Have a Structure for Your Coaching Conversation

Systemic coaching is a disciplined approach that helps individuals and teams deciding what to do and how to do it. In this fourth blog post about Systemic coaching in the context of Agile and Change Management, we will introduce a structor you can follow in your coaching conversations.
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Welcome to the fourth blog post of our five-part series on Systemic coaching in the context of Agile and Change Management.

In our previous blog post, we explored the vital aspects of curiosity, listening and the significance of identifying keywords during coaching conversations. Understanding these elements lays the foundation for effective coaching. If you missed it, you can catch up here.

Now, let’s transition into another crucial aspect of coaching – having a structured approach to your coaching conversations. A coaching conversation is not just a casual chat; it’s a dedicated interaction for individuals or teams committed to making significant changes or gaining insights into important matters. To guide you in this journey, we’ll discuss the two levels of coaching conversations, the importance of meeting at the meta level, and the various checkpoints to ensure a focused and valuable dialogue.

Here is the full list of blog posts in this series in case you want to jump directly to one of the topics:

The Coaching Conversation Structure

A coaching conversation is not just a small talk about how things are going or not going. Coaching conversations are for committed individuals or teams (coachees) that want to make a significant change or get wiser about an important matter. To help you succeed as a coach, you can apply a structure to the coaching conversation which will help you and the coachee by focusing the conversation around the important matter and finding specific actions to carry out as a result. It is important to remember that a coaching conversation is something that you design together with the coachee, and at the moment when the conversation is desired by them. As a coach, you never take the coachees to places they do not wish to go – this would be strictly out of line. Instead, enable them to get where they want to go by helping them reflect on the important matters.

The Two Levels of the Coaching Conversation

The Danish Systemic thinker and practitioner, Jacob Storch, is the designer of the model we are using here, and as shown on the figure above, a coaching conversation can be conducted on two levels: A) The conversation level and B) The meta level. As a coach you are constantly acting on both levels. The coachee is primarily on the conversation level but will, from time to time, be invited to the meta level by you.

The conversation level is where the conversation happens. Here you are using the 3 levels of listening and forming questions based on keywords as mentioned in the previous blog post. The coachee will answer your questions on this level as well.

The meta level is where you are designing and reflecting on the conversation. Here you are deciding which powerful questions to ask (possibly based on the Karl Tomm model, which will be described in the following blog post), which hypotheses to formulate, and in which direction to take the conversation next. As a coach you can imagine yourself as having a third eye observing the conversation from this level, using your awareness about the flow of the conversation, and the answers you get to help you make the right decisions.

Meet up at the Meta Level

As mentioned, you will from time to time invite the coachee to join you at the meta level. The purpose for this is to have a conversation about the conversation, collaborate on designing the conversation, reflect on the learnings so far, and make decisions about where to go next.

There are normally at least three opportunities for meeting at the meta level: 1) establish the contract for the conversation, 2) a check-up during the conversation and 3) when you do the conclusion of the conversation. But before digging into making the contract, you should spend a little time establishing contact with the coachee. Here chitchat is okay, as long as you are steering towards starting the coaching conversation. Establishing contact helps people relax and feel confident in speaking freely.

How You Can Establish the Contract

When you are establishing the contract, you invite the coachee to a dialogue about the conversation you are about to have. Here you can ask questions like:

  • “What is the topic you want to elaborate and get insights on?”
  • “How can I best serve you during the conversation?”, 
  • “Are there questions you especially want me to ask or questions you absolutely do not want me to ask?”
  • “When this conversation is over in xx minutes, where do you want to be, what do you hope to have learned?”. 

Good practice is to have the coachee formulate the goal of the conversation in one short sentence – and as the coach, memorise it by writing it down on your own.

Now the coaching conversation can begin – usually by formulating questions based on keywords extracted from the agreed goals for the conversation.

Make Check-ups

During the conversation, you can, from time to time, do a check-up to evaluate the conversation. Here you can summarise the learning so far and decide where to go next. Check-ups help to co-design the conversation on the fly with the purpose of bringing the most possible value into it. Think of it as a sort of inspect-and-adapt on the meta level.

You can use check-ups when you feel the conversation is at a crossroad, so you can make decisions on which path to take next. Be humble and do not assume that your personal decision will be the best path. Instead, ask the coachee and follow their choice. Remember: it is not about you! It is all about the coachee!

You can also use check-ups to re-negotiate the contract if you realise that another topic seems to be more important.

You can make as many check-ups as you feel necessary, asking questions like: 

  • “Let us summarise: We have been discussing …. and …, figuring out that …. . Do you want to expand more on this, or would you rather move on and look at other options? What would this be?”
  • “As I see it, we can either go in the direction of … or in the direction of … . You might see a third direction. Where do you want to go from here?”
  • “In the beginning of this conversation we agreed on speaking about the topic: … . It seems to me that we are more discussing the topic of … . Do you want to return to the agreed topic or is the topic we have been discussing instead more important? Do you want to change the agreed topic?”.

When the check-up is over, you can continue the conversation, taking into consideration the decisions you have just made together.

Define the Next Steps, Ending with a Clear Conclusion

By the end of the conversation, it is time to make a conclusion focusing on the specific steps the coachee  is going to do for implementing the desired change. Have the coachee speak out the conclusion instead of you doing it. That fosters the sense of responsibility. Remember: it is not your solution – it is the coachee’s solution!

It is great practice to ask, as a follow-up to the conversation, about what the next step will be, when it will be done, and how you will know that this has been achieved. To the last question, the one(s) you coach will usually answer something like: “You will get a mail letting you know how it went”. Your reply can, in service to the other part, then be: “And if I do not receive this mail, will it be helpful for you if I ask you about how it went?”. This attitude sharpens the awareness about the coaching conversation as something that serves a purpose, rather than just being a small talk about life, the universe, and other matters.

End by Asking for Feedback

Finally, by being a coach that wants to improve your skills, you should also ask for feedback about the coaching conversation. Ask questions like: “How was this conversation for you?”, “What did I do that was especially useful for you?” and “Which questions did I forget to ask?”

Receive the feedback with gratitude, maybe ask clarifying questions, but do not go into arguing about whether the feedback was right or wrong. The important matter is how the coachee or team experienced your coaching. There is most likely a point behind the feedback whether you liked it or not.

We hope you find these insights valuable as you continue your journey in coaching conversations. Stay tuned for our next blog post, where we will delve into the art of crafting powerful questions, a crucial skill for fostering deep reflection and transformative change.


Coaching Conversation Structure

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