Coaching Employees: Listen More, Talk Less, Cut Out the Drama

Over the last several months, I’ve spent a good amount of time on improving my communication skills around management and employee coaching conversations. One of the things that has resonated most with me is that, as the manager, you should not end up with more items on your to-do list after your conversations with employees than they do. I think a lot of people who end up in management are Type A personalities and our preference is to jump in to fix situations; in reality, we need to sit back, listen, and help our employees figure out how to resolve their own challenges.

I’ve been gathering a list of helpful questions that I’ve put into a cheat sheet of sorts. Hopefully these questions will become second nature and I’ll no longer need the reminder, but until then, I’ve taped a copy on the inside of my portfolio that I take into every meeting. I wanted to share these questions with you and hope that you get as much value out of them as I do.

The first set of questions is the longest. All of these questions are meant as conversation starters and to help your employee focus their thoughts. The goal of these questions is to get to the heart of the matter. There are a few key questions that I want to highlight.

The first is: What are the facts? I find that a lot of employee/manager conversations are centered around some incident that is causing drama in the organization. Too often an employee’s challenge is built on a “story” that may not be reality. I absolutely love Cy Wakeman’s approach to reducing drama in an organization and encourage you to check out her podcast. It has been tremendously helpful to me. By focusing on the facts, you can help to pull the employee out of the story and reduce the drama.

Another tip that really resonated with me is that the first challenge that an employee brings up is rarely the real challenge. Continue to stay curious and ask, “What else?” to continue to probe and get to the real challenge. [Read: The Coaching Habit for more on this topic.]
1. What’s on your mind?
2. Help me to understand….
3. I’d love to get your perspective on….
4. What does that mean to you?
5. What are the facts?
6. What went well, or not well?
7. And what else?

Once you feel that the employee has had ample time to talk about their challenge, I find it’s helpful to refocus them by asking one of two questions:
8. What’s the real challenge here for you?
9. What’s your main pain point?

The Coaching Habit also talks about the drama triangle, and I often find that people who end up in my office are in the “victim” mindset. I think of this as the “Woe is me” mindset. So the next group of questions is meant to help them change their perspective into a more positive and proactive stance.
10. How can you positively impact the situation?
11. What does great look like in this situation?
12. What are the possibilities?
13. What can we do differently?

These questions also put the reasonability of finding a solution on the employee and not the manager. In this scenario, beware the “advice monster”. It’s critical to let the employee come up with a few ideas on their own before you jump in. And I only jump in if I don’t think that the ideas they’ve come up with will truly work based on past experience. Keep in mind that just because the solution is not what you would have done, does not mean that it won’t work. Let them try it.

Also beware of any solutions that include you as the primary “fixer”. If you feel like all of their solutions are focused on what other people should or should not be doing, re-ask the top question: How can you positively impact the situation?

The last two questions are the conversation wrap-up.
14. Are you clear on your next steps?
15. What about this conversation was most useful for you?

My last piece of advice is to try to keep these conversations to no more than 15-20 minutes. Keep the conversation moving in the right direction but ask questions that refocus the employee on the key challenge and stick to the facts!

The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier
Reality-Based Leadership by Cy Wakeman
Also check out Cy Wakeman’s podcast!