technique is when a coach moves away from a coaching conversation, they'll actually call that out and explicitly say something like "what I'm going to do now is take my coaching hat off and give you some guidance and advice based on the need of this specific situation".


How can coaching impact working from home?

In some ways, because of working from home, collaboration has increased in recent weeks. If you work virtually you can lose that office environment complacency and become more deliberate in reaching out and cultivating relationships/connections. In terms of a coaching interaction, video coaching is a more powerful method, as there are many visual cues that you need to identify and explore. In coaching we learn about what are the non-verbal cues to look out for, and body language is a big part of that. With today's technology there is no reason why we can't be having these coaching conversations with anyone, anywhere in the world. 


Working from home offers us the opportunity to bring more of a personal touch to interactions than we might experience in an office environment. We're going into people’s houses and getting a sense of who they are on a human level. You can use that environment to build trust and celebrate those personal nuances. That personal touch can bring a bit of humour and lightheartedness to a challenging situation.


What else can we do right now?

Everyone is dealing with a significant amount of uncertainty and ambiguity and it is natural to experience the anxiety and fear that can create. Within a coaching context, coaching can be an effective way to help people manage their emotions and mindset in an environment of ambiguity and uncertainty. I would encourage regular conversations, continue to communicate with your team, your community and with your family and friends. Once we do return to some form of normality, let's think of the principles that allowed us to get through this time (and the lessons we are learning from this experience) and apply them on a broader scale. It is important to be able to look forward and acknowledge the good things that are happening at the moment.


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