There’s a problem with virtual coaching: you aren’t there live as the coach! While that might seem obvious, not being face-to-face during a coaching session can be challenging. For starters, it’s challenging to read coachees’ body language to determine whether they are agreeing with, disagreeing with, or indifferent to your coaching. Second—and probably the biggest challenge—you can’t observe coachees on the job easily when you are coaching them from a distance.
Coaching is a deeply human experience, where communication is the foundation of the process. When you are virtually coaching someone, the technology adds a filter to the communication process. Recently, virtual coaching has become a standard practice, and technology has improved to the point that we are now able to see and hear coachees, show materials, and interact with them from a distance in new and unique ways.
Overcoming the Challenges of Virtual Coaching
Virtual communication is a skill. Having an in-depth developmental discussion with someone using technology doesn’t come naturally. Research shows that when we communicate, we use three key tools:
- Words – The actual words we choose to use are an obvious, important part of the communication process. Carefully planning what you want to say during a virtual coaching session can have a big impact! You need to be clear and concise with your words when coaching virtually.
- Tone – We speak and listen as part of the communication process. The way we modulate as we speak—speed up, slow down, get louder or softer—communicates a great deal of information. When you are doing this through the computer or phone, your voice can be muffled or not as clear as when you are live. So you need to ensure that your microphone and speakers are optimal and clear. Poor-quality microphones, like many built into laptops, can significantly detract from a coaching conversation.
- Body language – We transfer over half of the meaning and emotions we want to communicate to another person through our body language, which is challenging virtually. If you and your coachees turn on your cameras, you can see more of each other’s body language. While not as effective as being in person, it’s a good backup approach.
Evaluating Development from a Distance
As part of the coaching process, you must observe and evaluate the coachees’ application of what you are coaching. This can be challenging when you must do it from a distance. You may not be able to directly observe the coachees’ actions to evaluate their application of your coaching, but the following tips can help minimize this challenge:
1. Ask good discovery questions
You may not be able to observe coachees, but you can ask them to provide their own assessment and then as they do that, you can ask good discovery questions. Use open questions that ask them to describe what they did, how they did it, and the impact it had. When coachees paint complete and accurate pictures of their actions and the impact they had, you can provide good follow-up coaching.
If you are coaching a soft skill (communication, selling, or managing skills, for example) you can try to reproduce through a virtual role-play a recent situation in which coachees had to apply what you were coaching. This gives you a chance to observe how they approached the situation, what they did, and the impact the coaching guidance you gave them had on the situation.
3. Ask a third party
Ask someone who was present during the coaching situation to share his or her insight. You must be careful with this approach because the observer may feel like he or she is informing on the coachee, and you never want that to happen. Make clear that this is about helping the coachee, not about evaluating the person’s overall performance.
4. Observe virtually
If the situation lends itself to observing the coachee from a distance, this can be very helpful. For example, if you are coaching a coachee about how he or she facilitates a team meeting, log into the meeting virtually. The key to this technique is to ensure you don’t intrude and cause the coachee to act differently than he or she would normally.
The key to all four of these techniques is to make coachees feel comfortable sharing and acting as they normally do so you can evaluate what is happening and then coach them appropriately. Good coaching is based on a safe relationship in which coachees are open and candid with you.
Coaching from a distance is challenging. However, if you are patient and encouraging and provide coachees with a safe environment, you can accomplish it productively. Start by being mindful of the limitations technology places on the communication process and do everything you can to enhance it. Overcoming the challenges of getting a good read on coachees’ application of your coaching—or the lack thereof—will require ingenuity, effective communication, and good questioning skills.