Having coaching conversations in organisations: focusing on the individual to move beyond stereotypes by Simon Dennis (guest)

It’s very easy to stereotype and generalize, and this becomes more noticeable when you’re working in a multicultural, multi-country organization because you’re dealing with people in lots of different countries. Without thinking through what it is you want to actually say, it can be very easy to blurt out, “Oh, you’re Belgian, therefore,” “Oh, you’re German therefore,” “You’re American, therefore.”

I attended a recent cross-cultural coach training program in Northern Europe and what fundamentally underpinned the whole programme was to question the relevance of stereotypes when you’re dealing with the individual who's there with you in the room, and there to have a conversation with you.

One of the exercises we carried out early on was to ask all the participants to think through the considerations with cross-cultural coaching. We wrote down all the things you have to think about e.g. technology, speaking slowly, avoiding acronyms etc. And then, a kind of light bulb came on, “Actually, we don’t. What we have to think about is the person in the room.” If the person in the room speaks fluent English and actually doesn’t mind us speaking quickly, and can — what is it you’re implying when you speak slowly?

By speaking slowly aren’t you just assuming they don’t understand you if you speak fast? More importantly it’s about speaking at the pace they can understand. 

And then came, “How are we going to take this further?” 

It was one line, “Treat them like an individual.” 

The answer was as simple as that. It was literally, ‘When you’re in the room with them, virtually or physically, just talk to them and listen to them and treat them like an individual, because they might not be anything like anyone else. They won’t be like any other person you’ve ever met’. 

Exploring further my approach to coaching in a cross-cultural environment

I think as coaches, we’re lucky. I think we are lucky in a cross-cultural environment because our natural instinct is to assume less and jump to fewer conclusions (rather than starting at a solution). I’m not going to jump to conclusions about why they’re wearing what they are or jump to conclusions about the way they’re responding to me, or not. What I am going to do is to ask whether they are struggling to understand what I’ve said? Are they struggling to pick up the nuances in the question? And asking more questions, and in particular direct questions in a non-assuming way, is something that a coach can bring to the situation. 

Are you struggling to understand or actually, is there something more to this? It’s this idea that as a coach, you’ve got the freedom and the permission to ask direct questions. For example, when someone appears to be upset by a particular situation or question, it’s normal to give them the appropriate space, a coach could also ask if it’s something else, (and I urge all the coaches to ask the question). “I noticed that when I asked you that question, you responded in this way. Why was that?”

Whereas many managers tend to say, “I noticed that when I said that, you shied away from me. And actually, I know that’s typical of where you are from, but I need you to engage.” That’s a huge assumption that the response was simply down to a stereotype. Whereas a coach could just ask the question, “Why did you respond in that way?

Being able to ask that question, and hear their response, is a great transformational piece for cross-cultural organizations. Understanding the difference between making a judgement and stating a fact as part of their training engages their curiosity to ask why. That someone doesn’t speak up in a meeting, is just a fact. The judgment is when you think that they’re not confident, just because it’s assumed that keeping quiet in meetings implies a lack of confidence.

Bringing ‘coaching conversations’ into organisations

Sometimes it’s necessary to be cautious openly talking about ‘coaching’ even though it happens all the time all over the organisation. For example, someone might pop over to my desk and start talking about some issues they’ve got or some challenge. And depending on the topic of conversation, I might say, “Let’s go have a quiet coffee somewhere” or we might just chat at my desk. I’ve always got my coaching head ready to engage, and I think that helps because people know that.

What I am conscious of, and there are many others who practice what I do, is that I don’t label examples I have shared as coaching either. And then when it comes to our Supervision Group and we’re asked, “So how much coaching have you been doing?” The response is typically, “Well, in the formal sense, I’ve only done maybe two or three hours since the last time we met. But actually, I’m having maybe 5 or 10 conversations a day, maybe 25 a week, which are ‘coaching’ conversations.” And so we train our managers in having coaching conversations, in having an inquisitive mind. 

This also forms part of a tiered view of coaching:

  • It starts with coaching conversations (with some very good basic training around coaching and mentoring for all managers),

  • Followed by talking to them about what do they know about contracting,

  • Before moving into the more structured form of coaching.

Thinking back to Ken Blanchard’s Situational Leadership, I agree that there are times and places when you have to be directive. You can’t do anything but — if someone’s put themselves in danger – you need to tell them to stop. It’s not difficult. It’s knowing when to be directive, too. The manager needs to work out the whole platter of stopping points in between being directive to asking them one or two pertinent questions that enable them to go away and work on the answer for themselves, it’s really managers who are having a range of coaching conversations that are showing an aptitude for extending the world of coaching. 

The challenge that then materializes is that we get a lot of managers wanting to switch roles and say, “I’m a coach.” Whilst the field works through professionalizing what is coaching it’s useful to use the current lens to explore some of the current perceived challenges.

Following “Coaching Conversations” training is just the beginning towards becoming an ‘accredited coach’. There’s much more to it, a wealth of training and experiences, especially around some of the basics like boundary setting and contracting. For example, someone may approach you for some advice. You didn’t actually give them advice, what you did was to help them explore options for themselves and come up with a resolution.

My response would be that the contract was kind of implicit in the question. However, if they wanted to continue that relationship with that individual, then it’s being more explicit and direct to say, “We want to then coach on a formal basis, we would then expect you to contract with them about outcomes and boundaries and all those things.” 

Reflecting on how having a mindset to simply have coaching conversations can break through stereotypes

There is a whole school of thought around cultural stereotypes, company stereotypes, corporate stereotypes, corporate cultures, (Steve Glowinkowski talks a lot about what constitutes corporate culture – and how it can be changed). There is a known bias that senior leaders tend to recruit people who are like themselves subconsciously, some experts recommend for a fully functioning organization to exist and thrive they require a bit of everything, so recommend using a simple psych assessment like Myers Briggs to test this. But from my perspective and experience this isn’t necessarily true. What you need to do is treat everyone as individuals and work out what everyone is going to do. Through co-operation you do create culture. 

For example, there are companies now like the BBC who recruit, first of all, based on you as a person, your ‘fit’, not on your skills. When they moved to Salford in the Northwest, their entire online portal was encouraging anyone from the Northwest to apply because they wanted local people. They said, “Go online. Do the tests.” All the tests were value-based asking simple things like, what would you do in this situation, if someone comes and tells you that one of their colleagues has been taking drugs in the toilet? How are you going to deal with that situation?

It was testing your approach to value.

And at the end of it and depending how you answered they let you know whether you’re a good fit, or not, for the BBC. If you are, then you accessed another portal which showed you which roles were currently available where there was a further screening process. Their overall argument is, “It’s much easier to train people in skills because you can retrain as an accountant or a financial controller. But if you haven’t got the right set of values, you’re going to disrupt their company ethos.”

As I mentioned earlier, having all managers have a coaching conversation mindset as part of the multitude of conversations they have every day is one of the ways we’re going to break down stereotypes and they will have an aptitude for extending the world of coaching. 

Questions for you: 

  • How do you have ‘coaching conversations’ in your organisation?

  • Where has it worked best?

  • What are some of the contexts where coaching conversations can be a limitation?

To connect with Simon:

Simon has over 20 years’ experience of service delivery and continuous improvement in a variety of roles and industry sectors. He trained as a coach and coach supervisor and as Head of Coaching at Fujitsu UK & Ireland he established a Coaching Community utilising internal and external coaches to meet the business need for performance improvement and provided a basis for establishing a coaching competency for the organisation.

He has continued as a coaching ambassador for Fujitsu, presenting at conferences and contributing to publications and professional bodies in order to promote the use of coaching for performance and particularly internal coaching as a valid and valued approach.

He is married with 2 daughters and lives in Manchester, North-West England.