Being able to conduct coaching conversations is perhaps the most important and valuable leadership skill you can develop. Here are the 9 key elements that make coaching conversations so effective.

AS YOU may well have experienced for yourself, leadership usually involves a shift from being a subject matter expert (SME) who solves mostly technical problems, to being a leader who solves mostly people and performance issues. As you’ve probably noticed too, problems have a solution and go away. Issues, on the other hand, are ongoing. They advance slowly, step by step. A broken machine, for example, is a problem. Reducing downtime—in other words improving performance—is an issue.

As a subject matter expert with no leadership position, you’re more likely to solve a problem yourself. As a leader, you’re more likely to ask, or instruct, someone else to do it. In fact, this is a necessary indicator that you’re doing leadership right: that you’re getting other people to solve problems while you’re working on issues. (You might also get other people to work on issues, but at the very least you should not be solving problems, except sometimes.) This will ensure that everybody’s working at the right level, that nobody’s working at a level below where they should be.

Now, when you’re out there in the front lines, fixing a machine, for example, and especially if it’s an emergency, you don’t have to worry too much about how you say things. The job must get done, that’s what matters. As a leader, however, when your job is to reduce the incidence of broken machines altogether, and to improve the performance of people fixing the machines, the game changes. Most of your goals will be achieved through other people and people require conversation. The more skilled you are at having those conversations, the better you’ll be able to do your job, the better you’ll perform.

Coaching conversations are the key to being an excellent leader

Therefore, if you want to excel at being a leader, you’ll need to become skilful at having conversations. Some people have the “gift of the gab” and are naturals at it. They can read people, they seem to know what to say and, perhaps even more important, when to say it—they have a sense of timing, in other words. Most of us, however, need to learn these skills and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The practice of coaching has emerged in the past few decades and it can be said that coaching is a particular style of conversation, or a particular method of conducting a conversation skilfully. Most people who’ve experienced good quality coaching will attest to its efficacy and as a result, the coaching conversation has made its way into the leadership lexicon. In fact, these days, you may often hear business school people talk about the need to have a “coaching style of leadership”. That means conducting those conversations—which, as mentioned, are so much of what you do as a leader—using coaching-style techniques and practices and developing coaching competencies. Below you’ll find nine key elements that make coaching conversations so effective.

9 key elements of coaching conversations

1 Permission | You’re going nowhere without it

People have a deep need for autonomy. Therefore, they’re most likely to engage positively in a conversation when you’ve asked for their permission to have that conversation and they’ve agreed. Likewise, when you’re in the conversation, it works to ask permission to take it in a particular direction, rather than just going there.

If you’ve ever sat with a therapist, or doctor, or consultant who has their own idea of what you want to talk about, and that has nothing to do with what you want to talk about, you’ll know all about this. It’s frustrating. Coaching conversations never go off in a direction without the other person agreeing to go there. As a result, people are naturally more engaged, and the time is not wasted.

Example statements / questions:

  • “Can we have that conversation?”
  • “Do I have your permission to ask you some questions about that?”
  • “Would you like my suggestion?”

2 Clarity | Coaching conversations are nothing, if not clear

Often people have a different agenda, or a different idea about the reason for a conversation, or what the outcome should be. That’s like having two different maps of a city where neither one matches the actual terrain. You’ll argue and get lost and confused. Establishing the purpose of the conversation and making sure both people are on the same page ensures a successful outcome.

In coaching conversations, you’re always clear about the purpose of the conversation. Likewise, you’re always clear about the purpose of any statement within the conversation—that it’s serving the greater purpose and not wasting time or going nowhere. This maximises the probability that the conversation will produce a result.

Example statements / questions:

  • “What outcome shall we agree on for this conversation?”
  • “I’d like to see us resolve the bottleneck we seem to be experiencing on XYZ project. What would you like to get out of the conversation?”
  • “Let’s get clear on the outcome we both want from this conversation.”

A sense of genuine curiosity leads you to enquire more deeply into the other person’s thinking and motives.

3 Curiosity | It’s the “secret sauce”

Have you ever noticed that people seldom follow advice, no matter how good it may seem to the person giving it—especially if that happens to be you?! All those friends, colleagues and employees all just end up doing their own thing anyway. Then what do you do? You get frustrated, or shake your head in amazement.

In coaching conversations, you don’t fight that fact, you accept it. In fact, you assume it up front—that people will do their own thing and that’s OK. You assume that there’s some internal wisdom—or inevitable stupidity!—guiding their decisions and actions. A sense of genuine curiosity arises, which leads you to enquire more deeply into their thinking and their motives.

You could say that curiosity is the “secret sauce” that makes coaching conversations so effective.

Example statements / questions:

  • “That’s an interesting point of view. What other thoughts do you have about the situation?”
  • “Let me hear what you have tried / why you chose to do it that way.”
  • “I’ve told you how I see the situation, now let me hear from you.”

4 Self-exploration | The key outcome that makes all the difference

When people are led to explore their own thoughts—as a result of the other person practising genuine curiosity—they’re more likely to see their own faulty thinking, if it exists. And, because they see it for themselves, they’re more likely to recognise it, accept it as faulty, and take a different course.

When people feel heard in this way, they’re also more likely to listen to input. What very often happens is that they’ll come up with a solution that you would never have thought of, one that nobody had considered before.

Self-exploration is an outcome of genuine curiosity, and is why people experience coaching conversations as being so positive.

Example statements / questions (by the person responding in a coaching conversation):

  • “I see now that I might have done it differently.”
  • “I thought I had the answer, now I see that I need to do some more research.”
  • “I’m sure if I think about it some more, I’ll come up with a few answers.”

5 Questioning | You’ll never have a coaching conversation without it

The expression of curiosity is demonstrated by the asking of questions instead of making statements. Therefore, most coaching conversations are dominated by the presence of questions. In good coaching conversations, the person in the role of coach might spend as much as 90% of their speaking time asking questions versus making statements or giving advice. Once again, this means you won’t waste time or energy saying things that are unnecessary or that will go unheeded.

Example questions:

  • “What can you think of?”
  • “By when could you make that happen?”
  • “What could you still do today?”

When people are led to explore their own thoughts, they’re more likely to see their own faulty thinking, if it exists.

6 Possibility | Taking you places you never would have gone

When you approach a new project, your natural tendency is to start by looking at what resources you have available, and then planning your next steps from there, based on what you think you can do with those resources. Often this “ground-up” approach leads to a limited solution—or no solution at all.

Coaching conversations tend to go “top down”, in other words, to start with the end in mind. What’s the biggest or best possible solution you can think of, regardless of resources? Now work backwards, by asking, for example, “If that were possible, what would you have to put in place?” As you can imagine, this opens up new possibilities. That can result in bigger and better solutions—ones that would not have been thought of otherwise.

Example statements / questions:

  • “What if you had unlimited resources?”
  • “If you could have things exactly as you’d want them, what would you do?”
  • “What’s the best version of [the subject] that you could think of?”

7 Action | Coaching conversations always point towards action

Very often, people think about doing something and perhaps even decide that it’s a great idea, but then they don’t do it. Like the proverbial New Year’s resolution, they don’t follow through. Converting ideas into actionable plans is one of the key elements of coaching.

In coaching conversations, every awareness and insight, as well as every goal, is translated into action. This is a way of drawing ideas down into reality to ensure that they don’t remain in the intellectual realm, but rather are converted into actual results. The intended results are also made measurable so that self-deception can be minimised when performance is measured.

Example statements / questions:

  • “What action steps are needed?”
  • “Which actions will you take?”
  • “What will you do, and by when?”

8 Commitment | The source of energy and ideas—and results

A commitment is a decision that converts an idea into an action. Commitments create accountability. They also result in new ideas and have other positive consequences. For example, if you commit to submit a report by Friday, on Thursday night you’ll find yourself producing ideas and energy that you didn’t know you had!

In addition, adhering to one’s commitments builds self-efficacy and realism. Coaching conversations will always test for the level of commitment from the people who have decided or agreed to take action. This ensures that the person leading the conversation doesn’t get misled by mere intentions or false promises.

Example statements / questions:

  • “Are you committed, or just thinking about it?”
  • “What will you commit to?”
  • “Is that a wish, or a commitment?”

9 Accountability | An accountability loop is embedded into a coaching conversation

Many people hire a personal trainer at the gym for the sole purpose of having someone that they are accountable to for keeping their appointment. It acts on their conscience and gets them to keep to their commitment. Often, a life or executive coach is hired largely to fulfil this role. Leaders are also called upon to assume this role.

The ideal is for people to be able to answer to themselves, and good coaching conversations will instil this in the recipient, as long as there is always an accountability conversation following a commitment. This results in a higher level of organizational integrity.

Example statements / questions:

  • “Did you do what you said you would do?”
  • “What has happened since we last spoke?”
  • “Did you honour your commitments?”


Your job as a leader in the 21st Century is not to be the person who has all the answers and spends their time telling people what to do. That’s old school. Your job, now, is to nurture people’s talents and abilities, to increase their level of engagement, to get them inspired and thinking for themselves. Developing your ability to conduct coaching conversations is the most effective way to achieve that.


For more information and/or coaching on how to use coaching conversations to develop leadership skills, try any one of the following options:

  1. Read any one of the books in my Personal Effectiveness series, available in paperback and eBook formats. Details at this link.
  2. Sign up (or sign your people up) for an online self-coaching course at this link.
  3. Enquire about talks, workshops and one-on-one executive coaching at this link.