The Virtues of Virtual Coaching
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?