Mark McKergow, The Centre for Solutions Focus at Work
Published in Coaching At Work, Vol 4 No 4 p 52 (2009)
In the last column I wrote about various sources of possible know-how for the manager to ask about in a coaching conversation. One of these - the last resort - was for the coach to introduce their own know-how, experience and ideas into the mix. As coaches we are all aware of the potential difficulty of getting into telling someone what to do. There are good reasons to be cautious - if the staff member gets the idea that we really want to tell them what to do, they may well stop thinking and wait for the inevitable. Also, your efforts to coach may become seen as either tokenistic or misguided. Finally it can be very difficult to say 'No' - the manager's ideas may appear (to one or both parties) to be automatically superior.
So, let's imagine a situation where all your best efforts to coax useful ideas and know-how into the open have failed. You have looked for relevant ideas from the performer's own experience, from their observations of others, from times when things have gone particularly well, even to times when they have gone totally wrong - and yet nothing seems to be emerging to help guide what to do next. If you are thinking that this is an unlikely scenario - you are right! In my experience this is not a frequent experience. However, best to be prepared.
An initial distinction to draw is between factual information and options. Factual information - laws, regulations, policies, deadlines, contacts and so on - is generally OK to you to share if performer is not aware of these. (As their manager, of course, you might note that they should have known about this before!) These elements form part of the framework within which you will all act, and within which decisions will be taken.
Options include things that might be done - by the staff member, by you, by anyone. Take great care in introducing these yourself; every case is different and a key issue is how well the options fit this particular situation. As manager-as-coach you can still leave the judgement of fit as a matter for discussion. If the performer is to really evaluate whether an idea fits for them in this situation, they must retain the possibility of rejecting it. So, you are looking for ways to introduce possibilities whilst leaving open the possibility that, in this case, they may not fit.
First of all, ask if they want an idea. If the performer says 'Yes!', then you have permission to go on. This is not a formality - I once did this and my colleague said 'No, I'm still thinking...'.
Second, stress that this is a possibility; it's up to them to see how it might fit.
Now, you can offer your know-how in the following ways:
1. Offer something that worked for YOU in the past. Relate a past experience like "What we did in 2006 when this came up was..." - and make the performer work to relate it to the current (different) situation.
2. Offer something that YOU have seen work for others (in the same kind of way).
3. Offer something that someone else did in the past ("I had a boss once who was very good at this, and what she did was..."). You can also present what has worked for you in the same way - the distance introduced by having it come from someone else help by making it easier for the performer to reject.
Note that in all cases there is a distinction between what happened in the past., and what WILL happen this time. As a good coach we are careful to be offering options which are rejectable by the performer - they have to choose and make whatever fit the current context. We are still avoiding telling them what to do now.
If we get to telling them what to do, that's gone beyond coaching. Direction is another part of the manager's job, and has a role. But now, you have even more options before resorting to this - and can therefore keep wearing your coaching hat for even longer.
Dr Mark McKergow is director of sfwork, the Centre for Solutions Focus at Work and co-author of several books on Solution Focused practice including The Solutions Focus (Nicholas Brealey Publishing 2007).
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