Coaching conversations can be difficult. Throw in the added complexities of a remote team and they can seem harder still. It always seems like you’re squeezing those chats in between other meetings. Often we try to “make the most of our time together” (which usually means cramming too many items into one conversation) leaving the other person feeling more like an interruption than a priority.
How do you ensure that both you and the members of your team get the most from your one on one coaching talks? Here are some tips I and my clients have found useful over the years.
Send an agenda in advance. One on one meetings are still meetings, and most meetings need a good agenda in order to help people prepare. By knowing in advance what’s on the other person’s mind you can prioritize and make the most of your time together.
I remember one boss I had, where we’d look at the agenda, she’d say “Yes, No, Four and Saturday”. Okay, let’s talk about item five…..” and everyone was fine with that. Not every item needs to take a lot of time. Also, I knew I could get questions answered so I tended not to bother her all the time, but kept a “Nancy list” so I was prepared to make the most of the times we could talk.
Let the “coachee” set the priorities. What’s “top of mind” for you might not be the most critical thing for the other party. In fact, they might not even know you want to discuss a particular item.
But making them wait to discuss their priorities, can often create distractions or barriers to successful discussions. By letting the other person start with their most important item, you can learn a lot about their priorities. It’s an important window into what’s happening in their world, a view you don’t get often enough when you don’t share a work location.
Nothing good starts with “we need to talk”. Be specific. When setting up or scheduling chats, don’t give the other person a chance to get all paranoid. “We need to talk about some things” could be anything from “did you see the game last night?” to “pack your stuff, you’re toast”.
The more specific you can be about the topics under discussion, the more prepared people can be psychologically. They’ll also have time to gather the facts and make the most of your time together. Oh, and you’d be surprised how much a simple, “it’s nothing major” or “I just have a couple of questions” will do to reduce people’s stress level.
Asking “do you understand” is no guarantee they understood. Unless you’re on webcam when discussions are held (and this is actually a good reason to use them, while we’re at it) it’s hard to tell when people really understand what you’re saying, and when they’re just saying they understand so you go away. We can’t see the shrugs, eye-rolls or ashen faces that tell us there’s more to the story. Ask open-ended questions. Demand recaps and verbal commitment to action items or critical requests.
Don’t save the most important issues for the end of the conversation. While it’s tempting to get all the “little things” out of the way before delving into the important issues, there are two reasons not to save the most important issues for last.
The first is, if it’s that big a deal, you will both be so focused on the elephant in the room, that what you’re talking about won’t get much mind share. The other reason is, you don’t want to be rushed for time. If one item under discussion is critical, you shouldn’t have to cut it short because someone has a “hard stop at 10”.
Of course, these tips apply to any coaching situation. When working virtually, though, we don’t know what else is going on in people’s work lives or what’s changed since the last time you spoke to them. Because we often lack the non-verbal cues that encourage us to ask better questions, and listen more attentively, it’s tougher to get quality input. Add to that the fact that we are usually shoe-horning these conversations between other meetings or work means we have to absolutely focus on the moment. That takes planning and thoughtfulness.