Step 2 in Coaching Conversations: Understanding Leads to Insights

Many managers fail to coach their people, preferring to fix problems and suggest solutions. They don’t take the time to have coaching conversations in which they ask provocative questions. As a result, managers don’t coach and fail to teach people to think things through.

I’ve been writing a series about a checklist for initiating coaching conversations. One such framework is found in the book by John H. Zenger and Kathleen Stinnett, The Extraordinary Coach: How the Best Leaders Help Others Grow, (McGraw-Hill, 2010).

  • F = Frame the Conversation. Set the context by agreeing on the discussion’s purpose, process, and desired outcome.
  • U = Understand the Current State. Explore the current state from the coachee’s point of view. Expand the coachee’s awareness of the situation to determine the real coaching issue.
  • E = Explore the Desired State. Help the coachee to articulate a vision of success in this scenario. Explore multiple alternative paths before prioritizing methods of achieving this vision.
  • L = Lay Out a Success Plan. Identify the specific, time-bounded action steps to be taken to achieve the desired results. Determine milestones for follow-up and accountability.

If a manager uses coaching conversations to grow and develop her people, she will benefit from staff who are more engaged in their work. To avoid conversations from derailing into project updates, however, a checklist for coaching is useful.

The first step is to set up the conversation, what the issue is, what the purpose of the talk will be, and how the manager and employee will proceed.

The next step in a coaching conversation is to address the “meat” of the issue. Managers need to understand what’s going on. This part can be tricky because of our natural tendency to assume we already understand what the issues are. We fill in the blanks and automatically judge–usually prematurely.   Instead, a manager needs to listen well and encourage the coachee to talk. Explore what the real challenge is for her. Be curious about what is said or merely implied. Follow emotional cues.

Here are some great pointers from the Zenger and Stinnett book.


  • Ask open-ended, non-leading questions
  • Act as a mirror, observe, and say what you hear and see
  • Follow up on emotionally charged words or expressions
  • Explore what the real issue or challenge is
  • Discuss consequences in the event things don’t change


  • Assume anything
  • Judge, criticize, or categorize
  • Ask for too many details or focus on other people
  • Let the person obsess or ruminate; rather let her explore possibilities
  • Offer your perspective or advice until the person has explored options
  • Find an answer for the person; let him discover insight and awareness

People won’t change until they experience a need to change, and if a manager is too helpful, the coachee won’t feel enough tension to be motivated to change. Keep the focus on them and what they need—and are willing—to do differently.

In your work do you use any checklists? I’d love to hear from you. I can be reached here and on LinkedIn.