How i approach Coaching


This year i’ve been on a journey of discovery into Coaching. My official job title is “Agile Coach” and as the title suggests a key part of the role is Coaching. This blog explores how i approach Coaching with the intention that my experience will help others interested in the topic.

What is Coaching?

This was a question that troubled me for many months. It’s not an easy question to answer. It’s something i’m still discovering but through constant reading and practice i’m much more informed than i was 12 months ago!

When someone asks me “What is Coaching?” i typically refer to this quote from the Inner Game of Tennis:

“Coaching is unlocking a persons potential to maximise their own performance.”

Timothy Gallwey

I like this quote because it really highlights that the Coaching focus is always on the Coachee.

In practical terms, Coaching is a conversation where the coach uses questioning to help the Coachee build awareness of how to tackle a goal or challenge.

In my experience the question “What is Coaching?” results in many different answers so it is important to address this question directly with the Coachee early on. This helps ensure there is a shared understanding within the relationship. I have often found that to begin with people think the process is similar to Mentoring. I’ve blogged recently the differences between Coaching and Mentoring.

Types of Coaching

Coaching conversations can happen any time. It doesn’t need to happen in a formal setting or in “official” coaching sessions. Don’t let this fool you through, Coaching is a structured practice that requires practice and continual improvement.

The types of Coaching i’ve done are:

  • One-to-One Coaching in designated “Coaching Sessions”, usually 45mins – 1hr
  • Informal Coaching, for example at the “Water Cooler”.
  • Group Coaching, usually a whole team – A common realm for an “Agile Coach”

Whilst i’m embedding more coaching into my daily interactions with people my journey really started with One-to-One Coaching sessions. These sessions provided a safe environment to learn. Let me explain further how Coaching works in these sessions.


When it comes to One-to-One Coaching sessions i generally have two types of engagement:

  1. People approach me directly asking for coaching towards a specific goal.
  2. I approach others to offer coaching. In this case i’m always clear that the offer can be refused!

When i first started, rather than advertise my coaching services publicly I wanted to get some experience and practice. I spent time discussing with others my own personal goal to develop coaching experience. Eventually i found a a handful of people who were interested in being coached. I intentionally tried to find people that worked outside of my immediate influence, so not my direct team, and also people that i felt would be receptive of coaching. For the early sessions this felt like a safe environment to learn.


One of the most universally known Coaching models is “The GROW Model” and it was one of the first models i used too:


The GROW Model is a simple structure for a Coaching conversation. Personally i’ve found it incredibly useful as a mental model during the conversation to help give it structure. I also share this model with the Coachee so that it gives them a picture of how the conversation will be structured.

Whilst this is a good start, there is much more to learn. In my experience although the GROW model provides a good structure and its a great place to start, the more subtle skills are much harder to master. For example:

These topics are blog posts on their own but for now i’d recommend checking out the linked resources.


Since my early coaching sessions the number of people i’ve coached has broadened considerably. One of the fascinating benefits of coaching is the opportunity to work with people on a varied set of goals. Here are some examples (provided with consent):

  • Someone who wanted to improve prioritisation
  • Someone who wanted to find an opportunity to use physics in their career
  • Someone who was seeking a Promotion
  • A Scrum Master who wanted to build trust within their team

Although these were the stated goals at the start of the coaching engagement often the Goal might become something else. For example, a Promotion is a good example of an end goal. During the coaching we may explore some related performance goals in the control of the Coachee that could contribute to the end goal.

In the above examples it’s important to be clear that the focus is to get the Coachee to a point where they are comfortable either their goal has been met or they have made enough progress that they are happy to continue their journey without the Coach. In the above examples the length of the coaching sessions ranged from 2 – 6 1hr sessions. This is in contrast to Mentoring where the relationship may last for a longer period of time.

Now Start Your Journey!

Hopefully this has provided you with some insight into what Coaching looks like. I’ve linked to lots of resources during the blog that have really helped me in particular these 5 books.

Facilitation using Ritual Dissent


I recently read Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed. In the book one of the topics Matthew explores is brainstorming. He talks about how an idea should be exposed to lively debate and challenge in order to refine the idea. Here is an extract from the book:

Perhaps the most graphic way to glimpse the responsive nature of creativity is to consider an experiment by Charlan Nemeth, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and her colleagues. She took 265 female undergraduates and randomly divided them into five-person teams. Each team was given the same task: to come up with ideas about how to reduce traffic congestion in the San Francisco Bay Area. These five-person teams were then assigned to one of three ways of working.

The first group were given the instruction to brainstorm. This is one of the most influential creativity techniques in history, and it is based on the mystical conception of how creativity happens: through contemplation and the free flow of ideas. In brainstorming the entire approach is to remove obstacles. It is to minimize challenges. People are warned not to criticize each other, or point out the difficulties in each other’s suggestions. Blockages are bad. Negative feedback is a sin.

The second group were given no guidelines at all: they were allowed to come up with ideas in any way they thought best.

But the third group were actively encouraged to point out the flaws in each other’s ideas. Their instructions read: “Most research and advice suggests that the best way to come up with good solutions is to come up with many solutions. Free-wheeling is welcome; don’t be afraid to say anything that comes to mind. However, in addition, most studies suggest that you should debate and even criticize each other’s ideas[my italics].”

The results were remarkable. The groups with the dissent and criticize guidelines generated 25 percent more ideas than those who were brainstorming (or who had no instructions). Just as striking, when individuals were later asked to come up with more solutions for the traffic problem, those with the dissent guidelines generated twice as many new ideas as the brainstormers.

Today i facilitated a brainstorming session where we applied this principle using an approach called Ritual Dissent. Here is how it worked:

Context: We had 3 Groups. Each group had an idea which they felt would solve a particular problem we are facing.

  1. Each group nominates a Spokesperson
  2. Spokesperson rotates to one of the other groups which now becomes the reviewers
  3. Spokesperson presents the idea to the reviewers (~3 Minutes) (Silence from the reviewers)
  4. Spokesperson turns around and faces away (Silence from Spokesperson)
  5. Reviewers attack (dissent) or improve (assent) the ideas (~3 Minutes) (Whilst this happens the Spokesperson records the feedback)
  6. Spokesperson returns to their original group
  7. Group decide what to do with feedback (~6 Minutes)
  8. Repeat 1 – 8 until ideas suitably refined or ditched

Some feedback points from the session were:

  • “It was good to present my idea without getting interrupted.”
  • “When we were reviewing the idea it helped that the person turned around, it made it feel less personal.”
  • “We got lots of feedback on our idea.”
  • “Our ideas are in a much better position.”

You can read more about Ritual Dissent here


Are you really Coaching?


I recently read “Brilliant Coaching” by Julie Starr. The book explores practical ways you can apply Coaching in the workplace. She provides great examples how you can apply a Coaching style moving from Directive leadership to empowering others(Self Directed)

In the book Julie presents a model; the Scale of Influence. This can be used as a model to build self-awareness in your Coaching conversations.


Scale of Influence: Brilliant Coaching, Julie Starr

In a Coaching conversation we may use different levels of influence but we want a good coaching conversation to be more self-directed (left of hand side of the model). In particular Julie recommends that new coaches should try to avoid giving advice or instruction at all.

I’ve recently started using this model to reflect upon the conversations I have with people around me. It has helped to identify times where I could have taken a less directive approach.

As many of my blog readers are Testers I’ve translated what the model might look like in Testing context. For example a conversation between a Tester and a Developer on deciding how to test a particular User Story.


This is a good way to reflect upon the conversations you have with people and understand “Are you really Coaching?”

Next time you are engaging in a Coaching conversation use this model and reflect:

  • How often do you tell someone else what to do?
  • How do you feel listening to someone share an idea when you think there is a better approach? How often do you follow with an opinion rather than asking further questions?
  • When you feel you are the expert, how often do you refrain from sharing advice and ask a question instead?
  • How does silence make you feel?

5 Books about Coaching


A common question i get asked is “What Coaching books do you recommend?”

Here is a short list of some Coaching Books i’ve read and some that are on my reading backlog.

1. Coaching for Performance: Growing People, Performance and Purpose


What i liked?

  • This book explores the popular GROW Model
  • There are some great chapters about crafting good goals
  • Explains well what Coaching actually is
  • For many this is the go-to book about modern coaching techniques. A best seller thats been around for many years.

Recommended for: Anyone new to Coaching


2. The Coach’s Casebook: Mastering the Twelve Traits that Trap Us

41+I4lOgqEL._AC_UL320_SR216,320_What i liked?

  • Very practical examples of coaching conversations
  • Real Life Case Studies from high profile and famous figures
  • Easy to relate to (I often found personal examples in each of the traits)
  • Promotes Coaching Supervision which was a concept that was new to me until i read this book

Recommended for: Scrum Masters (Co-Author Geoff Watts also Authored Scrum Mastery)


3. Time to Think: Listening to ignite the human mind

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What i liked?

  • This book has had a dramatic impact of my coaching approach
  • It will fundamentally challenge you
  • Excellent examples and well written
  • Case Studies towards the end of the book of how to apply the Thinking Environment are very interesting.

Recommended for: People involved in organisational change



4. Coaching Habit: Say less, Ask more & Change the way you lead

Coaching-HabitWhat i liked?

  • Simple and accessible introduction to Coaching
  • Suggests some power Coaching questions such as the AWE question
  • Techniques can be applied straight away
  • Does not promote a rigid process but looks at how coaching can be built as a habit in everything you do

Recommended for: Managers



5. Art of Coaching


What i liked?

  • Visual!
  • Covers many core coaching concepts but using visual aids
  • Provides great inspiration of how to apply visual techniques to coaching.
  • Techqniues for both individuals and the team

Recommended for: Experienced Coaches looking for new ways to engage clients



Some more books on the backlog:

XP2016 – Katherine Kirk – Herding Cats: Coaching Techs and Execs


One of the best talks at XP2016 was from Katherine Kirk @kkirk. If you happen to be at a conference where she is speaking make sure you attend!! Katherine was one of the most engaging and entertaining speakers I’ve seen for a long time.

Insight Facilitation

In Katherine’s talk she introduced us to the concept of Insight Facilitation. Katherine talked about the importance of enabling people to figure out their own solutions in complex adaptive situations. Often “Agile Coaching” is about Process Education. This might appear to have some early success but once the big problems happen the teams are unable to adapt to the changing world around them. Through Insight Facilitation we want to empower people to handle these situations on their own.

It isn’t easy

As Coaches we can often fall into dysfunctions which can be damaging for the people within our organisations. Katherine talked about 3 common dysfunctions:

  1. Comforter“Trying to make people happy”
  2. Controller“Being the person who always knows best”
  3. Coercer “Leading the witness to your conclusions rather than their own”

These dysfunctions can lead to the following problems:

The Journey

Taking a Coaching approach can lead to interesting reactions from people. Katherine gave an example of an executive who joined a new company and during the early months people would come to his office asking for advice on how to solve problems, his response: “What do you think you need to do?” The simple act of asking this question was promoting empowerment of the individual and ownership.

This example made me think of a book I’ve been reading recently which is all about asking powerful questions; “The Coaching Habit: Say less , Ask More & Change the way you lead forever“. In particular the  book talks about the‘AWE’ question which is incredibly powerful to help explore other possibilities. AWE = And What Else?

Katherine also shared the different reactions she has seen and the journey people take through Coaching which I thought summed it nicely:

Excellent talk and great learning points about Coaching.

Thank You Katherine!

Some of my other posts from XP2016 are here:


When to Coach and When to Mentor


Until recently i hadn’t thought much about the differences between Coaching and Mentoring. I’ve come to learn there are big differences and most recently started thinking about: When to Coach and When to Mentor?

What is Coaching?

The definition i’ve been using most recently is from Timothy Gallway:

“Coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.”

What is Mentoring?

In my research for a sound definition i came across a good collection of definitions on the Coaching Network

One that stood out to me was:

“Mentoring involves primarily listening with empathy, sharing experience (usually mutually), professional friendship, developing insight through reflection, being a sounding board, encouraging” – David Clutterbuck

So what are the differences?

This is not an uncommon question. Look through google and you’ll find many people who have asked the same question. One of the top results i came across is from Brefi Group

Mentoring Coaching
Ongoing relationship that can last for a long period of time Relationship generally has a set duration
Can be more informal and meetings can take place as and when the mentee needs some advice, guidance or support Generally more structured in nature and meetings are scheduled on a regular basis
More long-term and takes a broader view of the person Short-term (sometimes time-bounded) and focused on specific development areas/issues
Mentor is usually more experienced and qualified than the ‘mentee’. Often a senior person in the organisation who can pass on knowledge, experience and open doors to otherwise out-of-reach opportunities Coaching is generally not performed on the basis that the coach needs to have direct experience of their client’s formal occupational role, unless the coaching is specific and skills-focused
Focus is on career and personal development Focus is generally on development/issues at work
Agenda is set by the mentee, with the mentor providing support and guidance to prepare them for future roles The agenda is focused on achieving specific, immediate goals
Mentoring resolves more around developing the mentee professional Coaching revolves more around specific development areas/issues

There are a number of things that stand out for me here. In particular:

  • Mentoring is generally long term whilst Coaching usually has a set duration focused around a specific goal
  • Mentoring involves  the mentor offering advice, usually from a more experienced stand point. Coaching is the opposite, the Coach will avoid offering advice and enable the Coachee to reach their own understanding through powerful questions.

The Agile Coach as Mentor and Coach

Part of the Agile Coach role is to Mentoring and Coaching. I recently attended an Adventures with Agile meet up where Lyssa Adkins and Michael Spayd spoke about the Agile Coaching Competency Framework:


You can see Mentoring and Coaching are two elements of the framework. As an Agile coach this creates an interesting challenge: When to Coach and When to Mentor? 

When to Coach and When to Mentor?

My initial thoughts are that everyone can probably benefit from both. However at various times maybe the person might need more of one than the other.

Recently i’ve been coaching many people across my organisation. As part of any coaching engagement i’ll start by establishing what the individual knows about Coaching. Often it will become apparent that they are explaining a Mentoring relationship (Long term, advice based, sharing experience). That’s a good opportunity to explain the differences. In this situation it’s good to talk through the differences and assess the needs of the individual. In most cases there is room for both coaching and mentoring.

This creates another dilemma for the Agile Coach; can you coach and mentor the same individual? My view is that the coach should help the individual find a suitable mentor outside the coaching relationship. This enables clearer boundaries for the coaching sessions. A good example would be finding an experienced developer to pair with someone more junior.

I’d love to hear if anyone else has encountered this question of When to Coach and When to Mentor.

Present Moment Coaching


On Thursday 21st April I attended a “Life Coaching” Meet Up called “Present Moment Coaching” hosted above The Engineer Pub in Primrose Hill, London. I wasn’t really sure what to expect but it was an interesting evening.

What happened?

There were around 12 attendees at the Meet Up. A mixture of Professional Coaches, Students studying Coaching and even a fellow Software Tester.

To kick off we went around the group to share “What is coaching to you?”

In my previous blog posts i’ve explained that i’m exploring deeper into my understanding of Coaching so it was good to hear thoughts from a varied group of people. Answers included “Helping unlock an individuals potential”, “Thinking from the heart not mind”, “Not giving advice or your opinion”. During the early discussion we also explored the difference between counselling and coaching which we talked as; Coaching = Looking at the future vs Counselling = Looking at the past.

Present Moment Coaching

Following introductions we did the first exercise.

“In this Meet Up we will learn the art of Present Moment Coaching.  Present Moment Coaching is a a very simple method to help clients  to take back possession of their life as well as being a remarkable and effective way to  self coach.”

In the exercise we all practiced being “Present” for a few minutes. Dan, the meet up organiser talked us though some techniques. Once time was up we shared experiences amongst the group. These included:

  • Became more comfortable with surroundings
  • Focus on your breathing helped
  • Became more aware of body
  • Let things be – e.g Noise in the room. Acceptance.
  • More aware of tiredness
  • Noise of the pub reminded some of their childhood
  • Overhwleming sense of joy and happiness

Coaching in Pairs

Following this exercise we moved onto the second part of the Meet Up where in pairs we had the opportunity to practice coaching and being coached.
This exercise was really valuable. It was good to be able to practice coaching in a safe environment.
My key take aways:
  • My questioning skills in a coaching situation can be improved. I felt i was missing “Powerful Questions”
  • My listening skill has improved recently. I’ve been studying the work of Nancy Kline and this has helped massively.
  • I wasn’t sure when to offer solutions and ideas. Through the discussion after the coaching session we talked that as a coach we should avoid offering solutions.

My first experience of a “Life Coaching” Meet Up was pretty interesting. The opportunity to practice coaching and get other perspectives with other Coaches was really good.

See you at the next Meet Up?

Present Moment Coaching

Thursday, May 26, 2016, 7:00 PM

The Engineer Pub
65, Gloucester Ave, Camden London, NW1 8JH, GB

18 Coaches Attending

The Coaching Exchange is a place to meet and exchange coaching with others.Present Moment Coaching is exploring with your client what is happening for them in the present moment. Often we seek to ignore what is happening now because it means being with our discomfort.Our normal reaction is to judge our discomfort or do something so as we do not fe…

Check out this Meetup →


Agile Coaching Exchange – Kim Morgan


This week I attended Agile Coaching Exchange meet up in London. The guest speaker for the evening was Kim Morgan of Barefoot Coaching who is co-author of “The Coach’s Casebook: Mastering The Twelve Traits That Trap Us”

Principles of Coaching

Kim introduced us to some of the Key Principles of Coaching:

  • Listening to ignite the human mind
  • Presupposing success
  • Leveraging Motivation
  • Understanding Transformation
  • Use of emotion and creativity
  • Coach as instrument of change

Dynamics of Personal Change

Kim explained that transformational change is almost always linked to strong emotion.

A typical journey towards transformation includes:

Kim also introduced to us the thoughts of Jack Mezirow who is widely acknowledged as the founder of transformative learning. Two situations that give rise to transformative learning are:

  • A disorientating dilemma
  • A state of puzzlement

In contrast we also looked at Peter Jarvis work which explores Non-Transformative situations which are everyday things that require no learning:

“Non-learning is our response to everyday experience. As long as experience conforms to our mental models, no learning is required.”

We also looked at common motivators for individuals. We either move towards pleasure or away from pain.

Coaching Cards

The first practical exercise of the evening introduced us to Coaching Cards. We used the Barefoot Coaching Picture Cards

Each person was asked:

  1. “Think about a time in your life where you experienced a significant change.”
  2. Select a picture card that represents that change
  3. In pairs, share the experience and why you chose that picture

Feedback following exercise:

  • Pictures acted as a bridge to get thoughts out into the real world
  • Our minds make a mental connection to the picture
    • This demonstrates “Physcological Projection” which was conceptualised by Freud.
  • Picture cards could be used for Sprint Retrospectives “Pick a picture card that you feel  represents this sprint.”


Next Kim introduced us to deep and bold listening citing much of Nancy Kline’s work in Time to Think


She talked about listening as a belief not a behaviour. Interestingly there is scientific proof that genuine listening from another person generates the feeling of being in Love. Listening is a skill that many of us struggle with. How often are people interrupted in your workplace?
An interesting example  presented was from Doctors surgery. GPs thought they listen for 3 minutes when a patient first arrives into their surgery. In reality it was 20 seconds. This essentially led to longer consultation time and patients feeling like they weren’t understood. If the GP listened for longer they would have shorter consultations and patients reported better experiences.

To demonstrate the importance of listening we did another practical exercise.

In pairs do the following:

  1. One person assume the role of Listener
  2. One person assume the role of Thinker
  3. Listener asks “What do you want to think about today?”
  4. The thinker than has 5 minutes of uninterrupted thinking time. The listener cannot respond in anyway.

Feedback following exercise:

  • Thinker talks like the other person wasn’t there
  • Silence is good! Don’t fill the space with talking
    • PAUSE is very effective!!!
    • Think WAIT:
      • Why
      • Am
      • I
      • Talking
  • Helps to understand without interjecting. Our understanding of the other person isn’t so shallow if we listen for longer
  • When listening Body language important – Use it to express interest but avoid leading the session through body language

Want to explore coaching further?

I’d highly recommend getting “The Coach’s Casebook: Mastering The Twelve Traits That Trap Us” It is full of lots of real examples and exercises.