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What Makes a Good Coach? Compassion, presence, communication and more…

  July 12, 2021

What makes a good coach? Is it a certificate? Is it multiple years in practice? Is it a particular school? Some would say all of the above; others would demur, and search for the definition and meaning elsewhere. There are multiple competencies a coach has that are similar to those possessed by a nurse. These competencies include Presence, Empathy, Communication, Humility, Ethics, and more. Stated simply, a good coach, like a good nurse, must have compassion.

Establishing Coaching Presence

To be a good coach, the essence of our presence must create a psychologically safe environment the moment the client looks into our eyes. In that moment, the client is trying to determine, can I take a risk and share my thoughts, fears, and intimate details with this coach? As a nurse, I know and understand this concept well. A patient’s life often depends on the psychological safety they feel to tell a nurse that they have not been able to sleep, cough, urinate or move their bowels.

They will tell a nurse details they won’t tell their doctor, just like a client will tell their coach details they won’t share with their spouse, partner or significant other. For the patient recovering from a major operation, who is reluctant to share the intimate details stated above, it can be the difference between insomnia, pneumonia, constipation, a heart attack or worse. During the coach-client relationship, what can be the impact of a client’s reluctance to share details related to them recovering from a major life event?

It is well known that the eyes are the window to the soul. A less known fact is that the word compassion is derived from the Latin word compati and means “suffer with.” For a nurse to suffer with a patient, they must demonstrate empathy, for it is foundational to a nurse’s success. Empathic listening is at the heart of the patient experience; the nurse who shows it is more often than not able to satisfy the personal and practical needs of the patient, their family and friends. Empathic responses of a coach to the client’s moods, emotions and concerns may have a number of beneficial results to include:

  • Strengthening the relationship with the client.
  • Identifying the real challenge of what the client wants to discuss.
  • Determining what the client wants to achieve in the session or afterward.

The first step in empathic listening is to stop having the conversation in your head. The second step is to pause 15 to 18 seconds after you ask the client a beautifully powerful question; let silence do its work while they ruminate over the question. How well do you use empathic listening skills during the coach-client interaction?

To be a good coach, we must hone one of the key essentials to the coaching profession: our ability to communicate. The word communicate is also derived from a Latin word that means “to share.” As a teenager, my mom told me, “Son, you have two ears and one mouth for a reason.” Her sage advice serves me well as a nurse and as a coach. For active communication to occur, the coach must share the airtime with the client. George Bernard Shaw received many notable awards in his life, including the Nobel Prize for literature. He is quoted as saying, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

What communication skills would improve your coach-client interactions?

Psychologically Safe Coaching Environment

A psychologically safe coaching environment creates a climate whereby the client is trusting the coach to do the right thing. Trust and communication are inseparable. Like the wings of a bird, both are needed for effective flight to occur. Otherwise, like a bird, our conversation flounders, and never gets off the ground. When is the last time you saw a one-winged bird take flight? Once trust is established, the client will be comfortable enough to communicate freely and have the courage to take risks with minimal fear of shame or embarrassment. The relationship can get off the ground, take flight and SOAR!

A good coach develops an atmosphere of trust by practicing cultural humility, recognizing the humanity of the client, treating them with dignity and always, always, ALWAYS maintaining or enhancing the client’s esteem during the session.

What coaching technique do you use to build and maintain an environment of trust?

A trustworthy nurse does the right thing and demonstrates ethical behaviors. In America, or American hospitals around the globe, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) established a national standard to protect personal information and data collected and stored in medical records. It is to be used in doctors’ offices, hospitals and businesses where personal medical information is stored. Nurses understand the importance of protecting a patient’s confidential information.

Professional coaches agree to honor ethical obligations when coaching clients, colleagues and the public at large. We pledge to comply with the International Coach Federation (ICF) Code of Ethics to recognize the humanity of every human being, and to model the standards with those we coach. This is true of business coaches, life coaches, and professional coaches: we set the standards.

Developing Best Practices

A skilled coach, like a skilled nurse, must attend conferences, collaborate with like-minded colleagues, join professional groups, and acknowledge that every good coach needs a good coach! This includes staying current on industry best practices, similar to reading Choice Magazine, or books like The Coaching Habit Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever.

An experienced coach is a leader. True leaders understand that you cannot lead where you won’t go, and you cannot teach what you don’t know! I learned this as a Senior Drill Sergeant in the U.S. Army. In short, this means I must be transparent during the coaching conversation, willing to check my ego at the door and be vulnerable to the learning experience. I must enter into each session presenting with curiosity and a sense of wonder.

Every Intensive Care nurse-leader enters a patient’s room with the same sense of wonder. To build rapport with patients, the nurse-leader asks themselves: Who is this human I’m about to encounter, and have I properly introduced myself, my credentials, and my purpose for holding this sacred space with them? How awake, alert and aware is this person; what is the quality and method of their breathing; is it room air, nasal cannula, or intubation tube? Why is this tube here? Where are these intravenous lines snaking under the covers leading to? And, if possible, when and how has this person gotten out of bed or gone to the bathroom to restore their personal comfort level?

What are you doing to keep up with coaching best practices?

In John C. Maxwell’s book, Good Leaders Ask Great Questions, he informs readers that “… the word question is derived from the Latin root word quaerere, meaning ‘ask’ or ‘seek’…” Coaches and nurses ask powerful questions, searching their minds for the right one to help a person create awareness, have an “aha” moment, or even better, an existential experience. Dr. Bernadette E. O’Connor teaches philosophy at the University of Incarnate Word, San Antonio, Texas. She defines an existential experience as: “A privileged momentary intuition in which we take in reality in a way that is deeper, more complete and more unified than we usually do; it is a felt intuition of the basic unity of everything that is.”

A disciplined coach asks themselves, “What’s the best use of my time right now?” “How do I serve the client in the limited time we share?” “What tools do I have to achieve this Herculean task?”

To be a licensed nurse is one of the most admirable professions on the face of the earth. Nurses make a difference in Emergency rooms, maternal child healthcare, outpatient clinics, intensive care units, etc. They epitomize the word servant leader.

To be a professionally certified coach is one of the loftiest aspirations a person can obtain. Coaches make a difference in C-suites, training programs, conferences, etc. A professional coach wields great power, much like a superhero. And as the prolific Marvel comic book writer Stan Lee reminded us: “With great power there must also come great responsibility!”

Don’t strive to be a good coach, strive to be a great coach!

Published in choice, the magazine of professional coach. Used with permission.
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Lee N. Coffee Jr., MA, PCC

Lee N. Coffee, Jr. is The Founder and CEO of To The Rescue: Lee Coffee & Associates, an internationally recognized firm. Lee is a Professional Speaker, Facilitator and Chautauqua performer who specializes in maximizing human potential. Two months after High School, Mr. Coffee left the comfort of family and friends in the northeastern town of Painesville, Ohio to begin what Joseph Campbell referred to as the Hero’s Journey. As a young man, he served as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division and as the youngest Senior Clinical Specialist on the Surgical Intensive Care Unit at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Midway through his twenty-four year career in the U.S. Army, this former Drill Sergeant combined his love of reading, his compassion for people and his skills as a professional soldier into something which would add meaning to life.

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