September 2012 Bar Bulletin
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September 2012 Bar Bulletin

Coaching Employees:

A Different Skill than Giving Advice

By Amy J. Stephson


Managers are often told to "coach" their employees for better performance or behavior. And they do. Many do it well, but others don't really know how to coach someone.

Why should they? It's a skill and like any other it must be learned. Many lawyers, however, think they know how to coach their employees because they're legal "counselors and advisors."

This is a mistake. Giving legal advice is very different from coaching. After many years as a lawyer, it still took me a year and a half of course work and 100 hours of coaching practice to become a certified professional coach. Why? Because, among other reasons, unlike a lawyer giving legal advice, the role of a coach is to help the client find his or her own solutions to the problem at hand.

Most lawyers, of course, do not have the time or inclination to do what it takes to fully develop their coaching skills. So here's a shortcut: a very brief lesson in: (1) how to listen and ask questions like a coach; (2) one useful coaching approach; and (3) tips about some common challenges.

Say What?

Coaching consists primarily of listening intently to what's said (and unsaid) and asking questions. Several types of questions are most effective:

(1) Open-ended as opposed to yes-no questions.

(2) Questions that begin with "What ...?" For example,

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