In my previous blog Why leaders who coach are more important now than ever, I made the case for the “coaching leader” – and shared my firm view that all leaders can coach, and can spot opportunities to have helpful coaching conversations in their day to day interactions. Indeed, I think that our very uncertain and high-pressure contexts make this essential.
What then is a helpful and practical way for leaders to prepare for and carry out spontaneous coaching conversations in an uncertain and ambiguous context? (Yes, you can and should prepare to be spontaneous; ask Improv comedians – or musicians, footballers or even surgeons for that matter!)
We think the PAIR process model, devised by Denham-Vaughn and Gawlinski (2012) for the busy clinicians and leaders in the UK National Health Service earlier in the decade, does the trick rather well. They recognized the popularity of problem-solving, coach or leader-led models like GROW*, and like us, wanted to find an equally easy to follow an approach which takes account of complexity and emergence, the importance of relationship and which employs awareness of the total situation and “life space”* to plan action.
The four phases of the PAIR model are:
P - Presence
A – Agreement
I – Intervention
R – Review
The model works both as a step by step process and as an iterative loop. Like good old GROW (which, by the way, sits quite happily in the “Intervention” phase of PAIR as one potential intervention).
We set out the phases in a little more detail below.
The PAIR process model:
Presence: In this phase, leaders are concerned with how they are turning up (to the conversation) – and what they do when they have arrived*. It is common for people in organizations to run from one meeting to the next: or in the current context to dial into one meeting after the next – without even moving from one space to another. As a result, they find themselves in a constant state of distraction. A good coaching conversation requires you as a leader to “bring all of yourself and your potential to this moment” (Chidiac 2008). In our Coaching Skills for Leaders Program, we encourage participants to develop some practices to help them to become present – and to experience the difference, even in the simplest interactions, between being with someone who is present and someone whose mind is elsewhere. We hold the view that change happens in a relationship – and if you are not fully present and open to the other person, the potential for change is greatly reduced.
Agreement: Denham- Vaughn and Gawlinski pose the question “Have you ever been offered advice that you didn’t really want? Or felt that someone who is trying to help you has missed what is really important about the issue for you?” Most of us have, haven’t we? In these moments we have the experience of being done to, and a little bit of us withdraws and waits for it to be over. These misunderstandings are an inevitable part of being in a relationship. The problem arises when we do not have a chance to talk about the misunderstanding. The question that coaching leaders need to explicitly ask themselves is “How confident am I that I am really being helpful to the coachee?”. This might lead them to explicitly ask the coachee about the purpose of the coaching or ways of working together in the coaching conversation. Alternatively, it might lead them to notice how the coachee is responding and how the relationship feels to them. How you ask the question matters. PAIR invites leaders into a more collaborative way of working together. With this in mind, questions like, “Is there anything you would like from me?” “Would it help if I..?” are encouraged over the more formal, definite, and formulaic, “What are you hoping to achieve?” “What is your goal?”
Intervention: We all have preferred ways of helping or “intervening”, drawing on our strengths and what makes sense to us. It is important for leaders who coach to be aware of their habitual styles of intervention, when these work well, and what the limitations might be. This kind of awareness opens up more choice (we have much less choice when we do things unconsciously of course). John Heron’s well-known intervention styles* provide a useful framework for leaders to review their habitual ways of helping. The important thing is whatever interventions you choose that you are fully present and that you are working with confidence that you are really being experienced as helpful! An ongoing process of checking and agreement is essential, as is letting go what turns out to be less helpful than you hoped.
Review: This is a key part of the “joint inquiry” orientation of coaching in complex contexts. The coaching leader must review the coaching throughout the conversation as well as at the end. This means that he can spot when things shift and emerge in the conversation. Denham- Vaughn, and Gawlinski suggest that reviewing means checking how the conversation has impacted the coachee and the meaning they have made of it. The coaching leader can explicitly ask about this (“What’s your thinking about this now?” “What are you taking from this conversation?”), and I would also encourage leaders to notice and take seriously, non-verbal signals about the impact of the conversation. For example, changes in breathing, energy levels, and so on. Coaching leaders can also pay attention to their own felt sense of the relationship (Let’s face it, we often know instinctively that something is having a positive or negative impact, we can trust or at least be interested in our own intuition). Of course, we might be wrong – but if we notice this felt sense, we can check it out.
This simple, practical model calls for practice, and there are some exercises that leaders can undertake to hone their coaching muscles. We are firm of the view, that this collaborative model of coaching can help leaders to empower, support, and develop colleagues to respond to today’s challenges and to anticipate and be ready for what will come tomorrow. Crucially, it is a way of leading effectively in our current version of the VUCA world.
The Ashridge Coaching Skills for Leaders program takes leaders through the PAIR model and equips participants with the skills and awareness to have effective coaching conversations, which enable people to bring the very best of themselves to their work, even in very uncertain and challenging contexts.