After drinking a cup of coffee together, my coachee and I settled into our regular one-hour coaching conversation. Something told me to do a quick check-in, so I offered, “How ARE you?”, using that intonation from my American accent that suggests that I actually do want to know.
“OK,” he replied.
“OK? That’s not your usual positive answer.”
“Wanna talk about it?”
“I don’t know.”
Then my coachee threw me a side glance as if to check for genuine interest and must have seen by my body language and eye contact that I actually was interested.
“Well, yes. I think I need to get this off my chest.”
He launched into a long and complicated story about the dysfunctional dynamics on his team. After about 30 minutes, he was done, and I asked if I could summarize my understanding of it all. He agreed, and I paraphrased it to his satisfaction (save a couple of tweaks from him). He was ready to brainstorm solutions.
After one or two solutions quickly emerged, he sidetracked without warning to a new topic – a challenge he was having with his boss. After a bit, I interrupted.
“Excuse me. Can you please help me understand how this connects to our brainstorming?”
He replied sheepishly, “You’re right. I got off topic here.”
“That’s alright,” I said, “but I’d just like to know whether you want to talk about this instead, or revert back to the brainstorming about your team.”
“No, actually, let’s go back to the brainstorming.”
We did, and then a few minutes later he started elaborating about a tough patch he’d been having with a peer. I eventually interrupted again and asked, “Is this a sidetrack?”
“Sort of, but actually I need to give you this context in order to introduce another solution I’ve just thought of for my team.”
“Great, carry on!”
We ended up getting a lot done, and he thanked me for keeping him on track. He almost apologized for ‘dumping’, and he mentioned that it was refreshing to speak with someone who is apparently fully listening and not distracted by anything else.
When our coachees realize that they have someone in front of them who is ‘all ears’, they might wander from their stated coaching topic and start ‘dumping’ all sorts of things that they have on their mind. It is our job as coaches to be alert to what is going on by intervening and ‘re-contracting’ with the coachee, to ensure that they spend their finite time with us in the way they want to.
To get and keep the conversation on track:
- Agree (contract) on the goal of the conversation up front.
- When a ‘piece’ of the conversation seems to be completed, decide together on what to do next.
When our coachees seem to be getting off track, re-contract:
- Call attention to it, and ask how what they are saying is connected to the agreed topic, OR
- Call attention to it, and ask if they would rather talk about the new topic instead.
And, if after calling attention to it, you find that getting off track is exactly what your coachee wants…well, consider yourselves on track!