Essential Coaching Skills


What Is Coaching and Why Coach?

Coaching is the practice of helping people achieve an objective through goal setting, questioning and support. It is not primarily about offering solutions. In contrast to the expert-novice model, it is about assisting the coachee explore and use their own resources in reaching their objective. As coaching is predominantly non-directive, the willingness of the individual to be coached is paramount to the success of the coaching relationship.

The importance of on-the-job coaching is now well documented. Much training that is conducted in organizations today is short and intensive. The two drivers for this are the lost opportunity cost of having employees away from their workplace and the difficulty in releasing employees from operational environments. If you conduct short, intensive programs because of cost or time constraints, do not expect your program participants to return to the workplace able to apply their new skills expertly in the variety situations that they will face back in the real world. Without the opportunity for ample practice, this is the reality even for training in basic motor skills and procedures.

Coaching can come in a variety of forms. It can exist to enhance technical, professional, business or leadership skills. Its purpose may be to help with immediate skill application in the employee's current role, or it can be used to develop the employee for a future role. The latter purpose is more usually described as "mentoring".

A key question that you will need to decide is who will play the role of coach. Will you choose the employee's manager, the trainer, a peer, a technical expert or a professional coach? Will the coach be an internal employee or an external contractor or consultant? Which is right for your program will depend on the type of training program you are conducting and your organization's particular circumstances.

There a number of coaching models to suit various coaching situations, purposes and objectives. Some are more directive than others, some are based on a commercial consultant-client relationship, and so on. However, there are a core set of 13 skills that apply to most, if not all, coaching situations. These are the skills I use in my own coaching practice. I share them below.

  1. Organize own work and assist the individual to organize themselves

    The coach needs to be able to chart a course of action with the coachee and track how the plan is progressing. It also means providing structured activities where appropriate, keeping orderly notes, arriving on time to agreed meetings, and so on. If the coach cannot organize themselves, it will be exceedingly difficult for them to help the coachee plan, track and achieve their objectives.

  2. Set challenging yet achievable objectives to which the individual freely commits

    This is the ability to get the coachee on board and motivated to achieve worthwhile objectives. It means avoiding the counterproductive behaviors of dictating the coach's own goals, on the one hand, and letting the coachee meander along aimlessly, unchallenged and unproductive on the other.

  3. Prompt individual to take action whilst providing a supportive environment

    Both overbearing and complacent coaches achieve little long-lasting behavior change in their coachees. Coaches need to be able to motivate and challenge coachees to stretch their boundaries and take risks, whilst providing a safe place to fall. This means being able to steer the coachee into reflecting on their failure by looking to the future and without demeaning the coachee's worth or integrity.

  4. Encourage individual to take responsibility and claim pride in accomplishments

    This implies the ability to empower the coachee in a way that they come to see their wins and failures as being a direct result of their own actions. An effective coach will not set themselves up as the expert who does all of the work, taking the accolades when things go well and accepting the blame when things don't go as planned.

  5. Appreciate where the individual is at

    This refers to the capacity to be with the coachee "in the moment", situated with the problem from their perspective. It means the coach not running their own agenda, without regard for the coachee's current perspective and feelings. It is the ability to build a bridge from where the coachee feels they are now to where they want to go.

  6. Recognize feelings in the individual and point these out in a non-judgmental manner

    The coach needs to be a good reader of the human mind. They need to be able to pick up on the nuances of body language and the way things are said to get at the underlying meaning of what the coachee is saying and doing. These understandings then need to be reflected back to the individual in a way that is non-threatening and gives cause to the coachee to reflect on how and why they feel as they do.

  7. Manage the expression of own feelings without being overwhelmed

    An effective coach needs to be able to recognize when they are heading towards a strong emotional response, such as anger or disgust, and be able to develop inner strategies to defuse such emotions before they surface. Where appropriate, such negative feelings need to be communicated to the coachee in a non-emotive manner that maintains the coachee's sense of self-esteem. Such self-disclosure, if handled correctly, can help to strengthen the relationship by building trust.

  8. Listen actively and non-judgmentally

    Listening is a critically important skill that underwrites so many of the other skills. This involves the ability to listen actively, acknowledging the thoughts and actions of the coachee, and reflecting back their input. Listening skillfully ensures that the coach is acting on the right information as well as helps to build a strong coaching relationship with the coachee.

  9. Use questions effectively to challenge and move the individual forward

    The ability to use questioning techniques effectively, as with the ability to listen, is a core skill that underpins many of the other skills. In fact, the ability to ask the right question at the right time, as opposed to giving information, is a key differentiator between the role of a coach and the work of a subject matter expert. The coach needs to be able to use questions for multiple purposes, such as eliciting information, encouraging self-reflection, checking understanding and developing personal bonds. This skill comes into play by knowing what type of question to use for what purpose and asking the question in a manner that elicits openness and not aggressiveness or defensiveness.

  10. Give non-threatening and constructive feedback

    This means being able to gather feedback, sometimes from multiple sources, and delivering it in a way that both illuminates what went before and promotes critical reflection. An effective coach maintains the coachee's self-esteem through focusing the feedback on the coachee's behavior and not on their character. They also ensure that feedback is given regularly and in a timely manner.

  11. Appreciate complexity whilst communicating simplicity

    This is the ability to understand the systems nature of organizations and the multiple factors that go into creating any complex work situation. The complementary skill is the ability to sort and chunk the information and choices available in a way that does not overwhelm the coachee with detail. This means being able to identify multiple inputs, causes, stakeholders and motives on the one hand, whilst identifying and communicating the core actionable elements of a situation to the coachee on the other.

  12. Recognize own limitations and biases and disclose where required and appropriate

    No coach can ever be totally objective and all-knowing. In some ways, this is an advantage as it brings a human element to the coaching relationship. An effective coach recognizes their limitations and potential prejudices and reveals these to the coachee when appropriate. Such self-disclosure avoids unrealistic expectations and builds trust with a sense that the coach is a fallible human being, just like the coachee.

  13. Act responsibly and ethically

    More so than the other skills mentioned, this skill goes to the heart of the coach's character. Some ethical principles apply no matter what the coaching situation. These require the coach, for example, to be able to recognize potential conflicts of interest and either declare or defuse them. Others relate to the need for a coach to communicate truthfully and to respect confidentiality.


The extent to which some of these skills will be used will depend on the type of coaching required and the characteristics of the individual coachee. However, I consider all of them essential for a coach, as they will all be drawn upon sooner or later. Whatever coaching model and processes you use in your organization, ensure that the coaches you select can demonstrate these 13 essential skills. If they cannot do so now, train them before you set them loose on the coachees.


Copyright © Leslie Allan

About the Author
Leslie Allan

Leslie Allan is Managing Director of Business Performance Pty Ltd; a management consulting firm specializing in people and process capability. He has been assisting organizations for over 20 years, contributing in various roles as project manager, consultant and trainer for organizations large and small.

He is also the author of five books on training and change management and is the creator of various training tools and templates. Leslie is a member of the Australian Institute of Management and the Quality Society of Australasia. He is also a member of the Divisional Council of the Victorian Division of the Australian Institute of Training and Development (AITD). Leslie may be contacted by email at

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Find out more about training and coaching employees to improved performance. Check out Leslie's practical resource kit packed with ideas, tools and templates for implementing effective learning. Visit the From Training to Enhanced Workplace Performance information portal to find out how to download the free Introductory Chapter and start using Leslie's comprehensive training guide and toolkit today.

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