Employee Development

Coaching Conversations: A Practical Guide to Empowering Employees

Smiling woman in conversation with coach

If your organization is not conducting coaching conversations between managers and employees, you’re missing out on an opportunity to significantly improve employee performance. A coaching culture increases employee engagement, job satisfaction, performance, and collaboration. Coaching is central to improving the performance of entire teams.

What Is Coaching?

Coaching conversations empower employees through encouragement and teaching. When managers coach, they reinforce strengths and explore challenges with the employee. Successful coaching guides employees towards success but promotes independent thinking and collaboration to overcome obstacles.

View our infographic to see the top skills needed to turn your managers and leaders into coaches: From Manager to Coach: 7 Development Tips

Common Topics for Coaching Conversations

Topics that are frequently addressed in manager-employee coaching conversations are:

  • Onboarding
  • Time management
  • Missed deadlines
  • Overworked or overwhelmed employees
  • Problem solving
  • Goal setting
  • Obstacles
  • Performance

How to Coach 

Whether a coaching conversation is part of weekly meetings or set up separately, managers should always schedule a time to follow up with the employee. A follow-up meeting ensures accountability and allows the managers to check-in or the employee to ask further questions.

No two coaching conversations will be the same, even if it is regarding the same topic – so it can be hard to prepare for these chats with employees. To ensure coaching conversations are positive and effective, ensure managers are asking open-ended questions.

If the employee feels lectured by the manager, they may shut down or become unresponsive. Questions help the employee dive deeper into what they are feeling. By the manager asking questions, often the employee discovers new ideas and solutions themselves, instead of being told what to do.

Managers should be leading the employee to a solution, not telling them what to do.

So, what questions should managers be asking of their employees? The GROW model is a popular technique for structuring coaching conversations. GROW stands for: Goal, Current Reality, Options, and Way Forward.

The GROW Model

Each stage within the GROW model has specific meaning.

Goal: Decide where the employee is going

Reality: Establish where the employee is currently at

Options: Together the manager and employee explore different routes

Way Forward: The employee commits to the journey of how to solve the problem

Using the Grow Model for Coaching Conversations

Establish the Goal:

Together the manager and employee need to decide what the employee needs to or wishes to change – this is the goal. If the employee needs help with setting goals, have their managers remind them of the SMART goal method. Check out our video lesson on setting specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely goals below.

Questions to ask:

  • How will you know this goal has been achieved?
  • What is your ideal outcome?
  • What results are you hoping to achieve? Why?

Understand the Current Reality:

It’s hard to solve the problem without looking at the starting point. The solution may start to arise as the employee describes their situation.

Questions to ask:

  • How would you describe the situation?
  • What advice would you give someone in your shoes?
  • What have you tried already?

Discuss Options:

Determine all the possible options of achieving the goal. Employees should start by sharing their possible solutions followed by any ideas the manager may have.

Questions to ask:

  • What else could you do?
  • What if this or that constraint were removed? Would it change things?
  • What are advantages and disadvantages to these options?
  • What obstacles stand in the way?
  • What do you think is the strongest solution?

Commit to a Way Forward:

You have now explored the potential solutions. Now it’s time to lock one in. Help the employee establish their way forward.

Questions to ask:

  • What steps can you take today/this week to resolve the problem?
  • What obstacles might you come across?
  • How can we eliminate them?
  • Who else on the team could help you?
  • How can I help you?

Coaching Conversation Sample

Since all coaching conversations are different, we don’t know how the employee is going to respond to the manager’s questions. But we’ve put together this sample coaching conversation to give managers a general idea of how to ask questions in response instead of telling employees what to do. 

Sam (Employee): Thanks for making time to meet with me, I wanted to talk to you about my struggle with managing my time well.

Kristin (Manager): Not a problem, this is what I’m here for. How did you come to the conclusion this is a problem?

Sam: I have lots of different projects going on simultaneously. I feel like if I don’t jump around to each project often, then they get put off and I don’t get them done. I know I have to get it all done, but I’m struggling with prioritization as there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

Kristin: I understand your struggle. What would you consider success in solving this problem?

Sam: Being able to get everything assigned to me done in a timely fashion.

Kristin: What steps have you taken already to solve this issue?

Sam: I have made a list of everything I need to accomplish. When I got done writing the list it just looked daunting.

Kristin: Okay, what do you think your options are to solve this problem?

Sam: Ask for less workload, ask for help, work more hours to get it done, set boundaries, or make a schedule.

Kristin: Those are mostly all plausible solutions, Sam. Which do you think would be the best solution for you?

Sam: Asking you and my team members for help.

Kristin: That sounds like a great idea! I think we could add more hands to help you accomplish tasks. Who would you like to help you?

Sam: I think Hunter would be a great help on the project for Sales and Savannah could help with copyediting.

Kristin: I think that sounds like a good idea, what is your next step?

Sam: I can send them a message this afternoon asking if we could set up a time to chat to see if they’d be willing to help.

Kristin: That sounds like a great solution. Let’s set up a time next week to follow up and see how you’re feeling then.

Sam: Thank you.

Best Practices for Better Coaching Conversations

Avoid closed-ended questions: Notice, none of the sample coaching questions were closed-ended, something that could be answered with yes or no. A coach should generally avoid these questions because they don’t lead the conversation to any discoveries. The coach should be pulling information out of the employee by diving deeper.

No stacked questions: Managers should not ask more than one question at a time. An example of a stacked question could be: “What time did you clock in this morning? Why were you running late?” Only ask one question at a time. The problem with stacked questions is that the manager may not get the answers they are looking for and may instead overwhelm the employee.

Don’t interrupt, jump to conclusions, or fill quiet time: Encourage your managers to allow the employee time to think. If there is silence while the employee is thinking, instruct the manager to allow it, don’t interrupt or try to further explain the question.

When you educate your managers on effective coaching skills it can really start impacting business results. Learn more in our ebook, Developing the Coaching Skills of Your Managers and Leaders!

Training & Development Industry Researcher | Caroline researches and writes about the impacts of employee learning on organizations and individuals. She looks at L&D and HR issues and industry trends and helps them understand how to create better training programs that grow their employees and their business.