Do I need a coach?

This month, I will be thinking hard about my ministry and learning goals for 2021. My mission organization asks me to put together an annual ministry plan (AMP) and a personal growth plan (IGP) for the new year.1For further information, see the AMP/IGP guide that our training department has created. As part of that planning process, I am going to consider whether I will need a coach to help me with my ministry and learning goals. Setting up a few coaching calls might very well make the difference between reaching our 2021 goals and not doing so.

But what does a coach actually do? I have written about coaching in this blog. See “What is coaching?” and “The value of coaching” as two examples. But our blog posts have never really explained what a coach actually does. About 10 years ago, I addressed this question in a series of newsletters to our mission membership, entitled “Comments about coaching.” You can find these on the SEND U wiki. But given how long ago that was, I thought it would be helpful to revisit some of those “comments” and update them as well.

My background in coaching

I have been coaching for a little over 12 years. In 2008, I went through a training program in coaching, the Core Coaching Skills Certificate Program,2This 60-hour training is no longer offered. It has been replaced with the Coaching Mastery Certificate Program. offered by Keith Webb of Creative Results Management. I have also taken a couple of coaching refresher courses since then. In the past 12 years, I have logged about 470 hours in coaching sessions. Most of these have been with other cross-cultural workers in my organization.

However, I do not consider myself to be an expert coach. Other people in our organization have more coaching experience or more training in coaching than I do. But I thankfully know more than I did 10 years ago.

The coaching session

What does a coaching session look like? A coach meets with a coachee for an intentional conversation about a topic of the coachee’s choosing. The conversation focuses on discovering insights and setting action steps for ongoing growth. As you can imagine, the vast majority of coaching in mission organizations happens online, in videoconference calls, and not in person. Generally, a coaching session takes about an hour or less, but occasionally I find that we need an hour and 15 minutes.

The coachee determines the agenda (the topic of coaching). But this does not mean that the coach passively listens, and allows the dialogue to proceed with no particular plan in mind. A trained coach follows a particular structure that facilitates learning. The coach wants the coachee to end up with a short list of specific action steps at the end of the call. To get to this destination, the coach follows a 5-step process.

Using coaching skills

Before I go outline that 5-step process, I need to say that coaching is not limited to structured coaching sessions. Coaching skills (listening, asking good questions, affirming insights, identifying action steps) are used in leadership and ministry all the time. Besides the 470 hours of coaching that I have done, I have spent literally thousands more hours in one-on-one meetings with various mission colleagues. In these meetings, I regularly ask coaching questions. But we don’t call these conversations “coaching sessions.”

But to really understand coaching, it is helpful to understand the makeup of an intentional coaching session. At the end of this post, I will talk about the advantages of pursuing this more structured type of coaching.

1. Connect

The session begins with the coachee calling the coach. The coach will not initiate the call because we want the coachee to take primary responsibility for their own learning. The first few minutes are devoted to just finding out what is happening in the coachee’s life. If this is not the first coaching session, the coach will also ask about the coachee’s action steps from the last coaching session. What progress did they make? What did they learn as a result of working on those action steps. In these opening minutes, a Christian coach will often pause in prayer to invite the Holy Spirit to guide the coaching session.

2. Outcome

Then the coach seeks to determine what the coachee’s agenda is for this session.  What outcome does the coachee want to accomplish during this coaching call?

Coaching works best when the coachee has a specific problem they want to address. We want our coachees to come to our meeting with a problem or issue they want to talk about. But often that problem is not well-defined in the coachee’s mind. It can be too broad or too vague. It can be focused on what someone else needs to do rather than on what the coachee can do. So, the coach will seek to help the coachee identify what result the coachee wants to end up with at the end of this conversation.

3. Awareness

Once the desired result has been established, the coach will lead the coachee through a series of questions. This phase is the longest part of the coaching conversation. The intent is to prompt reflection, insights, and new possibilities regarding the problem or issue. The coach will try to formulate open questions. In other words, the coach will avoid questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” The coach will also seek to guard against asking “leading” questions that contain a suggestion within the question. An example of a leading question might be, “How might reading the fourth chapter of Philippians help you figure out what you should do?” A much better coaching question would be, “What is God’s perspective on this crisis?”

Through probing questions, the coach invites the coachee to explore assumptions, motivations, underlying problems and options. Here are some examples of good coaching questions:3Based on “Coaching Angles”, a bookmark published by Keith Webb.

How does this connect to your calling?
How might cultural differences be impacting the situation?
What do you not want to lose in this situation?
What would success look like?
Which of your values are you trying to honor here?

Don’t expect advice

The coach will affirm any insights that the coachee expresses.  But sometimes the coach may also give feedback to help the coachee gain perspective. For example, the coach might say, “I have heard you use the word “unfair” a couple of times in describing this situation. From your perspective, what would be a “fair” resolution of this issue?”

However, the coach does not give advice. Instead he or she will guide the coachee to think through the problem from a variety of angles. If the coachee just expects the coach to give them their solution to the problem, both coach and coachee will be frustrated. In fact, if the coachee really just wants the coach to share their wisdom and experience about a particular topic, it might be better to not call it a coaching call. Instead, the coachee should let the coach know right at the beginning that the purpose of this call is not to receive coaching. Rather, they are asking for advice.

4. Course

Throughout the coaching conversation, the coach is listening for ideas coming from the coachee on what they might want to do to address the problem. The coachee will often suggest various things they could do. Often these are simply ideas and not commitments to action. They may be impractical, very general in nature or actions that only be accomplished many months down the road. But throughout the conversation, I, as the coach, am writing down these ideas.

As the coaching session draws to a close, I will repeat the various ideas the coachee has suggested. They are all things they “could” do. But the coach wants to know what the coachee “will” do. I ask the coachee to identify what action steps they commit to accomplish before the next coaching call. This list of actions needs to be a relatively short list (no more than 5, but often just 2 or 3). Action steps are specific things the coachee will do to move forward toward a resolution of the problem. Often, the coachee cannot resolve the problem fully before the next meeting. But they can make some progress. To this end, the coachee needs to take responsibility for specific steps toward resolution. Action steps can include things like, “I will spend more time thinking and praying about this” and “I will make a decision on this before our next call.”

5. Highlights

As the session comes to a close, the coach will ask the coachee for highlights from their conversation. The coach might ask for a list of their action steps, any insights they have had, or what was helpful through the coaching session. This “highlights” phase helps to consolidate any learning that has taken place. The coach also receives some feedback on their coaching.  The coach and the coachee will then agree on when the next coaching call will occur, and the call comes to an end.

Some of you may have noticed that the first letters of the five stages spell “COACH”. This helpful alliteration comes from the training workshops on coaching provided by Creative Results Management, which all of our SEND coaches have attended.

Advantages of a “coaching session”?

I said above that coaching skills can be used outside of a structured coaching conversation. So why would you ever need a coaching session? Couldn’t you just call me to “talk” and expect me to ask some coaching questions along the way? Yes, you could. Many of my colleagues do so. I love these opportunities to reconnect and talk about what is happening in their lives.

So, what are the advantages of setting up a planned, structured coaching session or coaching series?

  1. The conversation will be much more focused on what you need. In a coaching call, you don’t have to give me 50% of the time to talk about my issues, just to be polite. If it is not explicitly a coaching session, I will be much freer to share my perspective. I will want to tell you my own stories about how I have dealt with similar issues in the past. As much as I love my stories, they may not be at all helpful or appropriate for where you are at right now.
  2. The conversation will intentionally aim for your learning and growth. In a coaching call, I will be much more motivated to help you discover insights, rather than sharing my “insights.”
  3. At the end, you will have a much clearer sense of what you must do to make progress on your issue. I will not likely feel that I have the freedom to ask you to identify your action steps if we are just “talking.”
  4. You will have a supportive “accountability partner” at the end of the call. In a coaching session, your coach becomes committed to your success and will not forget to ask you about what progress you have made the next time you talk.

Learning more about coaching

I hope that many of you will choose to find a coach in 2021. If you would like more information about coaching, take a look at SEND U wiki page on coaching. There you will find articles about coaching, recommended books on coaching and our recommended training in coaching.  If you work for SEND International (my mission organization), SEND U can help you find a coach. Just write me or take a look at the SEND U coaching pool, and contact one of the coaches listed there.