I used to believe that the only “real” way to coach was to meet face to face. I thought there was no substitute for being in the room, with all the verbal and non-verbal clues and cues clearly visible. I believed that any other medium would make it impossible to relate fully to the coachee because so much vital information would be missing. I have clients who have insisted that they would not consider Skype to be at all acceptable or adequate. However, they are very much in the minority and they tend to change their view once they have tried it. And I too, after trying face-to-face, Skype and telephone coaching, am forming a different view of the pros and cons of each.
Face to face: All the senses can be fully used to get the measure of a coachee – and of course, they can do the same with me as their coach. How someone enters the room, the way they sit or move, the small changes of facial expression, the pattern of breathing, and a myriad of other signals can provide rich information about a coachee. It is easy to see if someone is engaged in the process, distracted, upset, struggling to speak, eager and enthusiastic, when they are sitting in front of you. It is that very exposure which, whilst valuable for the coach, can be stressful for the coachee especially if they are feeling emotional or self-conscious. However, on balance I have concluded that in order to build a fuller picture of the individual and – importantly – to establish a rapport based on trust and openness, face to face contact at the start of the coaching relationship is crucial.
Skype: Coaching through this medium, in my experience, is a mixed bag. Pragmatically, it greatly reduces travel time and cost for each party and means that sessions can take place far more regularly than would otherwise be possible for busy people. Sitting in the relative comfort of their own home or office can make each party feel more relaxed. When – and this is the big variable – the technology works well, it is true that it is almost as though the individual is in the room with you. In reality, internet connections are notoriously unpredictable and several of my Skype sessions have started with a staccato interaction in which we are each checking that we can see or hear each other (sometimes wasting up to 15 minutes of a valuable session), only to end up speaking over the phone and looking at each other on screen. In one instance I realised after 20 minutes that I could see my coachee but she could not see me, making it a somewhat unequal interaction. When it works well, it is almost as good as face to face – you can see facial expressions, sense emotional reactions, watch body language – and the coach can do the same with you. When it works poorly, it greatly interferes with smooth communication and results in a stilted and interrupted conversation which – for me at any rate – can be highly distracting from being able to focus 100% on my client.
Telephone: this is where I have probably changed my views most significantly – from asserting that phone coaching was inadequate and impersonal, to recognising that it presents a number of real benefits. Most importantly, it allows the opportunity to tune in very acutely to non- verbal signals such as tone of voice without the distraction of some of the visual cues. Core to coaching is attentive listening, undistracted by other cues. With the right level of attention it is possible to hear when a coachee is becoming emotional; silence and pauses are equally obvious as in face to face meetings; and more introverted or self-conscious coachees can feel safer without being keenly observed throughout a 90 minute session. The biggest drawback is the inability to see or read the coachee’s facial expression (and vice versa). Many of us say things in ways that are not congruent with how we really feel . It is that discrepancy that is difficult to pick up in a phone conversation: for example, a coachee who says they are feeling positive, yet whose facial expression or posture conveys something very different.
I am left to conclude – perhaps unsurprisingly – that all three media have their benefits and drawbacks. But I am less categorical than I once was about which medium is the right one to use – and can now see distinct advantages for each.
I’d love to hear others’ views.
Are you a leader who is considering , or moving into, a new role in the coming year? If you think coaching might be helpful, from January through to 1st April I am offering free taster Skype coaching sessions for leaders in transition (one per person) – whether moving into a new role, or considering a change. For more information about my coaching practice contact me, in confidence, on firstname.lastname@example.org