What’s different about a coaching conversation?


Many people use the verb “coaching” to indicate a form of teaching, training or advising. In general they refer to giving information or instructions on how to do something, rather than transmitting theoretical knowledge.  It appears that in this usage, “coaching” is intended to mean a dynamic, informal, practical sort of teaching.

There are strong, valid historical reasons for this. In the past, coaching meant precisely (and almost uniquely) this, teaching people (telling them) how to do something practical whether it referred to studying, playing tennis, singing, or selling.

In the last 30 years, a new form of coaching has evolved. It is a professional practice that has grown quickly from multidisciplinary influences  as varied as ancient Socratic questioning, humanistic psychology, management sciences, brief therapies,  philosophy, project management, positive psychology,  eastern philosophies to name but a few.

Coaching has now developed its own body of knowledge. It is a respectable and researched discipline comprising many approaches, techniques and genres, but on the whole professional coaching today is seen as a mainly non-directive practice that enables the coaching client to find their own solutions and develop their potential to more than they had previously thought possible.   Essentially, it involves on the side of the coach, doing everything BUT telling!

Non-directive?  So what on earth does that mean? How can you help someone without giving them useful tips, without telling them how you would do it, without giving some good, sound advice? How does it play out in real life?

It’s true, it’s difficult to imagine. From grade school we have been taught to have a quick answer for every question the teacher asked, throughout our studies we were required to produce thousands and thousands of answers, views, firm opinions, strong positions.  At work we better have an answer, a solution and good advice to give… and fast!  We are programmed to TELL people what the best course of action is. Sometimes it seems that our credibility  hinges on our ability to tell people what to do. We are expected to KNOW and TELL!

So this is all very well when it comes to technical issues.  We are all happy and very grateful to have experts such as accountants, statisticians, pharmacists, bankers, and dentists  to tell us what the best course of action is.

But when it comes to our decisions, choices, behaviours, outlooks and feelings, well…… advice is not really helpful, in fact it may even be annoying, and we rarely follow it.

On the other hand, non-directive coaching is helpful, because it helps us to think things out by ourselves more clearly.   A non-directive coach does not tell, instead she asks questions.

To illustrate the point, here is a typical, short workplace conversation where one person uses the usual advisory-telling style (not coaching) and again with the person using an asking style (coaching).

The second conversation is a composite of real conversations (cases from our coaching students) where one colleague was using a coaching style with another colleague who was distressed about something.



Mary – I don’t know what to do. Bob is not cooperative, he consistently avoids doing what I ask him to do on the new IT project. I need his support for my work and he’s just not there for me.

Ted – You should talk to him about it.

Mary – I’ve tried. I’ve tried many times, but he just won’t listen.

Ted – Maybe you should be more patient. He’s under a lot of stress now.

Mary – Well, I am a very patient person you know, but this is really too much.

Ted – If I were you, I would talk to him when he’s less likely to be under pressure.

Mary – We’re always under pressure here, all of us, not only him, so I don’t know when I can find such a time.

Ted – When my team were avoiding to do work on our last big project, I found they were insecure about it or didn’t have enough information.  Maybe you should spend more time with him explaining things.

Mary – Ok, well, yeah, I guess you’re right.


ASKING STYLE (coaching)

Mary – I don’t know what to do. Bob is not cooperative, he consistently avoids doing what I ask him to do on the new IT project. I need his support for my work and he’s just not there for me.

Ted – What have you tried so far?

Mary – Well, I’ve talked to him on several occasions.

Ted –  And what are you saying on these occasions? How are you getting your message across?

Mary – Hmmm, well…. actually  I only talked to him on two occasions, and both times I was really mad because we were late for a deadline. I was in a hurry and didn’t have much time really.

Ted – When would be a best time to have a conversation with him?

Mary – Well, I guess I could be more patient and wait for the right moment. The best time would be after the management meeting on Fridays.  We are all more relaxed then and heading towards the weekend.

Ted – And what will you ask him?

Mary – I’ll ask him what the problems is, and maybe find out if he’s working on other things too that might be drawing his attention away from my project.

Ted – And what else?

Mary – Well depending on what he says, I might ask him what needs to overcome the problem and perhaps if I can facilitate something.

Ted – So how does that feel? 

Mary – Yes, that’s great.  It’s a lot clearer now.

Ted – Are you set?

Mary – Yes, absolutely. I know what to do now! Thanks!


In the first conversation, Ted was trying hard to find some good tips to give but his advice elicited responses from Mary that were explanations, or justifications.  She wasn’t learning anything new.

In the second conversation,  Ted’s questions enabled Mary to think new thoughts, to explore some slightly new perspectives, to open up doors so to speak.  She moved from “being stuck” to finding a strategy and renewed energy to resolve her problem. Ted didn’t have to rack his brains to find a solution for her.   This is what a short, effective coaching conversation looks like.

So how do you get to the point where you are spontaneously asking effective questions, the right question at the right time so that people can find appropriate solutions for themselves?  Coaching involves a complex set of skills and mindsets, and you’ll be glad to know that anyone who really wants to can learn it!

Coaching is a way of communication so there are many ways you can use it in your life:

  • Become a professional coach
  • Become a leader coach using coaching as a leadership style
  • Integrate coaching skills into your profession,  whatever it may be
  • Use coaching skills in your personal life:  in your leisure activities (e.g. sports teams), with your children, in community work


© 2016 Saba Imru-Mathieu , Founding Partner, Leaders Today

Sign up for more tips on coaching 

Learn more about our leadership and coaching programmes at


Categories: Coaching, Leader coach

2 replies

  1. Thanks for excellent “compared conversations”, such a clear explanation to … try to make people understand what coaching is all about. Coaching has indeed evolved from its initial foundations, and has blended in different ways around the world, dependent on local cultures. In Italy for example, many coaches are psychologists turned coaches, or ex-HR people, so there seems to always be a measure of directive attitude, or even hints of therapy orientation. It’s often lost the straightforward effectiveness of coaching.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.