Coaching is a powerful technique for helping others to overcome challenges they’re facing. Using it, you can get people unstuck and enable them to move forward and grow. In my role as a consultant, it’s a technique that I use regularly when working with clients.

When I first learned about coaching in new manager training, all I could picture was Burgess Meredith as the gruff Mickey Goldmill in the movie “Rocky”, telling him to never give up no matter how much it hurts. I loved the movie, but at the time it didn’t seem like a very effective way to manage the software developers on my team.

Over the years, though, I’ve learned that coaching is more than just providing encouragement.

Coaching is a particular method of helping someone by generating options to solve a problem, looking together at the ramifications of each option, and then setting goals. The person being coached owns it, though. They decide; they take responsibility. Not the coach.

With this definition, coaching is something that coaches do, but it’s not all they do. Good coaches use a variety of different techniques to help the people they’re coaching.

So how do you go about coaching someone in a business setting? In their Influential Agile Leader class, Gil Broza and Johanna Rothman recommend the following steps:

  1. First, ask questions to better understand the problem.
  2. Decide if coaching is the right technique to use.
  3. Ask the person for permission to coach them.
  4. Generate at least three options together.
  5. Help the person see the result of each option.
  6. Help them develop SMART goals.

Let’s walk through these steps using an example. Bob and Sally are both tech leads on different teams at the same company. Bob is complaining to Sally about his team’s morning stand up.

“Our stand up lasted half an hour this morning. It’s like that every day. What a waste of time!” said Bob.

Step 1 is to make sure that you understand the problem. Even if you think it’s obvious, try restating the problem to the person out loud and phrasing it as a question.

“That sounds frustrating,” said Sally, “Do people get into all the details of what they’re working on?”

“Yup, that’s it,” said Bob, “I guess it’s good information to know but I just want to get to work.”

Step 2 is to choose the appropriate technique. To help with this, think about how responsible you are for helping the person grow and how responsible you are for getting the work done. Coaching is appropriate when your goal is to help the person grow or get unstuck but not do the work with them or for them.

In the case of Bob and Sally, Sally wants to help Bob and his team to have productive stand ups. They do this every day, so they need to figure it out. She’s not part of his team, so she can’t do it for them or with them. Sally chooses coaching as the appropriate technique to help in this situation.

Step 3 is to ask for permission. Asking for permission to coach someone not only gets you and that person on the same page, but if they agree to it, it also helps make them more receptive to what you have to say.

Note that asking for permission does not mean asking, “Can I coach you on this?” That would feel awkward. Instead, try to do it so it sounds natural. Here are some tips:

Tune your words to the person you’re talking to Be personal or funny Try starting off by mentioning your experience with a similar situation Make sure to phrase your request as a question If someone doesn’t agree to your request, then don’t try to coach them. As Gil and Johanna say, “You can only coach the willing.”

Let’s get back to Bob and Sally.

“Our team had this problem, too,” said Sally, “Can I share some of the things that we tried to overcome it?”

“Sure,” said Bob, “That would be great.”

Step 4 is to generate options. This could be the coach suggesting an option but it could also be the person acknowledging their ideas about how to solve the problem as options. Per Johanna, having three options to choose from puts you in a good place to make a decision.

Step 5 is to explore each option with the person. Help them think about what it would take to pursue the option and what the consequences might be. In practice, this step usually flows organically back and forth with step 4.

“But first,” said Sally, “Do you have any ideas on how to handle it?”

“Well,” said Bob, looking hesitant at first and then loosening up as he spoke, “I hate when it’s someone’s turn to speak and they just say, ‘Uh, um’ and then start babbling on about everything they did yesterday. They obviously haven’t given it any thought ahead of time and they just waste everybody’s time. I don’t care what meetings you went to. What if we just started the meeting by giving everyone a minute at the start to collect their thoughts?”

“That’s a good idea,” said Sally, “it would cut down on the ‘Uh, ums’ and hopefully keep people more focused. I’ve found that some people just tend to get lost in the details, though. One thing we did was to put in place a rule that anytime someone’s status went longer than a minute, the person leading the standup would stop the discussion and write the topic of discussion on the white board to come back to after the stand up.”

“That might work,” said Bob.

“The other thing we’ve done more recently,” said Sally, “is to change the questions. We now ask: ‘What did you complete yesterday? What will you complete today? What’s keeping you from completing something today?’ It changes the discussion from being about what you are doing to what you’ve finished.”

“A lot of my work takes longer than a day to complete. Would I have to keep saying that I didn’t get anything done?”

“Yup,” said Sally. “It puts the pressure on to work in smaller chunks but the whole team needs to buy into it or people will feel very uncomfortable.”

“I don’t know if we’re ready for that,” said Bob, “I like that whiteboard idea, though. Thanks.”

Step 6 is to help them develop a S.M.A.R.T. goal for the option that seems best, so that they’ll be more likely to follow through on it.

Similar to the technique of asking for permission in step 3, this goal setting usually doesn’t need to be done using a formal process. A simple nudge in the right direction is often enough to get the person you’re coaching to take specific steps.

“Speaking of team buy-in,” said Sally, “It’s really critical to get it in order for change to stick. We came up with the white board idea at one of our retrospectives, so everyone was on board.”

“Good point. I’ll talk to our PM about it and if he’s on board, we’ll discuss it with the rest of the team tomorrow. Thanks for your help, Sally.”

“My pleasure, Bob.”

At the start of this example, Bob was frustrated and stuck. Sally asked questions to understand the problem and then decided to use the coaching technique to help him. After getting his buy-in, she guided him in exploring some options, sharing her expertise and helping him to think through the consequences of each option. In the end, Bob decided which option to pursue. After a nudge from Sally, Bob committed to some clear next steps. He’s no longer stuck and is now excited by the prospect of having better daily stand up meetings.

Coaching is a great technique for managers and consultants to learn. I’ve even used it to help my 8-year-old son get unstuck on his schoolwork. It’s applicable to most situations where someone is stuck or not sure what to do and you’d like to help but it’s work that they have to take responsibility for themselves.

In my software consulting work, I’ve often used a variation of this technique to help clients make technical decisions, such as which technology stack or hosting platform to use for their MVP. The technique differs slightly from what’s presented above because I’m usually called upon to help implement the chosen option. The six steps are generally the same, but the interaction in steps 4 through 6 needs to be much more collaborative. Since I share in the responsibility for the outcome, I also need to share in the responsibility for making the decision.

The coaching process outlined in this article may feel a little awkward at first, but with practice it will feel more natural. As any good coach will tell you, “Practice, practice, practice, and don’t give up.”

For more information on coaching, here are some references:

Originally published on Medium here.