20 March

Master the Soft Skills of Coaching

Coach Builder on a table

Adapted from Donald Miller’s Coach Builder: How to Turn Your Expertise Into a Profitable Coaching Career

To be a good coach we need to be good with people and, well, people are complicated.

When we talk about soft skills, we are really talking about the characteristics it takes for a coach to build trust with their clients.

As much as I believe in playbooks and frameworks, if you’re bad with people, your coaching business will fail. The better we are with people, the better “product” we will deliver as a coach. After all, coaching is, above all, a relationship with a client.

To start, though, let’s discuss a paradigm shift that many coaches who have gone before us have figured out over the years: You are not going to be close friends with your clients. Don’t get me wrong—in many ways, the kind of relationship you will have with your clients will be even closer than that of a friendship. The reality is, however, most coaching clients aren’t looking for a friend. What they’re looking for (perhaps without even knowing so) is a mentor, somebody who knows more than they do and can teach them what to do with the challenging situation they are in.

With that, let’s look at some soft skills that will help us deliver incredible coaching. Here are five characteristics great coaches have in common when it comes to building a trusting relationship.

Characteristic One: They Play the Guide

The sooner a coach accepts their responsibility as a guide in their clients’ lives, the more their clients will actually get out of the relationship.

What is a guide? A guide is the character in the story that exists purely to help the hero win.

The guide is important in a story because, without the guide, the hero would be lost. The guide, then, steps into the story and helps the hero know what to do, usually based on the guide’s backstory in which they conquered the very challenge threatening the hero today.

While the story is always about the hero, the hero is not the strongest character in the narrative. The guide, in fact, is the strongest character. The guide has overcome the hero’s fear, developed a plan, trained other heroes, and gives emotional support (and practical wisdom) the hero can use to win the day.

What are the characteristics of a guide? There are many, but here are the two that are the most important:

  1. They are empathetic: When we identify, understand, and are able to share in our clients’ frustrations, we create a bond with them that goes deep. As small business owners, our clients often feel overwhelmed and even trapped; otherwise, they likely wouldn’t have sought out our coaching. Statements such as “I remember when this happened in my own business. I was just as frustrated as you are right now . . .” go far to alleviate a sense of aloneness our clients might feel. As it relates to empathy with our clients, the overwhelming perspective we must have is this: Your pain is my pain.
  2. They are competent: As coaches, of course, we have to do more than just share in our clients’ pain; we have to help them find relief from that pain. After empathizing with our clients’ frustrations, we must be equipped to give them a plan that will resolve their frustrations and help them execute that plan.

As you help your clients resolve their problems, make sure to remember that, from you, they are looking for an empathetic authority figure who is both understanding and capable of helping them solve their problems.

Characteristic Two: They Don’t Rush the Process

One of the hardest coaching qualities to develop is patience. Because you already know what the client should do and how they should do it, you’re going to expect them to arrive at your next session having taken a giant leap forward only to discover they’ve hardly moved an inch. Wow. How can they possibly not have done their homework?

The main reason they are moving so slowly is because they are just beginning to understand the concepts you have been familiar with for years. As it relates to the information and assignments you are giving them, everything is new, and that’s okay. What may look like inches of progress to you could feel like miles to them. If you are patient with your clients, they will get to the results soon enough, but if you rush the process, they will likely grow weary and quit.

Along with being patient with our clients, we want to be persistent. Patience and persistence are not mutually exclusive characteristics. Though our client must move at their own pace, they must move forward or they will not benefit from our coaching. If it takes your client a month to write their mission statement, so be it. Let’s just make sure their mission statement actually gets written. While it’s okay to move slow, as coaches it is still our job to help our client produce results.

Characteristic Three: They Lead Their Clients on a Journey of Self-Discovery

We’ve all been there. We are able to see exactly what a client should do in order to experience a breakthrough, but the more we press, the less they move. Why? There are many reasons, including the fact that nobody likes to be pushed or controlled. The truth is, we can’t realize an idea for a client; they have to realize it themselves. What we can do, though, is share principles.

For instance, it is a principle that a small business should be focused on a series of economic objectives. This principle may seem obvious to you and me but it won’t be obvious to your client. In fact, in order to define their economic objectives and include them in their mission, they will need to realize the following:

  1. If they don’t start focusing on making money, their business is going to go under.
  2. They earn most of their profitable dollars off only a few of their products.
  3. If they talk openly about how the business makes money, their staff will start seeing the business as a business rather than an early retirement arrangement.

In addition to these ideas, the client needs to start “realizing” that specific products don’t make them the kind of money they thought they did and begin asking if certain products shouldn’t be dropped in favor of more profitable products.

They need to realize that they should not bear the revenue burden alone. They need to realize that they should be getting revenue projection reports. They need to realize that their administrative costs are too high. They need to realize a lot of stuff that, to you, is as plain as the nose on their face, a nose, by the way, that they cannot see because they’re looking over it.

If you think about it, all these ideas are difficult to realize. But it’s incredibly important the client realizes these things rather than just listens to you say them.

So how do you help a client realize these ideas for themself? You do so by asking questions: Do you think of your business as a business or do you have a nonprofit mindset when it comes to accomplishing your mission? What would happen if your entire staff understood how the company makes and spends money? What would happen if you dropped your least profitable products and allotted the marketing and sales energy you’re currently using on those products to the products that are really making you money?

These questions are much more powerful than marching orders. If we say to a client, “Look, drop your bottom three products and instead use that energy to focus on your top three,” the client will never realize the principle behind that action. If they don’t realize the principle behind the action, they never develop the business acumen it takes to succeed over and over again. Your job as a coach is to turn your client into a business athlete that can succeed at the highest level, and to do that you will need to help them realize the principles behind the frameworks.

The point is this: As coaches, we don’t teach as much as we help people realize certain truths for themselves. This, of course, changes our coaching conversations. We start asking more questions, we start telling more stories, we start affirming the indicators that they are beginning to understand what we are teaching.

Characteristic Four: They Create a Safe and Trusting Environment

Beware of assuming you know what’s going on in your client’s business and life. Because we’ve had so many coaching conversations, we often start filling in the blanks based on experiences we’ve had with other clients. But when we fill in the blanks rather than dig deeper to find out what’s really going on, our clients assume we aren’t listening and as a result won’t trust us.

Empathy matters for more reasons than just positioning yourself as a guide. Truly understanding and empathizing with your clients’ pain will also create a safe and trusting environment. Actively listening and asking questions such as “I hear you saying that you feel betrayed by members of your team—is that right?” will ensure that you aren’t assuming you know what’s going on but rather are attempting to completely understand what your client is struggling with.

Once you truly understand your client’s problem, it’s also important to take a nonjudgmental position. If a client senses we hold them in judgment, the relationship is likely over. To create a trusting relationship, think of your work broken down as follows:

  1. Listening, understanding, and verifying you understand your client’s problem: 50 percent of your coaching work.
  2. Affirming the client is not alone in their problem and that many others have experienced the same challenge: 40 percent of your coaching work.
  3. Offering advice, frameworks, and playbooks that solve your client’s problems: 10 percent of your coaching work.

If you remember that 90 percent of your job is to listen, understand, and “be with” your clients in their frustrations, the advice you give will actually be adopted, whereas if we don’t create a safe environment, the coaching we give will mostly be ignored.

Finally, as it relates to gaining a client’s trust, remember to always keep your confidentiality agreements and be loyal to those you coach.

Characteristic Five: They Affirm the Transformation of Their Clients

At the end of many movies, after the hero has won the day, bloodied though they may be, the guide steps back into the story to affirm the transformation of the hero. For instance, Lionel, the drama teacher in Tom Hooper’s Academy Award-winning movie The King’s Speech, tells King George that he will be a good king. Dr. Emmett Brown affirms the work Marty McFly does to save his family in Back to the Future. In the great sports film Rudy, a groundskeeper named Fortune offers encouragement and direction helping Rudy finally play in a game for Notre Dame, then returns to affirm Rudy’s transformation at the end of the movie.

All great stories are about the transformation of the hero from fearful to courageous, incompetent to competent, and even weak to strong. What’s interesting about stories, though, is they acknowledge that heroes can’t realize this transformation on their own.

Heroes need to be told by a proven and trusted outside source that they have indeed changed.

As your client grows in business acumen and stature, affirm their changes. When you do so, you will find that they live into those changes and, usually only after you affirm them, begin to fully demonstrate the new traits they have developed.

In addition to affirming the client’s transformation, celebrate their victories. When your client finally hits that revenue goal, write them a card or frame a memento and deliver it to them. Take them to dinner or buy them a gift. Many of the most accomplished people in the world are still looking for some kind of personal affirmation that acknowledges their accomplishments and transformation. Stopping to celebrate the victories your client has accomplished along with the transformation they have experienced will not only encourage your client, it will change the way they view themself and, as such, improve their lives forever.

Donald Miller with a copy of Coach Builder

There are, of course, a thousand more soft skills to discuss. The point of this chapter, though, was not to create a comprehensive list. Such an endeavor would be impossible. The point of the chapter is to stimulate some list making of your own.

Many coaches create their own top ten rules of coaching, and I think such a list is a good idea for all of us. A top ten list might look like this:

  1. Never assume you know the client’s problem.
  2. Never assume your client understood your coaching.
  3. Never break a client’s trust.
  4. Never make the story about you.
  5. Be accountable to help the client find a win.
  6. Demand engagement as part of the price of your coaching.
  7. Be fully present in every coaching session.
  8. Practice what you preach.
  9. Apologize and correct yourself when you are wrong.
  10. Affirm your client’s transformation at every level of their growth.

Creating your own personal list of rules is a terrific way to remember the importance of soft skills and to follow through on them in every session. If you create the rules yourself, you will be more likely to own them and put them into practice. If you think about it, the list is really about who you are deciding to be as a human being: a person of good character. For that reason alone, a list like the one above is incredibly beneficial to any coach. Not only this, it’s also a great assignment for your clients.

As much as I’ve emphasized the importance of frameworks, playbooks, and an overall road map for your clients, let’s not forget the soft skills.

When the frameworks and playbooks you offer are delivered from a trusted guide, they will be adhered to more completely, and as such will deliver the results your clients are looking for.

If you have experience growing a small business and want to leverage that experience to build a six, seven, or even an eight-figure coaching business, Coach Builder will give you a step-by-step playbook to make it happen.