When to Stop the Coaching Conversation

By Jon Miller Updated on March 16th, 2021

One of the challenges of being an effective coach is knowing when to stop coaching. After sharing some insight or giving a piece of advice that lands well, it’s natural for a coach to feel good. If we’re not careful, this feeds the ego, or euphoria sets in, and we believe every word we say is gold. A coach may add, “Here’s another thing for you…” and go a step too far. Give the learner just enough so that they know what repetitions they need to practice next, on their own. Then walk away.

Humans Are Bad at Ending Conversations

According to an interesting Scientific American article, People Literally Don’t Know When to Shut Up—or when to keep talking. Their experiments revealed that only 2 percent of conversations ended when both parties wanted. Only 30 percent of them ended when one of the two wanted. In about half of the conversations, both people wanted to talk less. Both participants’ guesses about when their partner had wanted to stop talking were off by about 64 percent.

“We are really bad at navigating a key transition point” during the basic social interaction of a two-person conversation, the study argues. If we’re this bad at it when we’re trying, imagine how much longer we rattle on when we’re not listening, only waiting our turn to speak. These findings presuppose that two people are engaging in a polite social conversation, roughly on equal terms. While that isn’t a good description of a coaching conversation, there are parallels for coaches to consider.

What’s the Learner Thinking?

The most important question during both a kata coaching cycle and in a day-to-day conversation may be, “What’s the other person thinking?” During a coaching cycle this question helps the coach judge whether the learner is practicing the scientific thinking pattern correctly. In the latter case, it helps two people build understanding, empathy, and an ability to cooperation with others.

We do ask this question subconsciously. We guess at the meaning and intent of the other person’s statements. Unless we know the other person well, we often guess wrong. Our own biases, fears, and preconceptions introduce error. We may react to someone’s statement emotionally, jumping to a conclusion before confirming that our guess is right.

How to Keep Coaches from Prattling On

The coaching conversation can be awkward in the best of situations. When starting out, kata requires learners to strictly follow specific patterns of thought, speech, or action. When a kata coach works with an improvement kata learner, there will be many procedural errors to point out. It’s easy to overwhelm the new learner by pointing out everything they did wrong.

In addition, coaching cycles are daily activities. A coach that doesn’t know when to stop talking will easily exceed the recommended 15-minute limit of that conversation. The extra talk can add up quickly. This coaching kata, or pattern questioning, is designed to address this. In brief, as long as they follow their kata, the coach will know when the conversation is done.

Get Thee to the Next Experiment

The coaching cycle begins by putting the learner at ease. The parties review the overall challenge, and the coach reads the scripted questions. These serve a specific purpose, which is to get to the point where it’s clear what the learner plans to do next. What was the plan? What was the actual result? What did we learn? What’s the next obstacle? What’s the next experiment? What’s the prediction for that experiment? And so forth.

In the process of getting the learner to the point, the coach reflects on the learner’s answers. What do they reveal about their thinking pattern? Where is the learner’s knowledge threshold? Where they making guesses or assumptions? This allows the coach to assign one or two related practice areas. Unlike one-off social chats, the coaching cycle assumes there will be follow-up conversation directly connected to the previous one.

How to End Conversations

The article quotes a researcher saying that we may as well, “[…] leave at the first time it seems appropriate, because it’s better to be left wanting more than less.” That’s one way to think about it. Another point the article raises is, “How many new insights, novel perspectives, or interesting facts of life have we missed because we avoided a longer or deeper conversation that we might have had with another person?”

Unlike the coaching cycle, not all social conversations are driven forward by explicit goals. If they were, that might be weird. But a simple way to stop conversations when they are done is to agree upfront on a definition of done. For two strangers mixing at a party this could be, “Let’s chat until we find things in common,” or “Let’s talk until we find 3 things we disagree strongly about.” Another idea is to set a timer, have a script, and follow a conversational pattern. It might be less awkward than leaving it to chance.

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