For any leader entrusted with coaching others, there are five pillars that support the professional relationship: self-awareness, empathy, positive regard, genuineness and presence. Some are easier than others.
All coaching is relational. It is through the quality and strength of the professional relationship between you and the person you’re coaching that your help is received.
Within the helping professions, this relationship is termed an alliance. A strong alliance facilitates positive outcomes in a variety of contexts — especially in coaching. It is the foundation of the coaching process because, without it, the process will suffer regardless of the coaching techniques used.
Suppose you want someone you supervise to be more responsible and accountable for his or her actions. Two managerial methods for achieving this are to establish clear standards and to impose consequences when the standards are not met. That’s a reasonable approach, but the effectiveness of these two methods will depend upon whether the relationship between you and the other person is characterized by warmth and mutual respect, or by anger and mistrust.
Similarly, the methods you use as a coach always take place within the context of a relationship with the other person. No matter how masterful you are with coaching skills, your effectiveness is reduced without the existence of a positive relationship.
Research shows that this alliance is the most important variable in producing positive outcomes for any helping conversation. What does this mean to you? Even if your coaching skills are not as finely honed as you would like, this deficit can be overcome by establishing a strong coaching alliance. A strong coaching alliance does not happen by accident.
You must ensure that it is built by demonstrating the personal attributes and competencies that nourish it. There are five pillars of a coaching alliance.
This is having a clear understanding of who you are — your strengths, weaknesses and behavioral tendencies. It is fostered by the ability to reflect upon your experiences and learn something about yourself that you can use to become a better coach, leader or person over time.
It is important to the coaching alliance because it enables you to discover how you might be affecting the coaching process. For example, suppose you are coaching someone who triggers your pet peeves, personal standards or biases in such a way that cause you to become judgmental or impatient. In the coaching field, this is called being “hooked” by the client. Once you are hooked, you might respond to the other person with behavior that is counterproductive to a positive relationship, such as jumping into the conversation with opinions or solutions, or taking a righteous or overzealous stance. Self-awareness enables you to be conscious of what triggers your reactions so that you avoid behaviors that can interfere with building a strong alliance.
In a previous article, “Are You Empathetic? See How You Fare” (January-February 2016), I wrote about the importance of empathy to the coaching conversation. Empathy is a means of connecting with and engaging the other person. In the broadest sense, it refers to one person reacting to another in a way that demonstrates an understanding of that person’s perspective or feelings.
Empathy is one of the most basic capacities for relating to someone. In a coaching relationship, empathy builds trust. Your understanding — or even your attempt at understanding — the other person’s circumstances encourages rapport and mutual respect that, in turn, engenders open communication, a hallmark of a strong coaching alliance.
Consider this example from my previous article:
Dr. George Coffman is listening to Marie Brown, a division manager, talk about her working relationship with the chief medical officer. Brown relates how the CMO has apparently ignored her suggestions for improving certain aspects of patient care. Brown previously has shown herself to be an advocate for patient care and is aligned with the hospital system’s patient care strategy.
While listening, Coffman becomes aware of Brown’s increasing pace and volume of speaking, and small changes in her physical demeanor, as she talked about the CMO. When Brown pauses, Coffman says he hears frustration in her voice: “Are you saying that you’re feeling upset because your expertise is being ignored, or is there something more?”
Brown pauses a moment and responds: “Wow, I hadn’t realized I felt so strongly about this, but now that I think about it, I haven’t felt that the CMO and I have been on the same page for some time. I guess this has been building for a while.”
To which Coffman replies, “So it’s kind of like the final straw in a whole series of events.”
Brown says, “Yes, that’s it exactly. It’s not about him ignoring my suggestions; it has to do with what I believe is a general lack of respect for me.”
By displaying empathy, Coffman communicates to Brown that he is attempting to understand her thoughts and feelings. There is no judgment, only acceptance and a striving for clarity. In return, she will feel heard and understood. The point of empathy is to focus on the other person, see things from his or her perspective, understand the person’s feelings and then communicate that understanding in a connecting way.
Here is another example: Brett is a self-confident, assertive and highly successful resident. As his program director, you are responsible for supervising and coaching him. Initially, you were impressed with Brett and his abilities. As you have gotten to know him, however, your opinion is changing.
While he says he wants to grow professionally, and therefore seeks your help, he seems to have an unrealistic view of himself and his capabilities. You conclude that his lack of insight stems from overconfidence. In each coaching discussion, you see more and more arrogance in his behavior and attitude. Frankly, it’s starting to annoy you. None of your attempts to bring him down to earth have succeeded.
When you talk to him about problems that have arisen because of his interactions with others, he takes no responsibility. Over time, you’ve found him less likable. Word has gotten to the chair of the department about his attitude and behavior, and to your satisfaction, the chair has given him a thorough dressing down.
What are you thinking now? Perhaps you’re satisfied that he has been taken down a few notches or now realizes he is not as good as he thinks he is. While these thoughts may be normal and even justified, they will not help you develop a coaching alliance.
It is virtually impossible to establish a productive helping relationship if you cannot maintain a positive attitude toward the person you are trying to help. This does not mean that you must accept everything the person does or that you agree with his or her thoughts, ideas and opinions. It does mean that you must be able to find something about the person that allows you to maintain a positive attitude toward him or her, so you can display some degree of like, interest or respect.
This means being honest and straightforward in dealing with others — no games or hidden agendas. It also means openness: appropriately sharing your thoughts and feelings as you experience them, but in a way that enhances the coaching experience for the other person.
This might include information in the form of self-disclosure that normalizes what the other person is experiencing (such as, “I felt that way once …”) or helpful feedback when appropriate (such as, “One thing that I’ve noticed about you is …”).
It also means being willing to ask tough questions and not being afraid to challenge the person when it induces him or her to think more deeply about something. Finally, it means owning and taking responsibility for your words and behavior — especially when you are wrong.
Give your full attention to the other person while you are with him or her. As I wrote in another article for this journal, “Pay Attention!” (September-October 2015), attention is validating arguably, the most valuable thing you can offer someone from a helping standpoint because it is another way of letting the person know that he or she is important to you.
Have you ever tried to interact with someone whose attention is everywhere but on you? What signal did it send? How did you feel? Certainly not that you or the relationship mattered. Being completely in-the-moment focuses your mind in a way that increases your perceptiveness about what is occurring during the coaching conversation.
While it might take some practice to learn to let go of the distractions that keep you from being fully present when you are helping someone, it is well worth the effort. Any professional — or personal — relationship that is important requires that investment.
Robert Hicks is a licensed psychologist and a clinical professor of organizational behavior, and founding director of the Executive and Professional Coaching Program at the University of Texas at Dallas. He also is a faculty associate at UT Southwestern Medical Center.