How do I have a ‘coaching’ conversation with a team member I find challenging?

| 21 July 2023

Note:  Firstly, be sure that it IS a coaching conversation that is needed (rather than the first stages of a disciplinary/ performance management process for example).

This article is written for you if you use a coaching approach in your leadership role and was first published in Coaching at Work magazine.  

However technically skilled you are as a manager, if there’s no safe environment and space for the coaching conversation (or indeed any conversation) to take place, you’ll not get very far. 

I’m not talking so much about the venue you choose here; the physical environment or whether the conversation is virtual or not (although these things do play an important part and we need to pay attention to them).  

What I am talking about is what we often refer to as psychological safety.  If there’s little or no trust and no rapport but lots of historical baggage you will have to work out how to build or rebuild those things.  And this will take time, patience and goodwill and an open heart and mind on both sides.

The great thing is, that in the right environment a challenging conversation – whether it’s a coaching conversation or any other type of conversation – simply becomes a conversation about something that we can work through together.

When we feel psychologically safe, we can be open, honest and vulnerable rather than defensive or guarded. We can truly see more than our own perspective. We can discuss what we both need from each other without worrying that this might be career limiting or used against us in the future.

And if things go off track, we can recognise it and get back on track again rather than simmering resentfully and gritting our teeth or going on the defensive or offensive. 

Tried this before and got nowhere?

I’ve occasionally, as part of my team coaching work, facilitated conversations between two team members who are so entrenched in their positions that mediation or moving one of the team members elsewhere is the only solution.  If that’s the case, don’t be afraid to ask for the right support.  You must not tolerate this for a moment longer.

If 80% of your time is spent stressing about or working round one team member or two factions, it’s time to bite that bullet. I can assure you that the rest of your team will thank you for it.

So, if you’ve got one of ‘those’ conversations coming up, here are my tips to help you navigate it.

Tip one – Start with the end in mind.

There’s no point in blaming yourself or blaming the other person for what’s gone before – that achieves very little.  It’s more about re-setting the relationship together with a focus on creating something different from today – because whilst you can learn from the past you can’t change it and it’s time to move on.  

A great opener for all of us is this question: ‘how do we co-create a successful future/working relationship for us starting from today’?  It sets the intention to move ahead with a different approach, mindset and desire for mutual success.

Now part of that question may include re-visiting past hurts, frustrations or misunderstandings.  But if we do this with a ‘what can we both learn from this to help us move on?’ approach, we’re more likely to be able to move forward together.

That word co-create is important. 

Coaching is not something you ‘do’ to your team member.  You are both accountable for making the coaching conversations work in practice and creating new ways of doing things.  And you can’t and shouldn’t work harder than they do.  (If you find yourself doing too much of the work when you’re coaching your team members, it’s time for a re-set).

Tip two – Remember – You can’t change other people (much as you’d like to!)

Coaching is about change – but however brilliant a coach or manager you are, you can’t force other people to change.  We often say people are ‘resistant to change’.  But that’s overly simplistic. 

When you first seek to understand what you see as that resistance; allowing space and time to explore it, both you and the person you are coaching will have greater insight, awareness and understanding.

It’s then much easier to create the conditions that enable your team member to change.

But if they’re unable or unwilling then a different conversation might be needed about their role or future in your team.

Tip three – Avoid ambiguity of language.

How often do you think you’ve agreed something – and a couple of weeks later you realise there has been a complete misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what you thought you’d agreed?

To avoid this happening, always ask your team member to summarise their understanding of what their key actions will be at the end of the conversation. (Don’t summarise it for them).

Summarise any that you’ve agreed to, too.    And if you get vague phrases like ‘I’ll be less confrontational in the meeting’ or ‘I’ll be more of a team player’ then get some specifics.

Tip Four – Don’t collude. 

Beware the team member who tells you that ‘it’s not my fault’ or ‘it’s not me, it’s them’.  You’ll hear disparaging comments about ‘the exec’ or ‘the finance team’ or certain individuals inside or outside the team. Whatever you do, don’t collude with those comments and let your team member fall into the ‘poor me’ victim trap.   It changes nothing.

Similarly, don’t rescue with an ‘Oh I’ll try to sort it out for you.’ (Don’t be that piggy in the middle).

There are two questions that work much better.

One – ‘what might you need to change to get a different outcome’?

Two – ‘how can I help you have a conversation with that person so that you can start to change things?’ (And then do some thinking about the conversation together – even doing a bit of practice together can be hugely enabling).

Hold firm – by doing so you’ll be enabling, empowering and teaching your team member to find solutions and take responsibility rather than keeping them in a state of learned helplessness.

P.S.  My Lead with Confidence 90-day programme starts on 12 September. You’ll learn all about the neuroscience of conversations amongst other things so ‘difficult’ conversations become a thing of the past. Contact me for details of dates, cost, payment options, content and all the rest