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One of the most common mistakes in coaching is giving advice rather than helping the coachee find their own answers. This is an easy mistake to make because most of us are so keen to help (and show that we are helpful) and because many coachees are used to being given advice and they expect it.

From my personal experience of coaching, observing others coaching and being coached, I am convinced that most advice-giving in coaching is nowhere near as powerful and effective as eliciting the answers from the coachee. Eliciting the answers takes more skill and it also takes deep trust in the process of coaching, to believe that it is worth taking a bit more time and to make the space for the coachee to be creative.

Recently I learned a very simple and helpful process that simplifies my job in supporting my coachees to come up with their own answers so that I don’t have to give them advice. Here’s how it works:

Let’s say my coachee asks me something like this: “How can I … ? or “What can I do to …? My coachee is seeking an answer to some question or problem he is facing. My options in that moment are to:

1) Give an answer,
2) Ask another question that helps him think further about what the answer might be, or
3) Suggest that we brainstorm possible solutions together.

Obviously Option 1 is giving advice and not recommended.

In the past I have often used Option 2 and asked my coachee something like “What do you think you could do?” There’s nothing really wrong with this question, but asking a question like this does have some risks.

If my thinking is not clear enough, I might frame the question too tightly and restrict the coachee’s responses. For example I might say “What do you think you could do to discover the root causes of this problem?” when in his mind there are no answers in the root causes and this is simply a distraction from the real question. Also, there is an implication that there is one ‘right’ answer, and this limits creativity.

Another risk with following Option 2 is that it may seem like I am throwing the difficult question back to him and withholding my own experience, wisdom and support.

Option 3 has some clear advantages. I could start by saying, “How about if we brainstorm some possible solutions together?” Immediately I am asking permission from the coachee to follow this next step. It is a way of checking the importance of the question and keeping the coachee in control of the process. I am open to the coachee saying, “Actually, I know what I need to do.” !! But often the coachee will agree and I will say, “How about if you come up with two possible solutions, then I’ll add two, and we’ll carry on until we have a whole bunch?” Depending on the confidence of the coachee in this problem, I could also ask him to come up with a whole bunch of possibilities and then I’ll add some more afterwards.

A coachee is often not aware that there are any possible solutions to his problem, so he will find it encouraging to think that together we will find many. It is up to the coach to provide this confidence: essentially the trust that coaching will work and that there are always possibilities and choices in any situation.

Here are some of the other advantages of this approach:

By focusing on creating possible solutions rather than solving the problem, you temporarily stop the judgment and critical thinking that often blocks creativity. Your goal is to collect all the solutions first, and then evaluate them later. Doing this unleashes creativity and in itself will help the coachee think of things they haven’t thought of before.

Coachees often mistakenly believe that the solutions coming from the coach are more valuable than those they generate themselves. You can counteract this assumption by collecting the ideas together so that they have more equal weight. It’s also possible to generate contradictory ideas to make it clear that the coachee has to choose based on his own evaluation of what will work best for him.

Sometimes this process works so well that the coachee immediately comes up with an excellent
solution that he knows is perfect for him and that he is excited to implement. Other times we generate a long list and feel safe with an abundance of choices for actions to take. This is what coaching is all about: creating new ways of thinking that change people’s lives.

Most people are not very experienced at being coached. This fact makes it even more important that coaches trust the coaching process and let the power of coaching reveal itself to coachees. The ‘aha’ moments that they experience as a result will let them realize the true power of coaching.