How to coach a colleague in three steps

The ability to coach is a fundamental skill for team leaders. A successful coaching approach can enable colleagues to solve their own problems, learn from their successes and failures, and unlock insights they had previously been oblivious to.

I firmly believe that everyone in the workplace, team leader or not, would benefit from having coaching techniques in their toolbox. In many ways, peer-to-peer coaching is closer to the ideal for a genuine coaching engagement than manager-to-subordinate coaching, with the coach less likely to stumble into a directive approach through habit.

Coaching is a great practice to apply when a colleague is stuck or struggling with a task, problem or new challenge. On these occasions you might not understand the details of the situation they find themselves in or know the solution they should pursue. You just know they need a bit of help. In these situations it is your colleague that holds the pertinent information about the situation; what they have already tried and discounted, what expectations need to be met, what their own abilities are and their preferred approach. They are the best bet for a successful resolution, so how can you help?

Too often we blunder in, full of good intentions, to solve other people’s problems like a swooping superhero. Perhaps we succeed, solving it for them with fanfare or modesty. By doing this we deprive them of the satisfaction of conquering their nemesis, or worse, we send them down a faulty path due to our imperfect understanding of the situation. In either case, our colleague doesn’t increase their confidence in their ability to tackle a similar situation in the future and may now be less likely to ask for help when it occurs.

Anyone can coach

Coaching is not one thing; it is a continuum of activities and approaches. It takes years to properly explore these, building-up experience of using an array of approaches so you know when and why to apply the right one (I, for one, have barely scratched the surface of coaching – but hope to build my knowledge throughout my career). However, a few simple techniques can go a long way and are relatively easy to pick-up and apply successfully.

The kind of coaching I’m referring to in this post is sometimes referred to as Solution Oriented Coaching. Where the coach is helping their colleague make progress when facing a problem or a challenge. It has a clear future-focus and is not so concerned with how we got here, i.e. how the problem arose. Instead we focus on where the coachee needs to get to and how they going to get there.

Coaching does not have to be complex or intimidating, but it does require the coach to deliberately adopt a different mindset; one where they are not solving the problem for their colleague, but where they are helping their colleague think clearly, anchor learning and make better decisions.

Here are my three steps for providing this kind of coaching for a colleague:

Open, listen, grow

One: Ask open questions

Ask your colleague an open question that gets them talking, really talking, about the problem/challenge/task they are facing. For instance, ask them “How it’s going with that gnarly bug fix?”. If they answer with a short, closed sentence, “It’s a nightmare”, don’t give up. Ask another open question, “Tell me about why it is a nightmare?”. The aim here is to get then to unload as much information as possible about the situation and their thoughts about it.

Two: Shut-up and listen

This is pretty simple; you need to listen, really listen, to your colleague and speak as little as possible. Coaching is not about you saving the day with your awesome idea. It is not about you challenging the coachee’s faulty thinking. They know the situation and themselves better than you do. They are the expert here. So, when your colleague is explaining their problem and the little light bulb goes off above your head as you recall a thing you tried last year that worked for you in your situation, keep it to yourself. When you think they’ve said something that is an incorrect assumption, maintain your silence. There will be time to use those insights you’ve had later, but at the moment you are shutting-up.

This is the most important step. I only mention it second because it make more sense chronologically to talk about asking a question first before mentioning listening to the answer! But if you only try one thing after reading this post, I recommend “shut-up and listen”.

Three: Navigate using the GROW model

Now you have your open questions and your listening sorted, you can use a simple model to help you make progress through a coaching discussion. GROW can be that model*. It’s a popular mnemonic that most new workplace coaches learn, as it’s made up of pretty self-explanatory words and is applicable in a vast number of scenarios. Think of it as a map of the journey you need to navigate your colleague through, so they can come to a decision over their situation.

Here’s what GROW stands for:

G is for Goal: Encourage the coachee to define what their desired end state is. Try to express this in a way that means you both know when it is achieved. This could be as tactical as “to get this customer issue solved by the end of the day” or it could be personal development related, “to be able to spot these problems sooner next time”. Use open questions to encourage your colleague to kick the tyres on this goal, “Why do you need to solve the issue by the end of the day?”. Creating clarity around the goal might realign your colleague’s efforts, as they realise that they have lost sight of what their objective was in the first place.

R is for Reality: Next, establish how far away your colleague feels they are from the goal. Get them to call out where they are right now, what the obstacles they can see are and what they have already tried. Ask open questions to try to get as much information about the current state of things out of their head.

This is where you can, if you must, ask open questions to challenge that faulty assumption that you spotted earlier, “What makes you say that the error logs don’t help?”. Perhaps they were right and the question will lead the, to re-examine something they have missed.

O is for Options: Mine for ideas for what to do next. Don’t settle for one proposed solution – it could be right, or it could just be the most obvious. Try to encourage your colleague to surface at least 3 ideas. Build up a toolbox of re-framing questions for this step to help the coachee look at the problem from a new angle or challenge constraints.

As this is solution-focused coaching, this step is where you can mention the killer idea you had when your colleague first explained their problem. However, offer this idea only when they have exhausted their ideas and ask for permission first, “Would you like to hear something I tried before and worked for me?”.

W is for Will: This is where the coach encourages the coachee to make a commitment to an action or actions. Explore the implication and obstacles in the way of the options they have called out previously. Establish whether the will is truly there for the coachee to take concrete action. Ask “What is the first step you will take?” or “What’s stopping you taking that next step right now?”.

In this step it is important for you to help your colleague be honest with themselves. Are they really going to take action? If not, that can be ok, and accepting this without guilt is important. For instance, during your exploration the coachee might have discovered that the problem is not as important as they first thought – this is a great discovery!

Did I say three steps?

Well, obviously Step Three is made up of four sub-steps, so I cheated (sorry). It’s also worth mentioning that there is a Step Zero (I’m such a cheat), which it is to ensure that your colleague is open to being coached through the problem in the first place. Usually, if you are talking to a teammate you know well and trust, then you’ll know implicitly that it’ll be fine for you to adopt this approach. However, if you do not know your colleague very well or the level of trust in your team is not as high as it should be, then it doesn’t hurt to ask something non-threatening like “can I help you work through the problem?” so you are sure your coaching approach is welcome.

I challenge you to a give peer-to-peer coaching a go. See if you get an even greater sense of achievement in helping others help themselves, than you would have if you’d solved their problem for them.


* = Well, coaching-fans, while the GROW model is traditionally used in Behavioral Coaching approaches, I think it works just fine for Solution-Focused Coaching too.

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