How to Coach in a Virtual World
The past year has been one of those rare times in history when we have grappled with very similar personal pressures across countries and geographies. The common stories and shared experience of suddenly having to work remotely, being separated from family members and friends and not being able to go out or travel have united us across the world.
Over the last year, we have also witnessed a significant increase in coaching conversations as one of the most widely used methods to support leaders and people across the world. And like everything else, it has all taken place virtually! While virtual coaching is nothing new, there has been a shift from virtual being “optional” to virtual coaching being the “default” and a significant increase in the digital platforms and tools being used to coach.
For some coaches working virtually has been a new and a steep learning curve; for others, it has just been more of what we already do. ‘When I started I was quite anxious about the logistics of coaching virtually but once I had got into the routine of setting everything up in advance and knowing how I could cope if there was a tech failure I relaxed and started to enjoy it. I must admit I am a big fan. Virtual coaching allows me to coach clients across the world which I love. It is also very easy to fit in coaching sessions at different times of the day and from different locations provided you have a good internet connection. From a business point of view it makes sense too as there is no travelling time and no looking for the right venue for coaching both of which cost time and money.’
The virtual challenge: connection (not just a technological concern)
One important question I had when starting virtual coaching is whether I could build rapport and mutual trust, two essential ingredients in a successful coaching experience.
For many people, no longer going to an office or not engaging in social events as often, means that on some days they are dealing with the added challenge of feelings of isolation, a lack of belonging, missing the social interaction they have appreciated, and an overwhelm with rapid change and different expectations – elevating the importance of meaningful interactions with their colleagues, leaders and others in general.
With virtual working, and thus coaching here to stay, how do we elevate the virtual coaching conversation so that we create a greater positive impact on those involved?
By focusing on connection, co-creation and comfort it has proven that virtual coaching can work quite well and even become some people’s prefered method of coaching / being coached! As one client even attested: ‘she actually prefers virtual coaching: she finds it easier to prepare herself for the coaching sessions in her own home. She can make coffee and settles down in a comfortable chair before the session. She feels relaxed wearing her own informal clothing. It gives her a great sense of freedom and it feels like a very safe place. She feels the virtual connection provides all she needs from the other person to create a close connection with them. The rest – how tall the other person is, what their body shape is, what they are wearing etc. can even be a distraction for her when she meets them in person.’
I am not saying virtual coaching is all sunshine and roses. Looking into the screen you do not see the whole person from head to toe and you know very little about what is around them. But as far as I am concerned, and with a stable technology platform, it is more than enough to build a really strong rapport and trust between us because my coaching presence is similar whatever the medium. I feel I ‘know’ my virtual coaches really well even if I have never ‘physically’ met them.
Let’s have a look at the 3 ways to build that essential rapport and mutual trust:
Maintaining the human touch amid the high tech of the virtual environment has been one of the biggest challenges people have faced over the last year. In the past, conducting at least some early coaching sessions in person provided coaches with an opportunity to establish a deeper and stronger connection. Investing extra effort upfront to build that connection in a way that will work when a virtual environment is a must.
Tips for connection:
The past year has been an exciting time of discovery with new opportunities for virtual co-creation during coaching conversations using a variety of existing and new digital platforms and tools.
Elisa Mallis shares how one leader she was coaching suddenly expressed the need to get some of the ideas they were working on for a mind-mapping exercise onto a whiteboard. They were able to shift and use the whiteboard function in Zoom to co-create during the session and that proved to be one of their most powerful coaching sessions!
Tips for connection:
What techniques work with virtual coaching? You can use most of the same coaching techniques you use face to face!
To use the analogy of a duck, many leaders and people have appeared calm on the surface but have been paddling hard under the surface to keep up and stay afloat. No doubt some of the most powerful benefits of effective coaching often come through exposure to blind spots and pushing leaders/people to step out of their comfort zone. At the same time, ensuring comfort has been more important than ever over this past year in a virtual coaching environment. The virtual coaching experience can be especially uncomfortable for leaders/people who are new to coaching and may have mental barriers to exposing their issues, emotions and values through a two-dimensional screen.
In many coaching conversations over the last year, I’ve noticed that really being listened to and understood has been among the most beneficial aspects of coaching that people have not really been getting elsewhere.
Tips to create comfort:
When we find the right approaches to increase connection, co-creation and comfort in our virtual coaching conversations, many of the perceived challenges we initially had in mind diminish. We then can really leverage the broader long-term benefits of virtual coaching, which include bringing beneficial coaching conversations to more people across the world and, in turn, increasing the positive impact of those conversations for a more powerful ecosystem of human development.
Are you a fan or virtual coaching? Why? Why not? What are your top tips? What have you tried?