Team coach diaries - it’s good to be a slow coach - why slowing down leads to faster progress

19th July by Neil Atkinson

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Whether I am coaching an individual leader or running a team coaching programme, there are times when I need to pause to remind myself what my role as a coach is.

Particularly if things are getting tricky and I’m wondering what I should do next.

For example, I might remind myself that my main job is to create the conditions for the individual coachee to do their best thinking; or for a team to have the conversations they really need to have. Or that I’m here to support them in seeing the situation from different perspectives, or through the eyes of different stakeholders.

It’s a way of quickly re-orienting myself, and particularly useful if I’m in danger of getting too drawn into the details of the client’s challenges or the team’s dynamic.

Slow, slow, quick-quick, slow

One of the things of most value which we coaches offer our clients is the chance to slow down. Organisational life appears to constantly speed up, requiring people to do more with less and get results faster and faster. And with all this haste, there is a certain quality of thinking and reflection which often gets lost.

Relating this to the ideas Daniel Kahneman shared in his 2011 bestselling ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, coaching clients are often stuck in ‘System 1’ thinking – the automatic, quick-fire mode which infers and invents causes and intentions, overlooks ambiguity and focuses on what’s known, rather than what might be missing.

Our job as leadership or team coaches includes creating the conditions for people to shift into their ‘System 2’ mode, which enables deeper, more complex thinking and through which original ideas and new insights emerge. 

Creating a thinking environment

So how do we do that? The key tools in our coaching kitbag of trust, rapport-building and encouraging psychological safety all play their part.

When coaching teams, I find it’s also helpful to flag this intention when contracting. At the start of a coaching session, I might say: ‘You’re used to working fast and getting quick results. At times, I’m going to encourage you to slow down to enable deeper thinking and reflection – and you might find that a bit frustrating. But are you willing to bear with it to see if it helps you be more creative?”

Also, some team coaches I work with are increasingly using Nancy Kline’s techniques with great affect.

Kline’s key premise (outlined in her book ‘Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind’) is that everything we do depends on the quality of thinking we do first – and how we treat each other while we’re thinking. She advocates that the way to get the best thinking from a team or group is to use ‘Thinking Rounds’, in which everyone has a set time to speak in response to the same question. They all get to speak without interruption, rather than the usual free-for-all discussion in which the loudest or most insistent voices tend to dominate, or everyone agrees with the team leader.

The generative build

In team coaching, Thinking Rounds work well when the team needs to focus on a particular topic and share their knowledge and insight to generate new ideas. The process works like this.

  1. Once the topic has been agreed, first decide what the question is that needs answering. It’s best to coach the team to clearly articulate and agree the question themselves.
  2. Determine what order people will speak – in in-person usually clockwise or anticlockwise round a circle (hence ‘Rounds’).
  3. Set a time that everyone has to speak when it’s their turn – usually two or three minutes.
  4. Set the ground rules – everyone has their turn in order, they can stay silent to think as long as they need before sharing their thoughts, no-one interrupts, and there are no questions or discussion in response to what the individual says before the next person’s turn.
  5. Ask for a volunteer to start (ideally not the team leader)
  6. When everyone has spoken, do at least one more round posing a question such as: ‘What fresh thinking do you now have?’ - as people’s thinking will have been stimulated by what they have heard from their colleagues. You can also use Kline’s classic follow-up question: ‘What more do you think, or feel or want to say?’
  7. After two or three rounds you can coach the team through a discussion about what conclusions they draw from the thinking they’ve all shared.

    Kline claims that techniques like this and her ‘Thinking Pairs’ enable people to get to a better solution faster. What I also like about this in the context of team coaching is that it requires people to really listen to each other and provides space for the introverts to speak without interruption.

    In fact, it’s worth explaining to the team beforehand that the quality of their listening and attention plays a powerful and necessary role in creating the best conditions for the speaker to think.

    By using these techniques, slowing down and going deeper rather than faster, not only do teams get great results, they often leave the coaching session feeling refreshed and inspired – and having gained powerful new skills for working together effectively.