It was a Monday afternoon in October when I received the text, “mama I miss you.” I wasn’t surprised by it and had even come to recognize the polarized feelings that followed. The knife in the stomach knowing my daughter, a freshman at Southeast Missouri State, was lonely and sad, contrasted with the feeling of relief that she still needed me at the age of 19. As I managed this emotional dichotomy, I quickly picked up my phone to fire off a response before my next meeting. Despite the fact I thought I knew what was driving my daughter’s dilemma I didn’t want to make any assumptions. “I miss you too, sugar…what’s going on?” Claire’s response, “I’m lonely.” Followed by mine, “I know it’s hard right now. How about if we brainstorm some ideas tonight after school and work?” She agreed.
That evening she called. I started the conversation. “Tell me how you are.” She proceeded to confide in me her raw feelings and thoughts. A few tears were shed (on both sides) as I listened and empathized remembering my own feelings of homesickness so long ago. My mama bear instincts wanted to rescue her from her pain. After hearing her out I shifted the tone by asking, what can you do to make some new friends?” Her first response, “I don’t know.” I fought the urge to give her a list of options. I know my daughter. She is fun, outgoing, independent and strong so despite her initial answer, I knew she possessed the ability to generate ideas that would solve her current problem. So I hung in there with her and shifted my position a little, “Claire, you are so fun! There are a lot of people out there who need a friend like you.” Tell me about what you’ve already tried.” She talked about what she had already explored and decided she didn’t want to do: join a sorority, try out for cheerleading, and do the outdoor adventure club. “Ok, so you know what you don’t want. That’s great that you have crossed them off your list. What else could you try? Is there a club that aligns with your major?” “I think so but I need to look into it.” “Great! And what else could you try?” “Well…I thought about maybe getting a job next semester if my schedule works out like I planned.” This is something I would not have thought of. I fought the urge to raise my concern about conflicting priorities and she went on to say, “yeah, I have been into the store here a few times and everyone seems really nice. I thought about going in to ask the manager if they need some help a few hours a week.” I could hear the energy in her shift as she processed her idea out loud. What sounded like despair now showed signs of hope and even…excitement. I think partly because of the prospective new built-in community of peers the work environment would provide but mostly because she was on the path to solving her own problem.
From there, Claire figured out her game plan and the conversation ended on a positive note. As I reflected on the interaction I realized how taking a coaching approach instead of my typical parent-child interaction had led to a result that was even better than I could have imagined. This correlates well to us as people developers in the workplace. How often do we have a team member come to us with a problem? EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. How often do we use a telling or advising approach to solve their dilemma? More likely than not, EVERY. SINGLE. DAY!
Coaching is a powerful approach when working with team members through change and disruption. The disruption could be as simple as being new on a task to completely transforming the way we work and everything in between. Below are five coaching principles to consider as you’re navigating day to day conversations.
In order to be good people developers, we need to hit the pause button every so slightly in order to shift off auto-pilot and really tune-in to the present need. It is mission critical to eliminate any assumptions you have about the situation so you can really understand the true problem the team member is trying to solve. Often, what we think we hear and what the team member means are two different things. A question like, “tell me what would be most helpful to talk about.” Or, “what is at the core of the problem you need to solve?” is a great way to begin the conversation. This way you can be sure you aren’t wasting time by solving the wrong problem.
Ask, don’t tell.
After you discern the real problem, you must resist the urge to tell them what to do. I repeat…resist the urge! Keeping your ideas and opinions to yourself will likely take ALL THE STRENGTH you can muster. Seriously people, I’m a trained coach and still find myself falling into this trap more often than I’d like. When you begin to provide the answers, you are taking ownership of the problem. You are creating dependence. Now I’m not saying there aren’t situations when it’s appropriate for you to accept that monkey as a point of escalation but 9 times out of 10, that problem is related to work the team member has been delegated which means the problem is theirs. Again, ask an open-ended question to help the employee think critically about their problem. For example, questions like “what can you do to solve this problem? Or what ideas do you have to resolve the issue? Or what have you already tried?” are great ways to keep the monkey off your back.
Coaching requires a mindset shift for you as leader. You must genuinely believe your team member possesses the ability to come up with their own answers to solve the problem. If you don’t force yourself to hold this belief, you will never get out from under the avalanche of work. It can also prove to be damaging to trust as you ask pretend questions with the intent of leading the team member to the answer you have already identified as the “right” one. In this scenario, the team member begins to feel like every interaction with you is a test to see if they can get the right answer. It can be incredibly stifling to your team members’ confidence and growth. Instead, provide positive affirmations demonstrating your belief in your team members’ ability.
Clarify next steps.
Once your team member has identified a solution or solutions to the problem at hand, it’s wise to shift towards action. It would be easy to end the conversation once you believe the person has some good ideas but it’s also important to recognize that good ideas don’t always translate into outcomes. To shift, I typically ask something like, “based on all we’ve talked about, what will you take action on?” Or “you’ve come up with a lot of great ideas. Which one do you intend to pursue and what are your next steps?” Having team members articulate their intentions in their own words will help them process and translate thoughts into action. It also helps with commitment and accountability.
Finally, at the point you notice or hear the team member has taken action towards solving the problem at hand, it’s important to reinforce their willingness to own their own career and outcomes. This is true whether the person was successful or not. Holding a continuous growth mindset means we are constantly learning and growing from our victories as well as our failures. Never underestimate the power of demonstrating that you see your team members, care about how they are doing, and believe in their ability to succeed.
The very next afternoon I got another call from Claire. This time she started the call, “Mom, guess what?” Her excitement was palatable. “Tell me,” I said leaning into the moment. “Some people asked me to play soccer tonight,” she exclaimed! “Are you kidding me? That’s awesome!” “Yeah I’m meeting them on the field at 5:30.” We cheered and laughed about the amazing timing of this opportunity and my mama heart sang with joy as we hung up the phone and I silently thanked the Lord for this answer to prayer as well as these lessons in parenting and coaching I continue to learn.
About the Author
Tara serves as the Full Potential Coach at HORNE LLP where she helps team members navigate through various stages of career and personal development to reach their full potential.