The Many Hats of the Agile Coach
Agile coaches have a number of different styles that they can use in their coaching conversations. What are these styles, and how do they know when to use each one?
19 January 2018
As an Agile coach, I want to find the best way to help the people and the teams with whom I work. Depending on the situation and on the experience and maturity levels at which a person or team is operating, the coaching style they require will vary. I have long been considering the different styles that the Agile coach will use and how they fit together. These are my thoughts.
A coach assumes that individuals or teams are capable of generating their own solutions and offers them the chance to learn through the process of discovering the answer for themselves. The coach listens and asks questions but does not offer any solutions. Given the individual or team’s values and the context of their situation, the coach must help the coachees find their own solutions to their problems, without making any decisions or assumptions that may lead them in another direction. In this style, the coach is listening more than talking.
In my experience, coaching is the most difficult style to master. Asking questions such as, “What specifically?” “For what purpose?” and “What else could it be?” allow the coachee to think around their perceptions and understand better what is behind their thinking and statements. Also, using statements beginning with “I wonder … ” also allows the coach to support the coachee in reframing their thoughts without actually asking any questions at all. For example, asking “I wonder if there are any benefits to you in your new situation?” changes the focus of thinking from the negative to the positive, without making any reference to the coach’s own assessment or opinion of the situation.
Mentorship is useful in training juniors in a role in which the coach is familiar. The coach will use observation, guidance, and plenty of support for the mentee to assist their understanding and learning. In this style, the coach is both talking and listening to the mentee to understand where they are and help them move to where they want to be. The coach is often listening to the thoughts and issues of the mentee and sharing their own experience in these areas to help them understand and develop in their role.
A consultant listens to a problem and then prescribes a solution. He or she gives the coachee answers to their questions directly, rather than asking them to solve their own problems. In this style, the coach is initially listening to the problem and then talking and providing recommendations. Consulting is directive and prescriptive and can be a quick way to guide an individual or team toward a solution.
Where a consultant provides context-specific help and guidance, a teacher provides more general information about a subject that the other person doesn’t yet know. In this style, the coach is talking far more than listening. This is the purpose of training scenarios in which the coach is simply sharing information in a relatively predetermined way, instead of responding to a specific situation or to a conversation as it unfolds.
How to choose a style
Being an Agile coach does not mean that you can use only the coaching style of conversation with someone. It simply means that, although you are able to coach, which is often the hardest of the styles and the most difficult to master, you know when and why to alternate your style according to the person’s needs.
One excellent way to know which style to use is to ask the coachee up front about their expectations from the conversation. If they simply want information from you, coaching them to find this themselves may not meet their needs. Let them tell you in advance what they are looking for and what their expectations are. Once you know this, this does not stop you from varying your style, but it at least gives you context for a starting point.
Throughout the conversation, the coach must be ready to change their style on the fly, as the discussion progresses. If, during a coaching-style conversation, a perfect teaching opportunity arises, there is no need to stick rigidly to a coaching style when switching to a teaching style would benefit the coachee. The coach must respond appropriately, according to the needs in the conversation, and be ready to change styles to advance the conversation forward to an effective outcome.
My belief is that while coaching is about listening and not telling, a coach can supplement this style with other approaches as necessary. The title Agile coach belies the fact that the coach has different hats for different stages in a conversation, and the real trick is to put on the right hat at the right moment for the benefit of the person or the team they are coaching.
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