the power of virtual coaching

by | Mar 18, 2016 | Leadership

How do you think virtual coaching compares with in-person coaching? Do you think they are equally effective? In my experience, many people think virtual coaching can be a convenient alternative, but can only ever be second best to coaching face-to-face.

As a coach with 650+ hours of coaching experience, the vast majority of which has been virtual, I want to put the case for the power of virtual coaching in its own right and consider what an important place it has in our future.

What is virtual coaching?

Virtual coaching means conducting a coaching relationship either by telephone or over the internet using software applications such as Skype or other videoconference facilities. The coach and coachee may or may not be able to see each other depending on the facility available or the quality of the internet connection – or the coachee may prefer not to have a visual and communicate by audio only.

Myths about coaching

Some of the myths I hear about virtual coaching – and coaching – are :

  • Coaching by phone or Skype/videoconference may have its uses, but you can’t work at as deep a level as you can in-person.
  • You can’t cultivate intimacy virtually in the way you can face-to-face
  • Coaching by telephone can only be sub-optimal because the coach can’t see the coachee and therefore has less information to work with
  • Coaching needs to be 2+ hours to be effective – how can a 45 or 60 minute session be enough? Surely, you need time to get to the nitty-gritty.

In my experience, none of these is true. In fact, virtual coaching can enable coach and coachee to go deeper more quickly. So rather than thinking of virtual coaching as a last resort, I want to talk about what makes virtual coaching a powerful medium in its own right.

The way we work has been changing for a long time

Many global companies have been working virtually for many years, their employees conducting a large part of their business on videoconference or phone, with spurts of travel inbetween. I work with one global organisation in particular where the majority of employees are home-based, work across a combination of time zones, conduct most of their business virtually, and are travelling on business for perhaps a week every one or 2 months.

Many of my coaching clients are based in the US, Asia or elsewhere in Europe. I may never meet several of them. Even if they are based in the same country as me, a face-to-face session can be challenging to schedule and a virtual solution suits them better. One executive I have worked with for over 2 years, also based in the UK, has in-person meetings built into her programme alongside virtual sessions yet doesn’t want them – Webex or phone suits her.

Where coachees are office-based, it can be challenging to book a meeting space. And when they do find one, it may either be cramped and windowless, or surrounded by plate-glass windows where they can be seen and possibly interrupted.

What virtual coaching allows that face-to-face coaching often does not is that coachees can choose their environment, often scheduling their coaching call from their home, or a hotel room if they are travelling. They can talk from somewhere where they feel comfortable and private – and, most importantly, safe.

Additionally, holding the coaching session away from the coachee’s professional environment means that the coaching conversation is more easily distinguished from being “just another meeting”.

The 2-hour question

Taking time out of the business for a coaching session is a big deal for senior people. In addition to this, coaching needs to be relevant and timely. Coachees may want to focus a coaching session on preparing for how they show up at an important meeting or navigate a challenging relationship.

In addition to this, neuroscience tells us that the prefrontal cortex is what’s known as the CEO of the brain, taking care of planning, making decisions and focussing, amongst other things. Whilst it only comprises 4-5% of the brain, it uses a disproportionate 20% of the body’s energy.

Coaching demands a level of engagement and introspection that can be very draining for coachees – it’s a different sort of focus from what they do in their job, however complex and demanding that job is. That means that coaching session times either need to be of a length to recognise that, or build in breaks and ensure sustenance and water is taken on board.

Many coaches swear by 2-hour, face-to-face sessions. Yet aside from the fact that our brains can only take so much before they need a break, too often coaches become tied up in the client’s story, rather than eliciting their experience of it and helping them generate awareness, insight and new possibilities. It’s easy to expand into time and the dialogue can drift out of scope.

In my experience, the length of a session has no correlation with depth. An hour is usually more than enough for a coaching session, and often 45 minutes is sufficient. The programme I offer combines 2 – 3 in-person meetings with a number of 45 or 60 minute virtual sessions over a period of 7-10 months. This way, I can partner with the coachee over a period of time to help them embed new ways of being and leading which are more productive for them.

Virtual sessions lend themselves to this rhythm whilst offering a cost-effective and accessible service to the client.

When the telephone comes into its own

Face-to-face conversations demand a lot from us. The visual part of our brain is huge – we are constantly receiving all sorts of information through our sight which demands alot of our attention, and that’s not even counting man-made distractions like smartphones.

In addition, if we are interacting with another person, we spend energy reading and responding to cues in order to establish rapport with them. This is part and parcel of being human. And then there is social convention – smiling when you think you should smile, thinking you should break silence if it’s going on too long.

That means that paying attention to ourselves – getting in touch with what we are feeling and thinking – comes second to “sussing out” the world around us, an inheritance from our evolution to keep us safe and connected. If you have a preference for introversion, as do around half the population, the amount of stimuli can feel overwhelming. When given the choice, several of my clients have chosen telephone, or audio-only teleconference, in preference to having visual contact.

There is something very intimate about talking on the telephone. Even if you are speaking across timezones, it feels as though you are sitting very close to each other. The combination of closeness and lack of visuals predisposes coach and coachee to an intimacy of conversation that may take longer to achieve in other mediums.

You can also tell alot from the voice. It can indicate mood, emotion and posture which I as the coach want to get curious about. For example, when I notice the coachee’s voice is quiet and low and their language seems negative, I may discover that the coachee is hunched up in their chair or slouched forward over their desk – they often haven’t even realised this until their attention is brought to it. Or I may notice them talking very fast and wonder out loud where their breath is – which often turns out to be shallow.

In both of these examples, I’m able to explore what may be a habitual pattern for the coachee which may not be serving them. We can then experiment with how they can shift their posture, their breathing and therefore shift their mood and their internal and external dialogue.

When the coachee can’t be seen, they often feel more comfortable in making these adjustments. I also find that silence can be more tolerable if noone’s watching. Yes, either coach or coachee sometimes needs to check that the other person is still there (!), but it gives more freedom to think without being watched.

The depth argument

Coaching is a unique medium for helping an individual get in touch with themselves. It’s about creating a private, confidential space for the coachee to expand into, to be listened to and to listen to themselves, to pay attention to thoughts and feelings and sensations.

For me, depth means getting to the essence of things and that can only happen when the coachee feels safe and feels they can open up. Privacy, confidentiality, comfort are all key to this and this article has explored where virtual coaching can facilitate these important factors.

Some coaches and coachees may still have a personal preference for in-person meetings, and that is fine. However, whether coaching is conducted in-person, on videoconference or telephone/audio only, it is the coach’s skill in picking up nuances of language, of emotion, of the way the coachee is holding their body – to really listen – that will determine whether coach and coachee can access a level of conversation that will generate insight and possibility for the coachee.

The place of virtual coaching in the future

Organisations will continue to become more flexible in how they work. Statistics for the number of employees working remotely show that the trend for remote working is on an upward trajectory. Technology will continue to evolve and allow for more and different possibilities for how we work and communicate with each other. Businesses need to be effective to be competitive which means managing costs.

Yet probably the most important point in favour of virtual coaching is that a huge number of important conversations happen virtually all over the world both personal and professional. Virtual coaching is a model for how to make even more of these real, authentic and courageous in service of what we all care about.

How can you make your virtual conversations matter?

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Alison Reid is an experienced executive coach who helps senior managers and directors lead with confidence and step-change their influence and impact. She works with them 1-1, empowering them to focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.

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