As coaches, we are used to, and in my view, probably prefer for a number of reasons, conducting our coaching sessions face-to-face. Not only does having direct, face-to-face contact allow us to be more present with our clients, it assists us to more easily establish the trust and rapport so critical for a successful coaching relationship, and it also allows us to quickly pick up on our client’s ‘non-verbal’ cues, again a critical element for any successful coaching relationship and intervention.
With the current COVID-19 crisis, coaches and clients are having to adapt to the ‘new normal’ way of remote working. This has resulted in virtual coaching (whether via telephone/mobile, whatsapp or online video call) swiftly becoming the new ‘de facto’ mode of coaching. While virtual coaching should not been seen as ‘second-rate’ in comparison to face-to-face coaching, being mindful and aware of the specific, unique set of challenges that comes with coaching through a virtual medium, will ensure that you, as a coach, are better able to manage and address these challenges – and as a result ensure that your coaching intervention remains and is of benefit to your clients.
“Technology now allows people to connect anytime, anywhere, to anyone in the world, from almost any device. This is dramatically changing the way people work, …. ” — Michael Dell
So how to avoid or at least minimise the pitfalls of coaching virtually?
Here are some ‘top tips’
- Spend more time building trust and rapport
Because you are not physically in front of the client, building a good relationship, developing and maintaining rapport and trust is likely to take a little more effort and time.
In addition, it is a good idea to conduct, as much as possible, your virtual coaching sessions by using video conference calls. In this way, you are able to replicate more closely the physical coaching experience as you are able to see your client and as a result, more easily create and maintain rapport and trust. Allowing your client to see you, and to see that you are fully engaged and attentive, will also help create and maintain their trust in you and in the virtual coaching process.
That said, be mindful of not dictating the virtual medium to use – even if you prefer video calls, your client may not be comfortable with it. Remember that coaching is a partnership – therefore to ensure that you have your client’s trust, you should both agree and choose the most appropriate virtual medium of communication. You can certainly suggest to your client what you believe would be the most suitable medium – however, at the end of the day, your client should have the final say as regards the medium chosen.
“Fear can be created quickly; trust can’t.” – Ed Catmull
- Be conscious of time
You can easily become carried away when engaging virtually and forget the time.
Be mindful that your client probably has a number of other work commitments and priorities in their day. They are also, in all likelihood, struggling, in this new mode of remote working, to maintain a balanced work/personal life balance. As a result, ensure that you keep to the scheduled date and time agreed with your client.
And be careful how you end the coaching session – do not simply sign off at the end of the designated time or end the session abruptly. Make sure you have left enough time to properly and fully wrap the session up, ensure that there is agreement regarding the actions to be undertaken and the dates and times for follow ups and for the next coaching session before you close the session down.
- Remove Distractions – Be Present
Ensure that you clear your remote workspace from all distractions (for example, if doing your session via online video call, make sure your mobile is switched off or is at least on silent) and that you are in a quiet, private space, where your conversation will not be overhead by anyone else. Remember, just because you are coaching virtually and at your home, does not mean that the need for maintaining the confidentiality of the coaching session should be forgotten or potentially jeopardised.
You will want to ensure that you remove any background noise or distractions so as to enable you to be and remain fully present during the session. If you do not, your coaching is likely to not only be less effective , but you are also more likely to miss key verbal and non-verbal cues, as well as negating any rapport and trust that you have created with your client.
- Active Listening – more important than ever
When coaching virtually, many of the visual, and in particular non-verbal cues, we rely on in order to help our clients and better gauge what they are feeling and thinking are not as accessible in the virtual environment (and indeed non-existent if one is conducting the coaching session via telephone/mobile).
This means that the skill of actively listening, being fully conscious and mindful of your client’s tone of voice, the words they are using and their silence becomes and is even more critical than ever in order to probably assess what is being said and what is not.
Ensure that you regularly summarise, clarify and replay back to your client what you believe they are saying to avoid any misunderstandings and ensure that you do not miss any important cues or insights.
Critically important for any coaching session, but particularly when the session is conducted virtually, is to be very mindful of, and to strike an appropriate balance between, interjecting, listening and observing your client. Become even more comfortable with silence and resist the temptation to rush in and finish your client’s sentences or to ‘fill in’ the blanks when there is silence at the other end of the line.
- Be prepared
Before starting to coach virtually, and indeed before each virtual coaching session, make sure that you have tested the virtual platform you will be using and that you are fully au fait and comfortable with it.
Test the functionality and know how to deal with any technical problems that may arise. Agree with your client how you will deal with and manage any such problems. For example:
- In the event of a loss of broadband connection — ensure you have your client’s mobile number so that you can immediately contact them and prevent any loss of momentum.
- If you have poor broadband speed, it may mean that video calls are not possible or are likely to be more difficult. If this is the case, and you are having to conduct the session via telephone, make sure that you regularly check in with your client to ensure that they are still present and engaged.
In addition, make sure you have and use suitable, appropriate equipment – such as a having a good microphone and headphones – so that you and your client can not only communicate clearly and with as little distraction as possible, but also so that you are able to clearly hear your client and pick up on all their verbal cues.
One of the key benefits of coaching is helping your client create and commit to clear goals and actions – and then importantly following up regularly and holding them accountable in accomplishing these agreed goals and actions.
Ensure that you do not neglect this key benefit and follow up virtually with your client between your more ‘formal’ virtual coaching sessions.