This is where the heavy lifting of a good coaching session happens. The number of TOTEs running at this level can be quite substantial. Rather than try and codify everything that could possibly happen, we will focus on the key elements that usually make the greatest difference.
The minimum number of TOTEs that a coach will run are:
- Active listening
- Tool selection
- Future pacing
The better the rapport between coach and coachee, the more confident, relaxed and open the coachee will be in speaking to the coach. This improves the accuracy of the contents of the surface communication, and the quality of the coaching process.
Rapport runs as a TOTE for the coach, periodically checking whether there is evidence that rapport has been established and is being maintained.
Rapport is explored in greater detail here. A simple tip for the coach is to invite the coachee to sit down first: the coach can then sit down and adopt a similar posture in order to initiate rapport without drawing attention to any explicit shift.
At a higher level, the purpose of the coaching conversation is to deal with issues presented by the coachee. This needs to be matched by the coach enabling the majority of the speaking to be done by the coachee. This also enables the coach to listen more actively (see active listening, below).
Outcome thinking is central to the effectiveness of coaching. The outcome TOTE is initiated early in the conversation by the coach asking what the coachee wishes to achieve in the coaching session.
The coach continues to continually process the outcome by:
- seeking to enrich the description of the desired outcome by asking clarification questions like: “how will you know, in terms of things you see hear and feel, that you have achieved your outcome?” and “what will achieving your outcome do for you?”;
- processing the [well-formedness] of the coachee’s outcome and seeking to encourage the coachee to refine it until it as well-formed as possible;
- maintaining awareness of the degree of connectedness between the current state of the surface conversation, and the coachee’s outcome.
The last point is enabled by the coach continually asking himself or herself internally: “where are we now on the route to delivering the coachee’s outcome?” and “how does what I am about to say or ask next relate to delivering the coachee’s outcome?”. An important part of any training of coaches is for the facilitator to remind the student coach to ask these questions of themselves.
The coach also needs to consider, and potentially discuss and agree, the impact of the outcome on other people in the system that both the coach and coachee exist within – most obviously employers and friends and family. In a business context the coach will normally be paid by the employer rather than directly by the coachee, so it would be normal to expect the agreed coaching outcomes to benefit the company as well as the coachee. Outcomes (whether explicit or hidden) that benefit the company at the expense of the coachee will almost certainly crash and burn.
The outcome TOTE is the most important part of any coaching process: all the other TOTEs we describe are designed to contribute to it. We have experienced many coaching interventions where attention to the outcome, by itself, has delivered profound benefit to the coachee.
3. Active listening
It is important for the coachee to be doing most of the talking. We all process our internal thoughts using language, and when we are in a comfortable and confident relationship we will tend to us the identical language when we speak out loud. So the specific words that a coachee uses provide a direct window into their thought processes.
In normal communication, when we listen to something that someone is saying, we rapidly build an overall impression of what we think is being said and act on that. It’s a skill we have developed over many years that enables us to cope with lots of communication. But when we are coaching, we need to put this skill to one side so that we notice the specific words we are hearing, suspending our natural tendency to automatically judge what they mean for us.
When listening, we also need to pay attention to the non-verbal signals we are receiving: things like the emotional resonance of the voice, skin coloration and body and eye movements. Once again, our natural skill is to absorb these signals subconsciously and allow them to affect our judgements.
When we actively pay attention to the detailed contents of the communication, we are in a much stronger position to start to deduce the structure of how the coachee is thinking about the issues being presented.
Some of the things to listen for are:
- Values in action – in other words, the values that match the specific language that is being used and the known behaviour, particularly if the values in action clash with those espoused by the coachee.
- Logical levels – to focus attention of the level of thought and action that will be necessary to resolve the presenting issue.
- Issues that become apparent to the coach – but that the coachee may not be aware of.
- Beliefs, in particular any beliefs about barriers that are relevant to the outcome. We all tend to act as if beliefs were absolute truths (“I can’t do that!”), when it is perfectly possible that they may not be true at all.
- Items that seem to be emotionally charged (and, conversely, those that are not).
- Unusual or idiosyncratic use of words and word combinations that suggest there is a thinking pattern that lies behind them.
We can start to build hypotheses about the beliefs, values and thinking patterns that the coachee is exhibiting, and these can help us to frame exactly the right question or comment that enables the coachee to move further towards their outcome.
Before we do that, it is wise to test our hypotheses. The simplest way to do that is to ask the coachee for confirmation: “so what I am hearing you say is that …?”. Or it can be tested in other ways: “from what I’m hearing, I’d like to ask, how important (x) is to you?”. These tests can also be used to subtly reframe some of the presenting issues in ways that are still accurate but more constructive for the coachee. A positive response will not only reinforce the quality of the hypothesis but also improve rapport.
In order to sharpen the process of active listening, the coach can ask himself or herself some internal questions:
- What has to be true for the coachee, for them to be saying what they are currently saying? What else?
- What keeps the coachee motivated to stay where they are right now, even though they say they want to be somewhere else (i.e. the outcome)?
- What barriers and limitations to achieving the outcome are being articulated (either explicitly or implicitly) by the coachee?
- What actions, if any, is the coachee already taking? Since, by definition, these actions are not delivering the outcome, what alternative actions might work better?
- What could I say or ask next that would be accepted by the coachee, yet moves him or her forward from the current situation towards the outcome?
Sometimes, if it is done carefully, it may also be effective for the coach to convert the coach’s internal question into an external question for the coachee.
4. Tool selection
This can look like the most intimidating TOTE of the coaching conversation, but in practice the other elements are so important that if they are done well the coaching process has a good chance of being effective whatever tools are (or are not) used.
The overall TOTE for tool selection will contain the following elements:
- Based on what we have learned so far what is the tool that the coach can use to best help the coachee achieve their outcome?
- Use the tool.
- If it works, great! If it doesn’t, note what we have learned and go back to step 1.
The range of tools that can be used in coaching is almost limitless. However, provided that the coach is clear about the outcome and has been diligent in active listening, any tool in the coach’s repertoire that feels intuitively right has a good chance of succeeding.
Naturally, expansion of the coach’s repertoire and skill in using a variety of tools will expand the number of choices that the coach can make in any situation – and increase the probability of a successful result. A confident coach who has obvious skill will also maintain a high degree of credibility, and this will serve to increase and maintain rapport.
All the tools described in this book (and some others we have not yet included) have a potential role in the coaching process: the coach needs to decide which tool in any given situation is likely to be the most effective. We have already discussed the essential tools – [outcome thinking] and [rapport]. In our experience, other tools that are most likely to be useful are:
- Future/back – invite the coachee to step into a future when the outcome has been achieved, and from that position look back to the steps and resources that enabled this to happen.
- Perceptual positions – help the coachee understand others who will be influential in their outcome or surmounting the barriers toward it. Invite the coachee to consider the issue from a different position. Help us to build an even deeper rapport with the coachee by ‘stepping into their shoes’.
- Reframing – restating what the coachee has said using slightly different words so that their experience of the issue is modified and possibly expanded. Subtle changes in adjectives and tenses are the most effective.
- Anchoring – help the coachee build an important resource and have it available when needed in future (a simple example might be confidence when speaking in public).
- Parts integration – generate new outcomes when existing issues seem to conflict.
- Conflict code-breaker – seek the leverage point to crack the code of a difficult conflict.
Whatever tool or tools are used, the coach is seeking to help the coachee to get to a point where new actions, which have a high probability of achieving the chosen outcome, have been generated. The evidence for this will normally be obvious: the coachee will have a strong sense of confidence when articulating the actions, and will show signs of positive emotional engagement with them.
The ecology TOTE is all about the needs of the wider system that the coachee is part of. The coach will already have considered it when refining the initial outcomes for the session, and this is a final check on the actions that the coachee has generated to ensure that they are feasible.
Specific questions to be considered are:
- Will the wider system permit the actions to be carried out?
- Will the actions have any negative impacts on anyone in the wider system?
If either the first question is ‘no’ or to the second is ‘yes’, the actions (or the original outcome) need to be modified appropriately.
6. Future pacing
Future pacing is a final check on the results of the coaching session to establish that the actions generated have a good chance of being implemented successfully after the session has ended.
The coach invites the coachee to fully ‘step into’ a future time and location when the coachee expects to implement the agreed actions. The coachee experiences the events as if they are actually occurring, and notices whether there is any resistance. If there is, that is a cue for the coach to revisit the actions (or the original outcome) and refine them until the coachee is fully confident of an effective result.
The classic test here is to invite the coachee to choose how high, on a scale of 1 to 10, the motivation feels. Anything like 7 or lower is unlikely to be carried through – the coachee needs to be in 9 or 10 territory (and even a 9 might be worth exploring further).
Future pacing has another benefit: it effectively [anchors] the coachee to implement the actions when triggered by the actual circumstances imagined during the coaching, and therefore increases the probability of actual implementation.
Although future pacing is a desirable TOTE to implement, sometimes there may not be sufficient time. And sometimes it is redundant because the coachee has already demonstrated through his or her emotional commitment and vivid descriptions of the actions in practice that this loop has already been closed.