John Bennett/ June 2, 2021/ Executive Coaching, Teaching

Be the ‘Guide on the Side’

For 25 years I have taught and mentored people who wish to use a coaching approach to help others. Most of them have been leaders and managers, while others have been preparing to be professional executive coaches. One of the challenges coaches face is shifting their mindsets and behaviors from being the “sage on the stage” to being the “guide on the side”. This stance requires skills such as listening for understanding and asking powerful questions. At the same time, it helps avoid the urge to rescue, instruct, direct, or tell. 

A model that is often employed to help people deal with their own acceptance is RAIN, which can be modified for coaches, whether managers and leaders or professional coaches, to help process and respond to what others are saying:

R – Recognize and pause to notice;

A – Allow or accept your current experience with what they have said or done;

I – Investigate by pinpointing what is happening in your mind and body—your reactions and responses physically, emotionally and cognitively; and

N – Nurture, by bringing compassion to what is happening for the person you are coaching.

Try these 9 questions before responding to your client’s statements and responses:

  1. What do I understand about what the other person has said and not said? Pay attention to what the other person says, doesn’t say, and how they act. Listen for the obvious and masked (hidden) meanings. Be prepared to test your understanding with them to be sure you have the understanding they wanted you to have. 
  2. What is my empathetic response to what they are sharing? Empathy is a way to connect with the other person. It does not mean you agree with them. It does mean that you have truly heard them. It is much easier to influence and help others if they sense that you empathize with their thoughts, feelings, actions, and experiences. 
  3. What am I curious about? Curiosity is key to effective helping. Notice what you are curious about in the context of the coaching conversation. Avoid allowing your mental models and assumptions drive the questions you ask and statements you make. Keep the focus on what the other person is saying. If you listen and are curious, the next question you ask or statement you make will naturally flow from what they have said. 
  4. What might I learn if I remain quiet/not speak? I use a simple “Seven Second Rule”. Wait at least 7 seconds after asking a question or making a statement before speaking. The key is to create pauses between what you and the other person says. This time to process, reflect, make-sense, formulate thoughts, and prepare to speak. 
  5. Is what I’m going to say going to be useful? Do I need to make the observation, ask the question, share the insight? It is not necessary to speak each time the person finishes speaking. It is important that what you say adds value. So, before you speak, consider what you are preparing to say will add value to the helping relationship you have established. 
  6. Is this the best time for me to speak about what’s on my mind? Consider whether your statement or question supports the natural flow of the conversation and whether or not it will support the work the other person is doing. Sometimes we speak in response to what others say or to fill the silence. You may find it more impactful to remain silent or wait to see if they reach a conclusion on their own. 
  7. Is what I’m going to say actionable by the recipient? Your philosophy or approach may be well-intended and not be something the other person can act upon at this time, in the setting of this conversation, or with the resources they have available. If they cannot do anything with your observation or question, then it might be best left unspoken.
  8. What, if anything, needs to be said by me now? Keep in mind the role you are in as the coach, manager, leader—the helper. What you have to say may be appropriate and useful; however, you may not be the best person to say it. If not you, then consider how you could help the other person identify who they need to talk with for a different perspective. 
  9. If I decide to speak, what can I say clearly and succinctly that will be helpful? In coaching I use the “80/20 Rule”. As the coach, I try to speak 20% (or less) of the time. This requires me to be concise, clear, and impactful. As you prepare to speak, make it brief and deep. This will keep the focus on the other person, keep them engaged, allow plenty of time for them to do their work, increase clarity, and reduce the possibility of dependence on you. For me as the coach, I consider my job as one of helping the person enhance their independence from me and increase their interdependence with others. 

Let me know how they work for you. Are there other questions you ask your coaching clients to ensure you’re the “guide on the side”? I’m interested in your thoughts and ideas, so please leave your comments, feedback, and suggestions below.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash


© 2021, John L. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.

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1 Comment

  1. In number #6 is helpful in coaching and any social interaction. Sometimes social anxiety can cause one to interject or say something to avoid silence. Number 6 helps one to avoid commentary for the sake mitigating awkward silence.

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