How to Learn What Someone Needs: 4 Practices to Improve Coaching in Difficult Times

  • May 14, 2020

What is the best way to coach others that will help them navigate the uncertainty of the changing horizon? Spend time discovering what they need to feel comfortable in the space they are living in right now.

For years I have taught coaching students and leaders that their conversations need to have a precise picture of the desired outcome or at least clear direction of where the conversation is going to ensure progress is made in the end. Now, with the daily adjustments we have to make while responding to erratic predictions about our future, clients and team members can’t see through the fog. Given our current circumstance, defining a vision or direction with undue certainty seems illogical and misguided. Their views are further muddled by their anxiety and weariness.

You may want them to feel more engaged to handle their challenges and take steps forward, but pushing them too hard could cause more harm than good.

The best way to encourage others to be resilient and stay engaged is to help them determine what they need right now. Do they want you to help them see what possibilities they may pursue in the future, or do they need peace of mind with not knowing how the future will unfold? Listening with no attachment to the outcome will help you hear what they need from you. Then maybe there will be an opening to explore what steps could lead to change.

Do they need a sounding board or a coach?

When I was first learning how to coach, I jumped into practice whenever I could. Once, when a colleague tried to coach me when I was coping with a loss, I shut her down. I heard myself say, “Stop coaching me. Right now, I just need a friend.” That woke me up to my own intrusions.

Ask people what would be most useful for them to get from your conversation. When people feel disengaged, disappointed, or sad, they may just want you to listen.

However, don’t assume defensiveness or hesitation means they are uncoachable. Ask what is causing their frustration or uncertainty. They may willingly describe what they are thinking about, which is a good place to start a meaningful dialogue.

A sounding board can give them the boost they need

Emotions shape our reality more than facts and trend charts. The less we know for sure, the more we imagine the worse and believe it exists.

You might be on the receiving end of a meltdown or a rant. They may focus on theories that are unsubstantiated and intended to spread fear. But you can’t just tell people to focus on the bright side and expect compliance.

Instead of making suggestions, playback what you hear them say and the emotions you notice they are expressing. They may begin to examine their stories, creating the opening to sort out facts from fears. Especially in times of crisis or uncertainty, you must let them tell their stories before you can change their minds.

4 Practices for Making Coaching Easy and Effective in Difficult Times

You don’t need to be a certified coach to change the stories others are living. Practice these four steps to launch a mind-changing conversation:

  1. Listen to their story. Before you dive into the conversation, let them tell you the story that is directing their choices. Be patient. Release your judgment. Accept their perspective as to how they see the world right now. They need to feel heard and valued before they will examine their thoughts with you.
  2. Playback what you hear and notice. Coaching is a process of reflective inquiry, not just asking questions. Summarize what you hear, share the moments you noticed their emotions were triggered and lay out the phrases they repeated and key concepts they stressed. Ask if you are correct or if there is more to say. Be curious about anything that wasn't clear. Clarify their beliefs about the present situation and assumptions about the future.
  3. Determine what the person wants now. Once they confirm the story that is directing their thoughts and emotions, ask them what they want right now instead of what is occurring. They may not know, or it might be impossible to achieve right now, but at least it is the beginning of a destination they can move toward. Eventually, there will be something they identify that is in their control to change.
  4. Glean goals out of insights. During the conversation, they will have insights and “aha” flashes. Don’t let these moments pass. Ask them to articulate what they are learning, seeing, or beginning to understand. Once they identify a new idea, ask them what they might do now. Even if they say they need to think about it, ask what thinking about it looks like. Declaring the next step ensures progress and growth.

Coaching can help people sort out and organize their thoughts. There doesn’t have to be a breakthrough in every coaching conversation. Figure out what the person needs to determine what kind of thinking partner would be most useful for them now.

Ideas in this post constructed from excerpts in Coach the Person, Not the Problem (June 2020) by Marcia Reynolds, PsyD, MCC. Marcia is a pioneer in the coaching movement, a past global president of the International Coach Federation, and teaches for coaching schools and universities in 5 countries. You can find more information on Marcia’s experience, her programs, and her other BK books – The Discomfort Zone and Wander Woman – at

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