Better coaching conversations can be as easy as 1-2-3
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Better coaching conversations can be as easy as 1-2-3

Few things are more frustrating than trying to coach an employee, only to have the person passively resist the conversation.

You’ve done everything to draw him out, but he gives only formulaic, terse responses. Maybe a nod of the head here and there. It’s one-way traffic, with you doing all the talking. Eventually you end the session thinking the employee didn’t engage or learn very much at all.

It’s easy to blame the person you’re trying to coach. And indeed, the coachee may bear some responsibility for the failure of the conversation. But research into the psychology of language usage suggests that you, the coach, may also have had something to do with it.

Plugging the gaps

Two research projects shed light on this topic.

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands has found over years of research that cultures around the world observe a conversational rule known as “no gap, no overlap”: They avoid speaking over their partner, and they plug any gaps by starting to speak within milliseconds of the other person stopping. These unwritten rules hold for cultures as diverse as those of the United States, Denmark, Japan and the San peoples — or Bushmen — of the Kalahari in Southern Africa.

People unconsciously observe this rule, which is deeply rooted in how we use and process language. And it can derail a coaching session. Because you’re human, you have a tendency to talk into the gaps when your coachee isn’t speaking. And if the person is reluctant to speak in the first place, you end up in a one-way conversation that delivers little value.

Wait, wait, don’t tell me

Another study supports the Planck research, suggesting that if you jump in immediately to fill an awkward gap, you short-circuit the deeper thinking that you want from the person you’re coaching.

This study was carried out by Mary Budd Rowe, a professor of education at Stanford. She did her work in classrooms, but its conclusions are relevant to any learning situation – including coaching.

The research team analyzed recordings of thousands of teacher-student interactions and found a common thread: After asking a question of a student, teachers paused for only about one second. Then they started talking again — either asking another question or offering their own answer to the question they’d just asked. And when students did answer a question, teachers usually plunged right back in within one second after the student paused – without waiting to see if he or she had more to add.

With a few teachers, though, the “wait time” in conversations was a bit longer — up to three seconds. In these cases, the quality of the students’ responses improved dramatically. Their answers were three to seven times longer, better thought-out and more logical.

As a result of these more elaborate student responses, the teacher-student conversation became richer and led to deeper learning by the student.

That’s the outcome coaches are looking for.


But what can you do about the very human tendency to fill in conversational gaps right away? Well, in the case of the Stanford study, the researchers found that teachers could overcome this impulse with focus and attention.

You can overcome it, too, and improve the quality of your coaching sessions. To give your coachees enough time to respond, you can practice this simple technique: After you ask a question or after the coachee seems to be done talking, count off three seconds in your head – one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi – before you say anything else.

That blank look on your coachee’s face doesn’t mean they need your help or your question wasn’t clear. It usually means they’re thinking – which is exactly what you want.

Of course, wait time isn’t the only element of a fruitful coaching conversation. You still need to prepare focused questions, listen carefully to what your coachees say, and positively reinforce their good answers. But by waiting three seconds at the right times, you can make a surprisingly large and positive impact on the quality of the conversation.

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “A 3-Second Technique for Improving Your Coaching Conversations.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following research studies:

Stivers, T., et al. (2009). Universals and cultural variation in turn-taking in conversation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pnas-0903616106.

Rowe, M. (1986). Wait time: slowing down may be a way of speeding up! Journal of Teacher Education, 37(1), 43-50.


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