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Key Coaching Skills

Table, chairs, blue sky

The Business Coaching series is now available to download as a free ebook Creative Management for Creative Teams.

Having looked at the big picture of Coaching and Leadership, I’m now going to focus on the small picture of the key skills involved in coaching.

Most of these appear on any standard list of coaching skills, with one or two additions of my own. Some of them, such as goal-setting or giving feedback, are to some extent susceptible to being broken down into discrete steps and taught; others, such as empathising and intuiting, are abilities that a coach naturally possesses, or which emerge over time as a result of practising the other skills.


Coaching is a goal-focused (or solution-focused) approach, so the ability to elicit clear, well-defined and emotionally engaging goals from a coachee is one of the most important skills for a coach to possess. Like many aspects of coaching, there are both formal and informal versions of this skill.

On the formal side, a coach needs to know how and when to introduce goal-setting into the coaching process, and will usually be familiar with models such as SMART goals (a SMART goal is Specific, Measurable, Attractive, Realistic and Timed).

On the informal side, a coach will typically have the habit of thinking and asking questions from a goal-focused mindset. For example, “How does doing x help you reach your goal?” helps the coachee to evaluate whether what she is doing will help or hinder her.

Another common habit of a good coach is reframing problems as goals – e.g. if a coachee talks about the problems he his having with a ‘difficult’ colleague, the coach might ask “What needs to be happening for you to have a workable relationship with this person?”.


A good deal is rightly written about the importance of listening in coaching, but looking is often (ahem) overlooked. When running coaching skills seminars, I often say to the trainee coaches “The answer is right in front of you”. Meaning that the person’s body language tells you a huge amount about her emotional state and level of commitment, yet it’s so easy to ignore that if we are too focused on our own ideas about what needs to happen next.

Another obstacle to looking is a company culture in which people have been conditioned to focus on processes and tasks at the expense of human relationships, so that people can stop seeing each other as human beings, but merely ‘managers’, ‘staff’ or [insert job title here]. This is often compounded (in the UK at least) by a general sense that “it’s rude to stare” – with the result that the coach literally stops seeing what is in front of her eyes, and misses valuable information about how the coachee is thinking and feeling.

The good news is that as soon as new coaches are encouraged to actually look at the person in front of them, they nearly always ‘get’ how the other person is feeling straight away, and this opens up new options for moving the conversation forward.


This is often referred to as active listening to emphasise the difference between passively taking in what the other person is saying and actively engaging with them and showing that you are giving them your undivided attention. This involves putting your own concerns and idea ‘in a box’ while you listen, so can be particularly challenging for manager-coaches, but it’s a skill well worth developing.

You can probably remember the last time someone put everything else aside and gave you their full attention – it’s a powerful experience, partly because it’s so rare. By listening intently to someone else, you send a powerful double message – firstly, that you are there to support them in whatever they are doing, secondly, that you are paying attention and expect them to follow through on any commitments they make.

There are various techniques and models used to teach active listening, but the easiest and most genuine approach is simply to become genuinely interested in the other person and curious about what they can achieve.


Empathy develops naturally out of looking and listening. If you do this attentively, you can start to get a sense of the other person’s emotional state.

Some people experience empathy as a powerful physical sensation – they literally seem to feel the other person’s emotions. (Scientists have linked this phenomenon to the operation of mirror neurons.) For others it’s more like being able to imagine what it’s like to be ‘in the other’s shoes’.

The ability to empathise is critical for a good business coach, as it not only helps the coach to accept the other person on their own terms, but also sometimes to ‘tune in’ to emotions and thoughts of which the coachee is not fully aware. For example:

I’m starting to feel quite angry when I hear you talk about what your boss said to you – was that how you felt?”.

Focusing on someone else for a sustained period can be tiring at first, but if you stay with it you will experience one of the great secrets of coaching – that empathising with another person can be a fascinating and enjoyable experience for you as well as the coachee.

I often find myself looking forward to coaching sessions partly because I know it will take me outside my usual self-oriented state – at the end of the session, when I come back to my own concerns, I’m likely to see them with a fresh eye.


If I had to pick one thing that distinguished business coaching from other approaches to communication, management and learning, I would say “Questions”. At the heart of coaching is a willingness to put aside one’s own ideas about the ‘best/right/obvious way’ to do something, and to ask a question to elicit someone else’s ideas about how to approach it.

For me as a coach, asking questions is an expression of my curiosity about life in general and human creativity in particular. For coachees, being asked a question can do three very important things:

  1. Focus attention – questions are not directive, but they are influential. They prompt the coachee to look for a new idea or solution in a particular area. Experienced coaches are adept at using questions to help people step outside the ‘problem mindset’ and look for answers in unexpected places.
  2. Elicit new ideas – however ‘obvious’ the answer may seem to the coach, it’s amazing how often a coachee will come up with several different and often better alternatives. Unless you ask the question, you risk leaving the coachee’s creativity untapped.
  3. Foster commitment – there’s a huge difference between doing something because someone has told you to or suggested it, and doing something that you have dreamt up yourself. Even if a coachee comes up with the same idea the coach had in mind, the fact that she has thought it through herself means she will have a much greater sense of ownership and commitment when putting into practice.

Giving feedback

This is always a hot topic when I run coaching seminars. It’s a big subject, but the key to delivering effective coaching feedback is that it is observational and non-judgmental. If you provide clear, specific feedback about the coachee’s actions and their consequences, then the chances are the coachee will be perfectly capable of evaluating his performance for himself.

Giving ‘negative feedback’ is often a delicate process, but the following principles will make it easier and more effective for everyone concerned:

  • Make sure you’ve already given plenty of positive feedback. If you have a track record of giving open, honest praise to someone, it makes it far easier than if you only jump in to criticise when things go wrong.
  • Appreciate (or at least acknowledge) the PERSON – deliver feedback on specific BEHAVIOUR. You don’t need to rebuild someone’s personality to help them learn and change, merely to them do something different.
  • Focus on the FUTURE more than the PAST. Sometimes it’s helpful to analyse the past and what went wrong, but beware of getting stuck in accusations and defensiveness. If this happens, switch to finding new options for the future.
  • Avoid blame, make REQUESTS. Faced with blame, all we can do is defend ourselves. Faced with a request, we have the option of accepting, rejecting or negotiating. One keep us stuck, the other may get us unstuck.


Like empathy, this is either an innate ability or emerges from practising the other coaching skills. Sometimes during a coaching session you can get a sudden thought or feeling about the coachee or the subject under discussion – it’s as if something is prompting you to ask a question or share what you’re thinking/feeling.

It doesn’t matter whether you call this a hunch, intuition, a sixth sense, mirror neurons or your unconscious mind – what does matter is how willing you are to trust this feeling and act on it, in the hope that it might help the coachee.

Sometimes the effect can be like a thunderbolt – the other person can’t believe how you’ve ‘picked up’ something vitally important that they hadn’t been fully aware of. Other times, the coachee looks at you blankly and it turns out your ‘insight’ is either obvious or useless. Because of this uncertainty, it’s very important not to get too attached to our coaching intuition, and to always check whether it matches the coachee’s reality…


I’ve not seen this listed as a separate skill in coaching books, but for me it’s one of the most important habits for a coach to get into, and it can take considerable skill to know what, when and how to check. It might seem pedantic or boring relative to the ideas and energy generated elsewhere in the coaching conversation, but if you don’t keep checking, you risk letting all that creativity and enthusiasm evaporate.

Here’s a brief (ahem) checklist of things I typically check in coaching sessions:

  • Checking understanding. Making sure that I’ve understood what the coachee is saying. Often involves asking dumb questions and summarising the answers in the coachee’s own words.
  • Checking that the client is happy. A verbal agreement is no good unless the person is also enthused or at least congruent in taking action on the goal. I’m constantly checking this by looking and listening for nonverbal cues, but at key points I also ask directly “Are you happy with this?”
  • Checking that all the bases have been covered. Exploring some areas in depth can mean that other areas are overlooked. The coach can help overcome this tendency by asking questions such as “Is there anything else you need to consider?”, or “Do you know enough to move forward on this?”.
  • Checking whether the coachee has taken action. If the coachee commits to doing something, you need to have an agreed means of reporting on this. Ideally the client should own this process, but the coach also needs to keep an eye on it, to ensure that things don’t get forgotten.
  • Checking whether the goal has been reached. This might sound obvious, but sometimes coachees can get so involved in working on a goal that they don’t register when they have achieved what they set out to do. Alternatively, they may have a sense of ‘problem solved’ but on closer inspection, there’s still more to do. So a coach can perform a valuable role by asking some probing questions towards the end of the coaching process, to check whether the client is happy with the outcome.

Next in this series – the GROW Coaching Model.


  1. Excellent article!
    Clear, informative and useful. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for sharing this comprehensive information on the different aspects of coaching skills. Among these skills I think questioning is perhaps one of the most useful skills a coach can develop.

  3. Lorraine Newman says:

    Excellent article. I was particularly interested in mirror neurons and will take the time to explore this further. I find myself tuning in to a person so that it’s like I can read their mind. I answer something in my head just before they give that answer, even when the answer is nothing one could guess at.


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