Research Paper By Catalin Bebia
(Life Coach, ROMANIA)
It is very likely that 10-15 years ago when coaching sessions started to be conducted remotely due to the evolving nature of companies and their needs to have their employees embarked on coaching sessions, phone coaching was the option of choice. However, it is equally likely that concerns about phone coaching effectiveness were predominant among coaches. But that was what technology brought to support the pace.
Lately, when globalization has advanced more solid and collaborative working technologies were developed, online collaboration tools that are leveraging the Internet started to be widely used for coaching. Some of the coaches are even delivering more than 50% of the sessions via virtual platforms , but today we’re not actually hearing the same concerns as 15 years ago. We rather see opportunities than challenges.
Adapting to the “virtual world” has been a steep learning curve and a really valuable one. Client organizations can provide access to high-quality coaching for more of their people, regardless of their location. It reduces travel costs and the associated environmental impact. It also enables a better work/life balance for coaches! Just imagine starting the day early by having a session with a client from a time-zone ahead by few hours, and afterward having time to prepare the breakfast for kids and take them to school.
Opportunities come with risks also. Effectiveness is one of them, very real considering for example how many leaders are strongly performing when they are in a physical environment with employees but fail to uphold the same perception when shifting into a new environment.
As important as coaching is in a conventional environment, it becomes even more important in the virtual world. During an in-person coaching session, the coach has the luxury of seeing body language, facial expressions, and attitude, all of these help her/him understand the client, their feelings, and perspective better. In the world of virtual coaching, the coach will have to learn how to read through the lines in an email, watch for small subtle clues like email or voicemail response time, and learn each individual’s voice and tone to gather over the line how they are feeling.
The personal, one-on-one nature of a coaching session is part of what makes professional coaching an effective resource for organizations or individuals looking to improve performance. Therefore making this type of connection via the phone or a computer screen can be difficult.
“Relationships require some modicum of trust, which is enhanced from face-to-face, knee-to-knee, eye-to-eye contact,” says Dave Ulrich, the Rensis Likert Professor of Business at the University of Michigan and a partner at the Provo, Utah-based RBL Group. “Virtual coaching could work on a specific problem, but personal coaching requires a personal connection.”
Then what could be one of the key ingredients to make this work? Among a myriad of skills and competencies, trust is one of the upfront dependencies that shall be established between coach and client to ensure further effectiveness of the coaching sessions. This is especially true when you would consider that coaching is often aimed at enabling clients to move forward, which typically requires them to do steps outside of their comfort zone – “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone” said Neale Donald Walsh, author.
So, how would Trust look like in general and what would be special when applied in a virtual environment?
“The Trust Equation”, formulated by David Maister , provides a useful framework to consider forward.
According to the author, the Trust Equation is:
Enhancing trust would require increasing credibility, reliability, and intimacy. Reducing self-orientation increases trust.
If we would like to find simple expressions for the trust ingredients, the below review can be taken as a reference :
Credibility – simply put do I believe they know of what they speak?
Reliability – do they turn up on time? Do they deliver what they say they will?
Intimacy – do I feel this person will keep what I say confidential? Do I feel safe?
Self-orientation – are they doing this in service of me? Versus are they doing it in service of themselves?
Let’s take them one by one and try to make them relevant in a virtual environment.
Credibility lies with the coach, while the coach credibility level is assessed by the client – for example, if the coach would be required to deliver the coaching session in a platform she/he is not familiar with, this would put a risk on the coach and eventually any hesitation in demonstrating confidence in using it would undermine coach’s credibility. Face to face they would be confident. Virtually they are less confident. Maybe they are worried the internet connection will fail. Perhaps they’re wondering if the background behind them is the “right one”. Their reduced confidence has little to do with their confidence to coach. The impact of how they come across may be the same.
Reliability – how often many of us, working day-in-day-out in a virtual environment, are getting into the risk of having a back-to-back appointment, with virtually no time between? Well, then this is exactly what a coach would critically miss being ready for an effective coaching session: the time required to make sure the technical setup works well, review previous notes and ensure no distractors around so that all attention is given to the client. What about technology? Just imagine how the reliability of the coach would be affected when in the middle of the coaching session a critical software update would require a restart of the computer. That’s frustrating for both coaches and the client.
Intimacy could be severely affected when the client does not have the confidence that the coaching conversation remains private. The new style of working, remotely from the office, provides a lot of flexibility regarding the place from where the coach would embark on a coaching session. A surrounding environment from the location the coach dials in however needs to provide to the client the comfort that this is a 1×1 conversation and nobody else would be exposed to it without his or her consent. From workplace flexibility and time considerations, a hotel lobby could be a fantastic option for coaches to save time between two other activities. But would the client consider this appropriate without affecting the expected/promised intimacy of the coaching concept? For sure there is a high risk to create some damage.
Last but not least is self-orientation. While for all the other trust ingredients the focus is on increasing, enhancing, magnifying their impact, self-orientation is exactly the opposite. Once in the coaching session, the client needs to feel that the coach is not distracted by outer events or thoughts. And needs to experience from the coach a conversation in which the benefits are all accounted for under the client and coach doesn’t take anything except maybe a bit more experience to the profile.
Additional tips could be considered as accelerators for trust and can be easily embedded into the coach practices:
In contracting conversations, agree on some ground rules for online engagement, what you might call technical etiquette. Do people know how to mute their mic when sneezing? Do their children know not to come running-in screaming whilst they’re on the video call? Is office or birdsong background noise – or the sway of a hand-held device going to distract?
Arrive early to prepare the virtual room. Check the documents you want to share are easy to access? How are your mic and light levels? Have a Plan B – do you have their mobile number if the Wi-Fi drops out? These technical checks can be incorporated into your standard coaching prep routine. They’re simple tips but they make for a much smoother session where you can relax into the difference of virtual coaching, stay mindful of the “frame” in which you’re interacting – whilst not making a distraction to the focus of coaching.
Remember that however comfortable you are, the client may need time and friendly support too. Allow them to play with the features and get used to the feel and flow of the platform.
There are also other additional tips to remember, depending on the platform and communication etiquette:
- Virtual coaching can be done via phone, email, video conference, instant messages, project management software, and a myriad of other virtual mediums. Don’t limit yourself.
- You may need to spend extra time (compared with face-to-face) working on building a good relationship with the client before diving into difficult coaching conversations.
- Virtual coaching is a two-way conversation, not a one-way email.
- Make time to have regular coaching sessions. You may want to consider creating a daily, weekly, or monthly schedule.
- Make sure you allow ample time to discuss how the client views the situation.
- Even though they can’t see you, do not multi-task during the coaching session.
- Schedule a specific check-in date and time to follow up.
Ed Batista provided few additional points worth to mention :
- Don’t dictate the medium – this would translate that for the coaching sessions is critical to have a commonly agreed platform to develop the conversation. As mentioned earlier in the context of the Trust Equation, poor choice of the medium could harm the coach’s credibility and can undermine the client’s trust. The medium shall be dictated by the situation and by what is comfortable for both coach and client. E-mail and text messaging could augment the voice and video, as a suitable medium for follow-up or for feeding each-other with other resources, but not to be abused for anything other than basic information. Anything more complex should be reserved for live interaction.
- Focus–a virtual coaching conversation is a special kind of interaction — very different from a typical conference call or online meeting, where we can often just partly tune in and still get the gist. When we’re coaching, the most important details are easy to miss. If we allow ourselves to become distracted, we’ll be less likely to notice things like a subtle change in someone’s facial expression or tone of voice, or an unusual turn of phrase that may signify something more. We may also fail to monitor our own emotional responses and instincts, which are vital sources of data. Even worse, others can sense when our attention wanders, leaving them reluctant to discuss truly important issues.
- Manage the time–in most meetings, including phone calls and video conferences, the discussion goes right up until the end of the allotted time, at which point we rapidly conclude and move on to the next meeting. This is another way in which coaching conversations are different: It’s part of the coach’s job to track time during the conversation and stops at a point you’ve agreed on in advance. It’s hard to tell where coaching conversations will end up. They tend to be more wide-ranging than typical meetings, which makes them more meaningful and valuable. But this also means you’ll need to leave some time between the end of the session and the next event on the calendar. This enables both you and the client to reflect on the conversation and deepen the learning. Coaching conversations can also bring up strong emotions, and it’s essential to leave time to process those emotions. Even a few minutes can make a substantial difference, helping both you and the person you’re coaching get the most out of the experience.
- There is no “I” in the “team” – how can you mirror it in coaching to mitigate self-orientation?
- How can I get comfortable with my voice / my appearance in a virtual environment so that this turns into a distractor neither for the client nor me?
- Is it feasible for me to have back-to-back coaching sessions in a virtual environment or is best to alternate?
The Rise and Rise of Virtual Coaching, Tim Cox and Hugh Reynolds, Management Futures, 2019
The Trusted Advisor, David H. Maister, Charles H. Green, Robert M. Galford, 2000
Tips for Coaching Someone Remotely, Ed Batista, Harvard Business Review 2015