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The Versatile Coach

Guest Post by Karen Voloshin

The makeup of the workforce has never been more varied. A mix of cultures and backgrounds surround us. We bring a wide range of different work and life experiences. Motivations and priorities differ. Differences in style, work preferences and the conditions under which we do our best work—all are part of the fabric of who we are. The best leaders take all of this into account, particularly in the way they coach. In this article, you will learn how to adjust your coaching conversations to better connect with each individual and get the best results.

Styles and Work Preferences: What Are They/Why They Matter?

Try a quick experiment. Imagine people you know who routinely:

  • Show up at the last possible second for meetings or events
  • Get right to the point when speaking
  • Make decisions by reviewing lots of options first

You’ve just started to notice different styles and work preferences in the people around you. There is no right or wrong. Just different. Here’s the point. What if you are a person who shows up early? Or enjoys relating a story before getting down to business? Or makes decisions right on the spot? The way you interact and relate to the people you imagined just got really interesting.

As a leader, learning to interact with others in a way that complements their styles and work preferences will make you a more effective coach. It’s not about changing who you are, but stretching outside of what makes you comfortable to get more in sync with another person’s way of interacting. Each time you make the effort to adjust, you are investing in a more productive relationship.

Although there are many different ways we approach things, here are just a few areas that may have the most direct impact on your coaching interactions. The way people:

  • Express their thoughts and ideas
  • Take in information
  • Learn
  • Organize or structure themselves and their work

Let’s take a look at how these areas might impact your coaching conversations.

Express thoughts and ideas

What do you notice about the different ways people express themselves?

  • Do they want to get right down to the topic at hand or do they prefer some small talk?
  • Do they ‘talk out loud’, expressing partial ideas, developing them more fully as they go?
  • Or do they prefer to develop fully formed ideas before voicing them?

Impact on coaching:  Expressing thoughts is about 60-70 % of the conversation on the team member’s part if you are striking the right balance between listening and talking. If your style is to talk out loud and the team member prefers to think then talk, just imagine who will be doing the bulk of the speaking. The team member may quickly disengage.

Take in information

What are some different ways that people prefer to take in and absorb information?

  • Do they prefer to see, hear or read it?
  • Are they drawn to pictures and images or words and diagrams?
  • Do they focus on the big picture, the headlines or do they seem to want the details?

Impact on coaching: Taking in information has a big impact on how the team member absorbs and understands what you say. If you prefer lots of supporting detail and a team member relates best to hearing the headlines first, he or she may lose attention or get lost in the detail.


The way people express themselves and take in information has much to do with the way they prefer to learn. If people like to absorb information alone, they may prefer an elearning tutorial. If they like to actively discuss information with other people, maybe an online community or live conversation with an expert would be their choice. Drawn to words and hearing things? Podcasts may be for them. People who like to take in information by seeing may thrive when shadowing an experienced team member or watching a two-minute video.

Impact on coaching: Coaching is really all about learning. Without realizing it you may be pressing your own favorite ways to learn on to others. See how creative you can get about matching the learning method with the team member preference whenever you have the chance.

Organization or structure

What do you observe about the ways people organize and structure themselves and their work?

  • Do they like things to be systematic and scheduled or more flexible and spontaneous?
  • Do they prefer to start tasks right away and finish early or do they find that the time pressure from waiting helps them do better?
  • Do they work from to-do lists and reminders or have a more casual approach?

Impact on coaching: Differences in the way people structure themselves and use time can cause missed expectations and tension. Be on the lookout for this to be an underlying cause of issues that arise that can be easily fixed through two-way conversation.  This style area has particular impact on co-creating plans, checking-in and following up on team member progress.

A few words on confidence…Not exactly a style or preference, the level of team member confidence is another factor to consider when adjusting your approach to coaching. Confidence levels will vary greatly based on the situation and the people involved. Is the team member hesitant and tentative or self-assured?  Confidence level has a direct impact on the support and type and frequency of follow-up you provide. Less confidence may call for more frequent follow-up that gets farther apart as confidence grows. More confidence may call for greater independence and self-monitoring.

Tips for Adjusting Your Coaching Style

Now that you have a better understanding of some different styles and work preferences and how they might impact coaching, let’s focus on what you can do to adjust your own. Remember these are temporary changes you make to be a more effective coach. You are by no means trying to change yourself into someone you are not. It boils down to the following tips that get easier with practice.

Know your own style.

Start by building self-awareness of your own style and work preferences. Answer these questions:

  • How do you express yourself when you are at your best and most comfortable?
  • How do you like to get and digest information?
  • What learning methods have been the most successful for you?
  • How would you organize and structure your work, if you could do whatever you wanted?

Look for patterns in conversations: what goes well, not so well; when do you find yourself feeling motivated or impatient? Although there are many factors that contribute, when things go well, it may be that styles are complementing each other. Where there is tension or a time when the conversation stalls, it may be a tip off that a style difference is at work.

Take care with conclusions.

Tune into judgments that style differences might create for you. It’s human nature to draw conclusions about how others behave. When those conclusions start to be less than positive you may be bumping up against a different preference or style. For example, if you prefer a more spontaneous approach, you may view people who like schedules as inflexible. If you prefer the big-picture, you may view people who focus on the details as slow or not quite as smart. Pay attention to what those conclusions are telling you before you act in a way you might regret.

Notice the style of others.

Keep your mind, eyes and ears open. Be curious and non-judgmental. Look for style evidence in the conversations you have and in how team members interact with each other. Pay attention to when people are most and least comfortable, what works and doesn’t work for them.

Listen to tone of voice and pick up on non-verbal cues: facial expressions, gestures and posture. Clarify and confirm what you’ve noticed about the other person’s style. “I’ve noticed that you prefer to review the materials and make notes before we discuss them” or “It seems like that summary worked really well for you. What do you think?”

Discuss how your approaches are the same or different and how you might use this knowledge to make coaching conversations better. In certain situations, different styles can actually complement each other. Then it’s more a matter of the making the most of what each style has to offer. Someone who prefers to think big picture and someone with fine attention to detail can make a great pair if both people are aware of their differences and how they can be used to get good results.

Make a few small adjustments.

Now that you’ve worked at learning about yourself and others, you’re ready to think about what you will adjust in your next coaching conversation. Shift just one or two behaviors at a time. Based on what you’ve observed, maybe you’ll pause a few more seconds after the questions you ask to give the other person more time to think. Or talk less to give the other person more space to contribute. Or maybe you’ll ask the team member to tell you the kind of follow-up that would be most useful, instead of letting your own scheduling preferences win out.

Pay attention to what happens when you adjust. This is another chance for you to practice self-awareness. Do mental checks to see if your behavior shifts are having a positive impact. Are they helping the other person communicate more comfortably? Make on the spot adjustments.

After the conversations ask yourself, “What specifically did I do that the other person responded to positively?” “What do I want to do more, or less, of next time?” Check in with the team member and ask for feedback on how the coaching conversation went. Keep fine-tuning and readjusting. Remember, learning to adjust your style is an ongoing work in progress.

Image:  jesadaphorn

For more than two decades, Karen has designed, developed and facilitated learning experiences for executives, managers, project leaders, trainers, service providers, and teams. She’s a certified coach whose work has helped thousand of individuals across sectors and industries to enhance their leadership and effectiveness The award-winning workshops she has authored have been implemented worldwide. You can reach Karen at karen@designarounds.com.

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