Online coaching — 12 key tips on how to run a successful session

“They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

— Carl W. Buechner

The current circumstances surrounding COVID-19 mean that, like many coaches and supervisors, we find ourselves moving the majority of our work online over the coming weeks.

One area of expertise we have developed in recent years is the delivery of online coaching, supervision and coach training sessions. We could always see the potential and power of online coaching — but none of us anticipated that our ability to work virtually would be tested in this way.

In the light of the challenges we are all currently facing, we wanted to share this experience, to support you and other coaches who may be transitioning to this way of working. 

What’s the same, and what’s different?

The first question to ask yourself about virtual coaching is what you imagine to be the same, and what is different.

Our own perceptions and beliefs about working virtually will impact how we work with our clients — our encouragement is to first explore these and test out their validity. Your mindset will be one of the key barriers to being yourself and using your normal techniques within this work when you hold the online session.

This is the key reason our coach training courses include online coaching, as it helps to challenge our participants’ views on working in this way.

There are of course some key differences and also many similarities to the way you would hold an effective face-to-face session. 

So, below you will find our top tips for transformational virtual coaching.

1. Sort out the logistics

It is important to consider the location you are using for the virtual coaching session — so that you can be relaxed and free from distractions. The same is true for your coaching client, so invite them to be in a private space, free from that which might distract them.

There may be conversations to be had with loved ones at home in order to ensure you are free from interruptions. If you have a partner working at home, you may need to consider not sitting near a printer in case they choose that critical moment to send a 50 page report to print!

Ensure you have tested your broadband speed and connectivity – working closer to your router can help.

We would also recommend reflecting upon your own energy patterns; if you are a morning person it may be better to avoid booking a session later in the day and vice versa. This is of course something you can discuss with your coachee, to find the best time for both of you.    

2. Prepare yourself

Before coaching online, test the platform that you will be using and get to know its functionality (e.g. sharing screens, posting resources or models, use of whiteboards etc.). In our practice, we use Zoom, which we find to be reliable, cost-effective and feature-rich.

In Zoom (and similar apps) you can turn on a ‘speaker view’ so that your coachee will appear large on the screen (a useful post-it note over your image can also remove any distractions caused by seeing yourself on the screen!).

Closing down other applications will support your presence and the transmission speed too; using a good microphone and headphones will help with the sound.

We also recommend preparing any equipment that you may need for the session in advance — e.g. models which can be shown on the screen, or emailed over to the coachee; a desktop flip chart and pens in case you want to draw.

3. Prepare your coachee

For some coaching clients, online coaching may initially be daunting and create a level of anxiety.

It is important therefore to contract with them about their experiences of working online — especially if you have previously been meeting face-to-face.

Take time to ensure that clients feel familiar with the platform you will be using; you might need to educate them on what will help them to be present in the session e.g. closing down applications, wearing headphones to support confidentiality, turning off mobile and house phones etc.

To support any exploratory work, you can ask your coachees to have a journal, paper and pens ready.

4. Plan for potential challenges

We encourage you to plan for various challenges that can occur when coaching virtually. Examples include:

  • Loss of broadband connection — ensure you have your client’s telephone number in case you need to switch to a telephone.
  • External interruptions such as a deliveries or loud noises outside (building or gardening work etc.) — you may need to use mute when you are not talking and contract for any unplanned interruption.
  • Family members or pets at home – it is likely that in our current context, the coachee will have other people or animals in their house. This sometimes causes anxiety about potential interruptions so encourage the coachee to ‘metaphorically include’ their energy, as we find that this helps both the coachee and the coach relax.
  • Poor broadband speed — this can mean that web cameras can’t be used. If you are working solely with the voice, we encourage you to regularly check in with the coachee as you cannot see their processing. Questions that can help here include “What are you aware of?” and “What are you noticing as we discuss this?” Or, check-in with them during long pauses – “what is happening for you now?” Consider ‘spot contracting’ with the coachee — be explicit that you will be asking them to report more on what is happening for them during the session than you might have previously.

5. Be present

Coaching from home can make you feel more relaxed than if you’re in a physical meeting space — so consider what supports you to be in a present and connected state of being before receiving a client online.

A colleague of ours, Monica Ross, will always say to coaches “Contact before contract,” as a way of reminding them of this. Building in some time before the session to prepare is paramount as this creates supportive conditions for the container we are creating for our client — as well as enabling us to be in flow (a state of relaxed concentration).

Our ‘3 part breathing space’ exercise (MP3) can help you achieve presence before an online coaching session.

6. Create the right ‘container’ — and help your client be present

Your client may arrive for a coaching session from another virtual meeting — and so is still in a mode of “doing”. This can sometimes ‘contaminate’ the coach and it can be easy to get drawn into the task at hand.

These initial moments are vital in reconnecting with the coachee: remember that underneath everything, an ability to create an authentic and trusting online relationship is the critical ingredient for success

A lot has happened for you and your client since you were last together, so it is important that you connect as human beings before moving into the coaching space. Help your client get present for the conversation before moving into contracting.

7. Contract

Whilst you are going to cover all the usual aspects of the session contract — confidentiality, time, how you will work together, challenge — you will also need to contract for the things that are different when you are working online, for example:

  • How you will manage the unexpected such as interruptions and loss of connection.
  • How you will use models online — e.g. you may wish to share a model on your screen that the coachee can draw on using a whiteboard facility. Or they may prefer you to email the model to them, so they can print off and work on it on their desk.
  • How you will use creative techniques online — e.g. “I am going to give you more space as I cannot see you (i.e., if coachee is standing or moving in the room) and I am going to pause you from time to time to see if you are ready for the next question”. If you are going to use a visualisation exercise such as ‘Wisdom with Hindsight’ and the coachee will have their eyes closed, you can remind them that if either of you loses connection, it is fine, you will simply re-join the session again and pick up where you left off.

8. Be honest and authentic about working online

This is an authentic relationship: if you are feeling nervous about working virtually, so might your client. Be honest and authentic; if you want to share that you are new to working in this way then do so.

Trust what feels right for you in the moment. Yes, some of your techniques might need to be adapted slightly as you are working virtually. But our advice would be to not step away from using these, as we all know the value they bring to raising our coachee’s awareness. You know that the maps and models that you have been using work face-to-face — so have confidence in their use when working online.

9. Trust the process

Remember to trust the process; transformational coaching is built from the strength and honesty of the relationship between you and your client.

Pay attention to what is happening between you and your coachee and listen with all of your senses in the same way you do when you are face-to-face. If you are feeling lost during the session just remember to go back to the process; you own it!

10.  Trust yourself

Be fully present and trust all the skills and strengths you have and your intent of supporting the other person’s learning and development.  

Remember: we are wired to connect, and just because you are working virtually does not mean you will not attune to your coachee. Our experience is that, once you relax and are fully present, you will be in flow with your coachee. 

11.  Be mindful of energy

When working virtually, we might experience that we use our energy in a different way.

It might feel more intense as a coach — and you might have to work harder to stay present. Take a break during longer sessions; and get some some fresh air (weather permitting).

During these breaks, you and your coachee should stretch and breathe; don’t check phones or emails during this time.

12.  Get the endings right

When running a virtual coaching session, you may wish to contract with the coachee to ensure that they have some space between the coaching session and their next virtual meeting to replenish their energy (the same goes for you).

In the session itself, you own the process so ensure you have enough time to fully wrap up the session and close it down. 

We hope the above tips support you in your virtual coaching practice, and help you enjoy the development work you will do.

And finally, you can learn more about Catalyst 14’s online coaching courses here.

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