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As engineering leaders, you have a responsibility to spread compassion, empathy, and kindness in your organizations. Nik Knight shares why building a few coaching principles into your daily interactions can help.

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At its best, working in tech is exciting, stimulating, and rewarding. The pace of change seems to be accelerating, with new tools and technologies appearing all the time. Yet many of us still find our working lives peppered with frustrating communication breakdowns, inter-team conflicts, and mismatched expectations.

Automatic

Practicing compassion, empathy, and kindness in our organizations can significantly ease these problems. As engineering leaders, a great way to do this is by drawing on the wisdom of coaching and incorporating a few key coaching skills into our daily interactions.

Coaching is probably best described as a ‘thinking partnership’, where the person acting as coach sets aside their own knowledge and experience and instead focuses on helping the coachee to work through their own thoughts, ideas, and solutions.

Building the key skills of listening deeply and attentively, asking really great questions, and creating safety and trust are great ways to demonstrate compassion, empathy, and kindness. By practicing these skills in a structured way with our colleagues and teams, we can help to build happier, healthier cultures within our organizations.

Here I’m going to outline the key skills involved in coaching before sharing a couple of frameworks to help you develop these skills as a leader, and encourage them in your teams. In no time, you’ll be using them to enhance all sorts of situations, from traditional coaching and goal-setting conversations to daily standups and 1:1s.

The three key coaching skills

  1. Listening deeply
    Compassion starts with understanding someone else’s experiences, and the best way to gain that understanding is to listen carefully to them. It’s very easy to find your brain is busily thinking of the next thing to say while someone is speaking, but when we’re coaching, our attention needs to be on our coachee, not ourselves. Try to notice when you are thinking rather than listening, and remind yourself to turn down the volume on that internal voice.

    Even when there’s a pause – in fact, especially when there’s a pause – resist the temptation to fill the silence. Your coachee will most likely be off on their own mental journey for a few moments, so your job is to wait for them to come back and tell you where they’ve been (even if it does feel a bit weird at first).

    It can feel strange to sit with someone who is struggling when you know exactly what you would do in their shoes. However, while imparting advice can seem like doing them a favor in the short term, the kinder thing is to allow them the time and space to build up their own thinking ‘muscle’, as this will enable them to be more resilient and self-reliant in the future.
     
  2. Asking great questions
    The one thing you do need to be able to do whilst listening is to come up with relevant, incisive questions to help your coachee consider their situation more deeply. Open-ended questions such as, 'What does that mean to you?', 'How does that decision sit with you?' or even a simple invitation like 'Tell me more about that' are all examples of ways to extend someone’s thought processes. Use your empathy here to sense out what is going on for the coachee, what they might be avoiding, where they are limiting themselves unnecessarily, and so on.

    Beware of leading questions masquerading as open questions though; 'What if you considered doing…?' and 'What would happen if you…?' will close down your coachee’s thinking instead of opening it up. The aim is to get them to generate their own ideas, rather than to evaluate someone else’s.
  3. Creating safety and trust
    It is far easier for us to think thoroughly and deeply when we are comfortable with being vulnerable. And we are far more likely to open up that vulnerable side of ourselves when we’re in the presence of someone who is attentive yet non-judgmental. This doesn’t mean there is no room for challenge – after all, this can be an expression of kindness too – as long as we trust that the person challenging us is doing so in our best interests.

    Staying curious about our coachees and assuming positive intent is fundamental to gaining their trust. In coaching, we talk a lot about ‘unconditional positive regard’, which means we work from the premise that our coachee is doing the best they can with what they have available. We guard against making assumptions, and always strive to understand instead.

    For example, if a coachee is resisting a particular task, we could assume they’re being lazy and call that out directly. This is likely to make the coachee feel attacked and put them on the defensive. However, if we try to uncover where the resistance is coming from, and explore any underlying issues with kindness, our coachee is far more likely to gain a deeper understanding of themselves and find a solution.

How to GROW your coaching skills

The GROW model is a simple coaching framework that we can use to steer any goal-setting conversation or meeting. Developed by Alan Fine, John Whitmore, and Graham Alexander in the late 1980s, it’s widely used in the coaching world to this day and consists of four stages:

  1. Goal
    The first step is defining your coachee’s goal for the session. This requires great listening and questioning skills to get a clear picture of what they want to achieve, what it will look like when they have achieved it, why it’s important, and so on.
  2. (Current) reality
    Next, the conversation moves on to explore the coachee’s current reality. Here, compassion and empathy come to the fore as you try to uncover what’s really going on for your coachee, what obstacles exist, what might be holding them back, and what they’ve already tried.
  3. Options
    Once you’ve established a good understanding of the Goal and Reality, it’s time to start generating options, remembering that these should come from the coachee, not the coach. Check the feasibility of these ideas, work through what additional resources or support might be required, and be ready to challenge – kindly – as necessary.
     
  4. Will (or way forward)
    Finally, help the coachee to nail down what they will do next. Get specific about their plan, the timescales, how they’ll hold themselves accountable, and what follow-up they want to put in place.

It’s not unusual to find that things change during a GROW conversation. You might find that new information about the Reality comes up during your discussion about Options, or that the Goal turns out to be a bit different than the one initially identified. This is absolutely fine, and you can loop back through the stages until you and your coachee are confident that you have arrived at the all-important Will that will get them towards their Goal.

Training up your team and peers

Sharing these ideas and methods with your peers and team can really help improve the flow of conversations and interactions in your organization, A really engaging way to do this is by running one or more coaching dojos (where a group comes together to develop and practice their coaching skills):

To start with, gather your group and talk through the key skills and the GROW model to make sure everyone understands the aim of the session. Agree on some ground rules such as keeping discussions confidential, sharing constructive, honest feedback, and the types of topics you’ll discuss in the coaching conversations.

Once everyone is comfortable with what they need to do, break out into smaller groups of three and assign one person as the coach, one as coachee, and one as observer. The observer’s role is to note what happens during the coaching conversation, what works well, and what doesn’t. Allow 15-20 minutes for the coach to work through the GROW model with the coachee on a topic of their choosing. At the end, take a few minutes each for the coach and coachee to share their experience of using GROW, and for the observer to share what they saw.

Rotate the roles around until everyone has a turn in each position. Once all the coaching and feedback sessions have been completed, bring the group back together and share your thoughts, experiences, and reflections on what it was like to listen, question, and create trust with GROW. Dojos can be repeated to enable people to practice in a safe environment, perhaps mixing up the triads so everyone gets the benefit of different perspectives.

Reflections

Coaching is a skill you can spend a lifetime learning and improving (just ask anyone who works as a coach in a professional capacity) so don’t expect to get it ‘right’ from the start. Apply the ‘fail fast’ principle by trying it out, reflecting on what happens and what that means, and then deciding what you will do in the future. And go again.

The more you use those key skills and develop them through models like GROW, the more naturally they will come to you, and the more you will find yourself spreading compassion, empathy, and kindness in all your interactions.

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Using coaching to unlock the future of your distributed organization
Episode 02 Using coaching to unlock the future of your distributed organization