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The Virtues of Virtual Coaching

Posted by Clare Norman, PCC | January 29, 2018 | Comments (16)

The Case for Virtual Coaching: It’s the Best Leader Experience

I look at the world through an “experience” lens: customer experience, employee experience, leader experience. What’s the best coaching experience I can provide for the leaders I coach? When I apply the experience lens to virtual coaching, the answer may surprise you.

Leaders are hyper busy. They want space to think about those things that are important but not urgent, which they don’t give themselves time to strategize about. I want to support them to do their best thinking, and I notice that when a leader is in their own space, a place where they feel safe, they can be more vulnerable and honest with themselves and with me. I advise them not to be in their office, as those walls seem to keep them tied to their old ways of thinking, but rather to choose a space that enables them to feel resourceful and creative.

Many people assume that face-to-face coaching must be better than virtual coaching. A   The study found “no difference in the reported level of problem resolution for face-to-face and distance clients.”  The strength of the working alliance was found to be significant for problem resolution in distance coaching, and “coaches self-reported strong levels of working alliance in both conditions (face-to-face and distance).”

Another study, published in 2009 in the British Journal of Psychology, found that “gaze aversion benefits cognitive performance, not just by disengaging visual attention from irrelevant visual information, but also by interrupting social interaction processes involved in face-to-face communication.” This suggests that the coaching experience is better for our clients when there is no need for eye contact. Coaching where the coach and client are walking side by side, and telephone coaching, without a webcam, meet that need.

The leaders I work with are often in global companies, working virtually with their peers and their team members. They are used to virtual conversations, even though they often feel they don’t do them well. For leaders working in a virtual world, virtual coaching provides an additional benefit of modeling great virtual conversations. Through this experience, they can learn how to contract for a great conversation; how to engage their people in good quality, engaging conversations that build independent, critical thinkers; and how to close a conversation well. We’re missing an opportunity when we coach them face to face because that isn’t the world they normally operate in.

Honing our Virtual Coaching Competencies

Trust and intimacy, as well as coaching presence and active listening, can help create the right environment for our clients, giving them the best thinking experience possible.

Peter Hawkins and Nick Smith talk about the coach’s authority, presence and impact leading to our client having greater trust in us. Authority is about our knowledge and experience, and tends to be screened for when an individual is choosing their coach. Presence is about how we relate to others. Impact means creating a shift in the virtual room. These are all perfectly possibly to achieve virtually. In addition, the client is in their own space, which feels safe and supportive to them.

As work begins together, we start the contract, inviting them into an open and honest relationship, inviting them to identify and declare their needs, inviting them to believe in their own best thinking.

Our coaching presence increases trust and intimacy, too. Silence is our greatest gift to the thinker, and it takes practice over the phone to know when they have finished their thinking. Being fully present, without the overwhelm of face-to-face distractions, allows us to access our somatic intelligence. For example, it can be very powerful to offer up to a client that my chest has suddenly tightened and ask them whether that offers any insights.

Active listening allows us to hear what is not said. Without visual clues, we need to hone in on listening between the lines even more, paying attention to every breath, every hesitation, every sensing of unseen body language. It’s not as easy as it sounds, particularly if you have a more visual or kinesthetic preference. You can build this skill by sitting quietly and listening to the world around you, paying acute attention to the tiny noises in the background. Do this often enough and your listening acuity will strengthen.

How will you build your virtual coaching muscle in service of a great thinking experience for your clients?

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Clare Norman, PCC

Clare Norman, PCC, has 19 years of coaching experience and is a Professional Certified Coach, a certified coach supervisor and an ICF mentor coach for internal and external coaches. Previously, Clare headed up development for leaders of all levels at Accenture. She has won awards for her groundbreaking behavior change programs. She is a prolific blogger and has written magazine articles on coaching, action learning, coaching supervision and mentor coaching, as well as the following books: Mentor Coaching: A Practical Guide, Being a Sunbeam and Seeing Beyond the Blind Spots.

The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

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Comments (16)

  1. Michaela Hertel, Systemic Leadership Coach says:

    Thank you Clare! I do practice virtual coaching with individuals, couples and also teams for a couple of years now. It’s very agile, very focused, making the most of our time together!

  2. Jon Dunsmore, Coaching Psychologist says:

    Great article, Clare.

    What does it take to get started on a virtual coaching platform?

    I have had a career-long fascination with how adults learn and with human psychology can help or hinder our development.

    So far… my clients are 1-to-1 (individual and group) by word of mouth. I’d like to develop my online presence through a website (including resources) – which I hope will drive clients to want to work with me virtually.

    Can you offer any advice?

    Best wishes

    • Hi Jon,
      My favourite virtual coaching platform is the telephone! You can also use Skype – especially Skype for business into a corporate environment, if that’s your target. If you’re doing team coaching, that’s remarkably good over Zoom – participants often say how much it feels like being in the same room with people.
      Hope that helps,

  3. Sam Crowe says:

    Thank you for sharing information on these studies. Much misconception exists about what is needed to have effective social connection and understanding — particularly given that research (and product marketing) has focused on visual cues, leaving gaps in our knowledge about other sensory systems. However, as research expands, it is becoming clear our other senses are as powerful as — sometimes more powerful than — vision. E.g., last year’s Yale study that suggested we can discern another’s emotions through listening better than we can through observation. “Across all five experiments, individuals who only listened without observing were able, on average, to identify more accurately the emotions being experienced by others.” Michael W. Kraus. Voice-Only Communication Enhances Empathic Accuracy. American Psychologist, October 2017. Findings about emotion discernment have also been described for touch. So, forms of coaching like tele-coaching can be as effective as face-to-face coaching, and in some ways, potentially provide unique value. E.g., your coachee is not distracted by trying to read your face, and you can understand emotional drivers through deep listening.

    • Clare Norman says:

      Thanks for the additional research Sam. That certainly backs up the article

    • says:

      Thank you so much Sam, fantastic paper from Michael W. Kraus (Voice-Only Communication Enhances Empathic Accuracy. doi: 10.1037/amp0000147)

  4. Thanks Clare and I fully endorse your views on virtual coaching. I think there is also an opportunity to get creative in coaching dialogue in these circumstances. I had a remote coaching client who was very visual and often used metaphors or images to convey his thoughts.
    I suggested that he sometimes drew these, as they occurred to him outside our sessions, and email them to me for discussion. This worked incredibly well because it made for very powerful conversations. Sometimes, by the time he came to our call he’d further processed his drawing and moved forward in his thinking.

    I also believe that coaching via Zoom or Skype can be excellent for those who like more face to face connection but simply are geographically challenged. It removes the pragmatic tendency to choose coaches based on location rather than fit.

  5. Clare Norman says:

    I agree with you Shakya. Telephone rules in my experience. No video to distract us, not broadband to worry about, just a clear line through which I can hear those sharp intakes of breath, sighs and shoulder shrugs etc. Yes, skype and zoom make it more cost effective, but I would still go for audio only

  6. Clare Norman says:

    (1) Berry, R. M., Ashby, J. S., Gnilka, P. B., & Matheny, K. B. (2011). A comparison of face-to-face and distance coaching practices: Coaches’ perceptions of the role of working alliance in problem resolution. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 63, 243–253.
    (3) Peter Hawkins and Nick Smith (2006), Coaching, Mentoring and Organisational Consultancy: Supervision and Development, Open University Press

    • says:

      Hi Clare,

      Thank you very much for your post and for the references.

      Would you have access to the full article A comparison of face-to-face and distance coaching practices: Coaches’ perceptions of the role of working alliance in problem resolution ?

      I’d to read this paper,

  7. It’s nice that virtual coaching is able to provide the same benefits of face to face coaching. One of my friends is wanting to start a business, so he may need some coaching. What tips do you have for choosing a great virtual coach?

  8. Ian Jenner says:

    Thank you for the article, am wondering if there are any tips for coaches so that they get the most from online coaching. University having gone online, looking to support students in this ‘locked down’ online world.
    Thank you

  9. Megan Alder says:

    It’s interesting to know that virtual coaching developed cognitive performance by not disengaging visual attention from irrelevant visual information. For a while, I have been thinking about getting coaching, but due to the pandemic, I have been thinking about choosing virtual coaching. I will definitely follow your advice to be able to work other parts of my brain and attention by choosing to be virtually coached.

  10. I have been operating a corporate business for a full year now since the initial COVID-19 lockdown started. We have not been back to the office since – and we have used MICROSOFT TEAMS for all our internal and client meetings – this has of course become the norm for everyone around the world, including having personal interactions with family and church over ZOOM and GOOGLE MEET. This form of interaction is now commonplace and I expect that it will remain a key medium for COACHING.

  11. Thank you for affirming this. Very valuable indeed.
    Albeit not in a coaching mode, I have had to deal with clients on more face to face than virual mode a lot. what I read here, is valuable to me. Thank you

  12. Searchie Inc says:

    Searchie truly stands out as the ultimate Best Platform For Online Coaching! 🚀 With its user-friendly interface and robust features, it’s a game-changer for both coaches and learners. The seamless integration of content creation, organization, and engagement tools makes it a one-stop solution. Kudos to Searchie for revolutionizing the online coaching experience!

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