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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.

In a world that is constantly changing, coaching can be a powerful tool for personal and professional growth. Coaching is a structured conversation that enables individuals or teams to work towards specific objectives or overcome challenges through powerful and targeted questioning.

Unlike other aspects of leadership interactions, coaching conversations allow the coachee to establish their path forward with less guidance, leading to a higher degree of accountability and ownership for the coachee.

Coaching can take place in-person, by phone, or through video conferencing, making it an adaptable and effective solution for a hybrid workforce. This article explores the concept of coaching, its role in our current context, and how it can be used effectively to address challenges arising from uncertainty.

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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 engage in different types of communication 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.


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What role does coaching have in our current context?

Our current professional environments are ones where effective coaching can be used readily and can be a fundamental support mechanism for how people perceive – and make meaning of – ambiguous and complex situations.

Coaching can take place in-person, by phone, or through video conferencing; so there needn't be any restrictions in terms of developing and sustaining a coaching culture which aligns to a hybrid workforce.

We’ve recently explored the concept of BANI (Brittle, Anxious, Non-linear, Incomprehensible) as a more relevant context for our current experiences than the older principles of VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous).

In both cases, many of us have been united by the challenges of unpredictable change that impact our psychological safety and sense of stability.

These experiences will manifest in different ways for different people, depending on their circumstances and their outlook. Coaching can be a vital intervention to address behavioural areas of concern that are arise from this uncertainty.

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 our 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.


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What about working hybrid?

What sort of coaching conversations could people be having when working in a hybrid way?

There are a number of distractions and destabilisers for us as we try to achieve harmony within our hybrid working patterns. Whilst flexibility is a great enabler to support a more distributed and evolving workforce, it does have implications for organisational cultures – and for the leaders who are trying to grow or maintain them.

Few people, if any, have mastered this balance yet. Whether coaching or otherwise, the right conversations to be having are ones which embrace current imperfections, and ones that promote psychological safety and genuine empathy and support for each other.

Our current working environments are evolving so quickly that sometimes the plans that we create - or intentions we have - can be quickly rendered ineffective.

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 this within a coaching context, an effective coaching conversation would be to try and identify the biggest challenge that an individual is facing, remove any additional interferences, and drill down into that specific area of concern to then use that as the platform to determine what an effective path forward might be.


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Narrative coaching and what makes an effective 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.


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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 theirs.


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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 increase 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.


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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.

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 others 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.


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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".


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How coaching impacts flexible and remote workers?

Those who work within flexible or hybrid environments now need to be more deliberate in reaching out and cultivating relationships and connections with their colleagues, leaders and direct reports.

Doing so through virtual channels can be an adequate alternative to in-person interactions. In terms of a coaching dialogue, video coaching is a powerful method, as there are many visual cues that you need to identify and explore.

Part of growing your coaching capability is to learn about how and where non-verbal cues are presenting, and interpreting body language is a big component of this. With today's technology there is no reason why we can't be having these coaching conversations with anyone, anywhere in the world. 

Coaching is a vital intervention that can enable people to adapt their perspective towards challenges and achieve greater clarity in moments of significant uncertainty. The right coaching conversations can be crucial in promoting psychological safety, empathy, and support for each other in a hybrid work environment.

An effective coaching interaction should move beyond the transactional level of dialogue to create trust and tension, making use of narrative coaching techniques to enable the coachee to re-author their own story.

Overall, coaching can be a powerful tool for personal and professional growth, and its role in supporting individuals in times of high stress, anxiety, and uncertainty is more important than ever.

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