How Do You Improve Your Coaching Conversation Game?

If you’ve ever played the game of golf you quickly realized that there are countless ways to hit the ball wrong and far fewer ways to achieve a consistently good result. Coaching conversations are much the same. There are many ways to create conversations that produce results that range from awkward to disastrous while finding a consistently effective approach can be a challenge. The common question asked by many golfers and team leaders is: how do I improve my game?

Golfers, whether weekend duffer or tour professional, can turn to a multibillion-dollar industry that combines ever newer equipment with coaching tips and techniques to take advantage of the latest technology. For most team leaders, the tools available for coaching are far more limited, and few leaders are given the time and resources to invest in them. So, if you are a busy team leader how do you up your coaching conversation game?

What is Your Coaching Worldview?

Reviewing the past 35-years of literature on workplace coaching, there’s a general agreement that workplace coaching is “a process of equipping people with the tools, knowledge, and opportunities they need to develop themselves and become more effective.” (Hicks & Peterson, 1996). For team leaders, a clear definition of coaching conversations is important but insufficient. Before embarking on the journey of becoming a great coach, it’s important to reflect on your personal philosophy (or worldview) of coaching conversations. If you skip this vital step, you may find yourself trying to hold coaching conversations with twenty-something millennials using a baby-boomer approach.

The origins of workplace coaching can be traced back to the post-WWII emergence of industrial psychology, and the development of the human potential movement (HPM) of the 1960s.

The origins of workplace coaching can be traced back to the post-WWII emergence of industrial psychology, and the development of the human potential movement (HPM) of the 1960s. Over the following 30 years, HPM established the framework on which modern coaching was built (Grant, 2017). From the mid-1980’s through today, there have been several generations of approaches to workplace coaching:

  • Performance and Productivity: The mid-1980’s through the 1990’s saw significant technology-driven productivity and an associated focus on performance coaching. Total Quality Management, Business Process Reengineering, and forced employee rankings all contributed to a focus on 1-on-1 individual performance and productivity conversations in a “command-and-control” context.
  • Goal Achievement: The mid-to-late 90’s brought the dot-com boom, emerging Internet, Gen X workplace expectations, and the beginning of the fall of organizational hierarchy and rise of knowledge worker teams. These set the stage for a shift in coaching emphasis away from individual performance and productivity improvement toward goal achievement. Along with these new approaches came a slew of proprietary “leader-as-coach” models and methods, replete with pseudoscience jargon (think, “neuro-leadership”). Notably, most models retained the command-control approach of the prior generation packed into 1-hour conversations.
  • Continuous Conversations: Nearly two decades into the 21st century, technology continues to accelerate changes in the way people work, and the Millennial generation is reshaping the relationship between employees and organizations. These megatrends have inspired new approaches to coaching conversations that demonstrate agility, flexibility, and a genuine embrace of feedback.

As a team leader, it is critical that you reflect upon your personal philosophy and habits of coaching conversations. Are you having bi-annual command-and-control performance improvement conversations, continuous conversations focused on both effectiveness and well-being, or are you somewhere in-between? Once you have your worldview clearly in mind, you can turn to improving your coaching conversations.

The Essence of Effective Coaching Conversations

The approach most golf coaches take to improving someone’s game is to use a myriad of tools and techniques to fix multiple problems, combined with hours of range practice. Watching the pace and quality of play on any given weekend quickly demonstrates that those coaching efforts don’t always translate well into habits that deliver improved on-course performance.

Similarly, most advice about improving workplace coaching conversations begins with ‘coaching models’ that emphasize inputs, processes, and outputs, and lists of do and do nots, rules, roles, and responsibilities. If you’re fortunate enough to participate in an off-site program, there may be a few rounds of role-playing included. The problem is, those approaches are often too complex to become a habit, and they address the symptoms rather than the problem.

At the heart of a coaching conversation is the quality of the relationship between the people having the conversation. Decades of research demonstrate that strong, trusting relationships significantly influence team effectiveness and individual well-being (De Jong et al., 2016). Yet, despite the seemingly obviousness of the importance of people’s relationships, few training initiatives focus on developing the ability of team leaders to build those strong, trusting team relationships.

Three Actions for Effective Coaching Conversations

Workplace coaching conversations occur between people who are striving together to achieve a goal or goals. The relationship dynamic between those people – whether between a team leader and team members, among team members or across teams – plays a significant role in achieving their goals.

Creating effective coaching conversations needn’t be difficult (it’s much easier than developing a consistent pitch shot!). However, it does need to be purposeful and practiced until it becomes a habit. The following three actions will take you a long way toward effective and pleasant coaching conversations:

First, make feedback an obsession. Most relationship breakdowns begin with a gap between what one or both people expect, versus their actual experience. Before you can coach, you need to understand the gaps.

Second, ensure psychological safety. Asking about expectations and related experiences is a safe approach to identifying relationship issues – so long as you are sensitive to some of the most common feelings that may undermine people’s sense of psychological safety:

  • Feeling that mistakes may be held against them.
  • Sensing that being different can mean rejection.
  • Believing that asking for help may be viewed as a weakness.

Last, develop the habit of consistently closing experience-expectation gaps. Great teams are built on strong, trusting relationships. Gaps between what people expect from their important relationships, versus their actual experiences, can fracture the heart of your team and diminish performance. Consistently closing relationship gaps builds trust, well-being, and team effectiveness.

Upping Your Coaching Conversation Game

There are countless ways to mis-hit a golf ball, and there are many ways to have coaching conversations that range from awkward to disastrous. Fortunately, there is a straightforward answer to the question, “How do I improve my game?”

You don’t need complex coaching models, lists of rules or 10,000 hours of practice to create excellent coaching conversations. You do need to embrace that you’re working with people – human beings with expectations of you and their teammates, and feelings about experiences that define the quality of those relationships. By focusing on feedback specific to those expectations, ensuring psychological safety during the conversations, and developing the habit of closing any experience-expectation gaps, you will dramatically improve your coaching conversations. The result will be strong, trusting relationships that improve team effectiveness and elevate the employee experience.

Anthony M. Grant (2017). The third ‘generation’ of workplace coaching: creating a culture of quality conversations, Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice, 10:1, 37-53, DOI: 10.1080/17521882.2016.1266005

De Jong, B. A., Dirks, K. T., & Gillespie, N. (2016). Trust and team performance: A meta-analysis of main effects, moderators, and covariates. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(8), 1134-1150. doi:10.1037/apl0000110

Hicks, J., and Peterson, D. B. (1996), Leader as Coach: Strategies for Coaching and Developing Others, Personnel Decisions International, Minneapolis, MN.


Dr. Jeb S. Hurley
Dr. Jeb S. Hurley
Dr. Jeb Hurley is an accomplished executive and entrepreneur who is a leading expert on team dynamics and high-performance leadership. Jeb guides leaders in understanding and influencing human behavior to deliver better results and greater wellbeing. He is co-founder and CEO of Xmetryx, Inc., the creator of TrustMetryx software, and Co-founder and Managing Partner of Brainware Partners, a team dynamics consultancy. Jeb is a two-time author and holds a Doctorate in Organizational Leadership.

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