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Meiss Education Institute

The Coach as Confidant: Becoming a Mentor to Your People
By Rich Meiss

Coaching For Results Series: lV

Have you ever had a special person in your life that saw more in you than you saw in yourself? I’ve had several of these people in my life. The first was my high school German teacher – Frau Schmidt. She challenged me to get outside of my comfort zone by suggesting that I set a goal to travel to Europe after I graduated from college. Her passion was helping students learn about the languages and customs of other cultures. Because of her, I traveled to 13 different countries in Europe the year I graduated from college, and greatly expanded my horizons.

Another person who had a profound effect on my life was my Dale Carnegie Course instructor, Sam Carlson. When I was a sophomore in college, my father enrolled me in the Dale Carnegie Course in Morris, MN. I was 19 at the time, and a pretty shy Midwestern farm boy. It was in that course that I got the vision to become a public speaker and trainer, and that vision set the course for my life’s work.  At the graduation session of the class, Sam Carlson challenged me by saying, “Rich, when you become 30 years of age, look me up, because I think you would make a great Dale Carnegie instructor!” In less than two years from that moment, I was working with Sam to set up and help conduct Dale Carnegie Courses. And that momentum launched a 30+ year career in speaking and training.

Who was that person in your life that caused you to see a bigger picture of yourself and your future? Was it a parent, a friend, a spouse, a partner, a boss, a teacher, or a colleague? Regardless of the role this person played, they became a mentor, didn’t they? In essence, they were a coach – a confidant!

We have defined coaching as the process of growing people while getting results. Most of the time when someone talks about a coach, they are referring to someone who stands beside them to help them get better results in their lives. In the classic sense, this is someone who becomes a “guide on the side”, a mentor who helps another person work through their own problems, make their own decisions, or reach their own goals. This is not a classic “fix it” person or “answer” person. They are a guide or a confidant. This is one of the most important roles of an effective coach.

The tools of a master confidant are communication tools – setting high expectations, asking questions, listening actively, and guiding others. Believing that most often “the answers to a person’s dilemma are within that person”, the master coach uses these communication tools to assist their coachee in digging deep within to discover the answers that they need.    Let’s examine this coach’s toolchest in more detail.

The first tool of the coach as a confidant is having high expectations. The confidant sees something in us that we don’t see in ourselves. They have high expectations of us, and often help us rise to the level of these expectations. This is called the Pygmalion Effect – named after the play (Pygmalion) about Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle. Professor Higgins makes a bet that he can teach a poor flower girl to speak and act like a lady – and he makes good on his bet. Eliza becomes a polished English lady.

Studies by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobsen proved the truth of this Pygmalion Effect on students in the classroom.  In their study, they showed that if teachers were led to expect enhanced performance from some children, then the children often did show that enhancement.  In some cases such improvement was about twice that shown by other children in the same class. Similarly, studies by the Gallup Organization have shown that employees respond to the encouragement and appreciation shown them by their immediate manager.

Think of the impact you have on the people that you coach - whether you are their parent, teacher, colleague or manager. What are your expectations of your higher performers? You probably communicate those expectations to them through a combination of words and non-verbal communications. And in the same way, you communicate lower expectations to your lower performers. So raise your level of expectations and communicate that to those lower performers. Communicate in your words and your body language how much you believe in them. Let them know that you are there for them. One of the ways that you do that is through the way you ask questions and listen to them.

The second major tool of the coach as confidant is asking positive questions. Most coaches today are still locked into the old “problem-solving” mode of thinking. They ask negative questions, such as: “What’s wrong with you – why can’t you perform at a higher level? When will you ever get it right? Whose fault is it that you are performing this way?” These negative, “problem-focused” questions cause people to become defensive and give up. They cause people to shrivel up and die rather than grow and flourish.

Good coaches use positive questions, such as: “What do you really, really want? What will it take for you to get it? What resources are available to you to help you accomplish your goal? What would need to exist for you to produce at the level you’d like and achieve the goals that you want?” These kinds of positive, “solution-focused” questions bring out the best in people. They cause people to find the answers within themselves, and then rise up and meet the challenge. They are positive, motivating questions!

So think about the questions you are asking the people that you coach.    Make your questions forward thinking (solution-focused) rather than backward thinking (problem focused). Start your questions with the positive words “what” or “how” more often than with the negative words “why” or “who”. Get your people thinking about the possibilities of the situation rather than the problems.

A third major tool of the coach as confidant is being an effective listener. Great confidants know that most of the time, the answers that a coachee is looking for reside within them. After asking a good question, they become quiet and listen. And they listen actively. They encourage the talker with positive body language, such as nodding the head and smiling. They use verbal encouragers such as “Oh, I see”, and “That’s interesting”. They encourage the person to continue talking by phrasing good solution focused questions, starting with the words who and how. 

Good listeners also recognize the power of voice tone and non-verbal communications. They believe that more is being said by the tone of voice and the non-verbals than by the words that are being used. They learn to listen “between the lines” to the tone, gestures and body movements of the other person. 

And they use these clues to help the person get a sense of what they are really saying by playing back what they see and hear. “So I hear you suggesting that…” and “It seems to me that what you are thinking is…” are thought starters that the coach uses to continue the conversation. And they always confirm their hunches by asking something like: “Is that what you are saying/feeling/thinking?”

Through this process of asking good questions and listening, effective coaches are in essence guiding others to solve their own problems, come to their own decisions, and/or reach their own goals.  They truly are the “guide on the side” (confidant) rather than the “sage from the stage” (expert). 

So to become an effective confidant, practice using the tools that we have outlined in this article.    Learn to:
·         Have high expectations of others – and communicate those to them
·         Ask positive, solution-focused questions rather than negative, problem-focused questions
·         Listen actively to not only the words being said, but also to the voice tone and body language
·         Become a guide that helps others discover their own answers

As a person who learns to practice these tools of an effective coach, you might just find yourself on a list someday as a person who “saw more in somebody than they saw in themselves”. You truly will have become a confidant in the process!

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