A brief history of coaching
Coaching has taken a couple of decades to establish itself as a profession and management tool. The rise of coaching means managers are pretty familiar with the idea of a structured dialogue with a colleague, usually one of the manager’s direct reports.
The coaching is typically aimed at sorting out a problem, clarifying goals or encouraging better performance.
Results vary, depending not only on the skill of the coach, but also on the approach that the coach decides to take. A lot of time gets wasted with problem-saturated approaches, and managers are missing wonderful opportunities to make a worthwhile difference.
If you’ve ever spent a lot of time complaining about problems or simply indulging in conversations that are mostly about problems, you may have noticed how that part of your discussion takes you nowhere. All that happens is that the problem tends to get magnified and everyone gets more depressed.
A constructive conversation is about what’s wanted, what resources you have, and what you might do. You can talk about these things often without talking about the problem. If you must include the problem, a good question to ask is, “What do we want instead?”
Now our propositions are:
1 Coaches get better results if their dialogues focus on solutions rather than problems.
2 That this kind of constructive conversation can be taken beyond the formalities of coaching into a much wider range of contexts.
We can have purposeful and generative conversations with anyone at work (and beyond), in formal and informal settings. Whether it’s a one sentence greeting as we pass each other in a corridor or a one-hour annual appraisal, we can make progress.
The conversations might be one-to-one private sessions, team meetings or even whole organisation conferences.
The problem with problems
If you want to have consistently constructive conversations, perhaps the most important distinction to grasp is that between Problem Talk and Solutions Talk. It is also the most subtle.
Problem Talk is – as the name implies – talk about problems: it includes descriptions of what the problems are, analysis of where they came from, elaboration of the effects they are having, how people feel about them, and speculation about what they are leading to. It is any talk that puts the focus on the Problem.
There is a great deal of Problem Talk in the world, which is not surprising because people experience many problems and naturally want to talk about them. Of course they usually also want to solve these problems and expect that the conversations about the problems are part of the problem-solving effort.
But how does talking about a problem contribute to solving it. Clearly, it introduces the topic for inspection. We need a subject to discuss if we are to make any progress through conversation. But what if the topic were what we wanted to be better rather than the thing that is giving us trouble - ‘a faster journey to work’, as it were, rather than ‘the terrible state of the transport system’?
A different wording of the subject leads to a different conversation and from there to different results.