Coaching tools and the 5 basic coaching skills – what do you REALLY need?

What skills does a coach REALLY need? Which tools are essential?

These are big questions. And many coaches secretly have them at the back of their minds, especially when they’re newly qualified.  Have you ever heard that little voice inside saying something like this: “Okay, you’re qualified… But are you good enough? What do you REALLY have to do? What do you REALLY have to know?”

stylised head and question marksIt takes time for a coach to gain confidence, and it takes practice. However, if there’s one myth I’d like to dispel which might help everyone relax, it’s this – the myth that to be a successful coach you need to be well-practised in a whole host of tools, without which you can’t call yourself a ‘proper coach’ at all.

Tools, tools and more tools?

We’ve all heard of DISC Profiles, MBTI, 360° feedback, FIRO-B, Johari Window, GROW, OSCAR, PERFECT – and goodness knows what other acronyms you care to mention. No wonder the eyes of any new or even not-so-new coach glaze over. But is proficiency in these really absolutely necessary to delivering an excellent service?

The answer is no.

Remember this: “At the heart of coaching lies the idea of empowering people by facilitating self-directed learning, personal growth and improved performance.” *  That means it’s about the coachee, not about which tool to pull out of your toolbox next (unless, of course, it’s genuinely appropriate, or it’s been stipulated in your coaching brief).

Cartoon toolboxDon’t think I’m against tools. I’m not. But too often anxiety about them can distract us from keeping a keen focus on what we should actually be doing. After all, who can really concentrate on the coachee whilst dealing with the sinking feeling that arises when we assume we ought to be ‘in control’ of a session, and that we should be using a tool to prove it?

Yes, tools are fine in their place, but that place isn’t as a crutch to carry coaches forward despite what’s going on for the coachee…

The 5 basic coaching skills

The most important thing for any new coach is to allow yourself to take time to relax into your coaching, and to concentrate on building up experience in what’s important. Acknowledge that at times you’re going to feel uncomfortable (that’s normal), and that it may take several months of regular practice to strengthen trust in that ‘gut instinct’ which tells you what it’s necessary to do next at any given time, based on what you’re actually seeing and hearing. Then you’ll be content to practise the basic key skills that, if mastered thoroughly and well, in themselves deliver the best coaching (and results for the coachee) anyone could desire.

So what are these basic key skills? Opinions may differ on the detail, but it’s generally accepted they boil down to five:

  1. Contracting
  2. GROW Model (or some other simple structuring mechanism)
  3. Listening
  4. Questioning
  5. Non-directiveness

On reflection, you’ll probably agree they’re not so basic after all. But they ARE at the core of what successful coaching is – and that’s why they’re key.

I’ll be covering each of these 5 basic coaching skills in more detail in future posts, but for the moment, here’s that list again with a bit of explanation.

1. Contracting     2 hands and contractContracting includes initially discussing and agreeing the commercial and psychological aspects of the coaching relationship, as well as agreeing and revisiting goals on an ongoing basis during the course of the coaching sessions themselves. If the relationship is simply between coach and  coachee, contracting is usually straightforward, but if more stakeholders are involved (such as the sponsor of the coaching, line manager, and/or HR representative) the process requires more considered coordination. There needs to be all-round agreement between all stakeholders on what the coaching is for, and what ‘success’ would look like. Ensuring the achievement of this commonality of view is the job of the coach, and it needs care…

2. GROW Model     Yes, that ever-popular acronym!  You might prefer another simple structuring mechanism (such as OSCAR), but the GROW Model has proven its worth for being simple to remember and easy to keep at the back of the mind for structuring sessions without being too distracting. It looks deceptively simple, but the reality is that it has great depth and power. It reminds us to cover:

  • Goal setting
  • checking out the Reality of the coachee’s current context and situation
  • generating Options
  • ensuring the coachee has the Will to move forward with specific actions

3. Listening     This is such a fundamentally important skill that one thinker at least has structured a whole approach to coaching round the giving of complete, empathetic, supportive and warm attention to the coachee, simply by listening and not interrupting.** As anyone who’s gone through coach training knows, active listening may be fundamental – but it’s far from easy in practice. Everyone’s prone to being distracted, whether on an external or internal basis. But keep persevering. It’s worth it. Just being deeply listened to, and given time and space to reflect, can be enough for many coachees to resolve their own issues, without any further input from the coach.

4. Questioning     Blackboard and questionsFormulating incisive, consciousness-raising, penetrating questions goes hand in hand with listening. Questions give direction to the coaching and take the conversation forward. They can also catalyse those ‘light-bulb moments’ after which nothing is the same again. Whilst questions should only be asked where necessary (they’re not meant to be thrown around like confetti), it’s essential to recognise that different types of questions have differing results. The key is to know which type to deploy based on what would help the coachee most in any particular moment. Carefully considered, clear, concise questions are what encourages the coachee to dig deep to find the answers that will help him or her to move forward.

5. Non-Directiveness     Coaching is about the coachee, and the skill of non-directiveness in coaching is about facilitating the coachee’s own journey towards finding within her- or himself the solutions to her or his own issues and dilemmas. This is not a question of the coach telling or advising; it’s a question of the coach skilfully drawing out what the coachee already knows. It’s the spirit behind the way you do your coaching. Many coaches find it takes a great deal of time and effort to ‘unlearn’ the tendency to instruct or advise that’s so often at the root of many roles (whether at work or at home), but that time and effort are essential. Non-directiveness is at the very heart of coaching, and without it, what happens in sessions may not really be coaching at all.

So, take time to gain confidence in these 5 basic coaching skills. They are the keys to successful coaching. Once these are second nature, other tools may fall into place.

* Quotation from Frank Bresser and Carol Wilson’s “What is Coaching?” in Jonathan Passmore (ed)  Excellence in Coaching. The Industry Guide, which I looked at in a previous post.

** That thinker is Nancy Kline, and I had a look at her seminal book Time to Think in a previous post.

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