Like most leadership coaches, I was coaching online long before we were all confined, sheltered and locked down. Over recent years, client engagements have included a mix of face-to-face and remote sessions where we followed recommendations to connect with clients in person before moving to online coaching sessions. When I was asked to work with leaders that I would never meet, I wondered how to create rapport, elicit emotions, and interpret body language via the internet? Now that virtual coaching is no longer an alternative but a necessity…here’s what I learned.
Intimacy takes time – My job as a coach is to create a space where my client feels safe to open up about strengths, challenges and fears. Distance coaching requires duplicating this safe space over a video call or webinar, mutual trust must be developed so that a client feels accepted and respected. My clients have reported that they may have been initially a bit guarded about this medium; they too had no experience of developing a high level of familiarity remotely.
I learned to volunteer my own vulnerability from the outset, and to be patient with clients who might show initial reluctance to reveal theirs.
Empathy becomes explicit – In face-to-face coaching empathy is implicit, and transpires between the two parties without being specifically addressed. With remote coaching, empathy needs to become explicit. I found it helpful to be open with clients about how we could best create and share empathy, consciously tailoring my own words, and so encouraging clients to share their own thoughts.
I learned to ask my clients what they needed from me in order to create understanding and benevolence.
Distance provides proximity – Paradoxically, virtual coaching may help create space for close communication. I’ve noticed a ‘things I can’t say out loud’ phenomenon, where clients are able to more freely express sentiments in a remote setting. Distance may also allow coaches to take more risks to offer more candid observations.
I learned that online coaching offers scope for direct and powerful communication.
Non-verbal enhances meaning – In remote coaching sessions, we may miss non-verbal cues relayed in body postures, such as how we stand and how we position our arms. However, video calls offer the advantage of honing in on facial expressions where emotions transpire. Additionally
, I learned to ensure clients are positioned in full camera frame, so both parties get a good view of one another’s head, shoulders and hands, in order to glean meaning from gestures.
I learned to pay and draw extra attention to my clients’ non-verbal communication as a means to support their transformation.
Less is more – With virtual coaching, our immediate environment is the computer screen; there are few distractions and our attention is distilled. Both parties become more focused, working harder to make sessions worthwhile. Studies suggest our adult attention span is in decline: with this in mind, shorter more frequent sessions make sense.
I learned to reduce virtual coaching timings and implement more micro-coaching sessions, knowing that working online can be intense and exhausting for clients.
© Delphine Parmenter, May 2020
What have you learned?
What’s your experience of virtual coaching?
What can make virtual coaching just as intimate, powerful and transformational as face-to-face sessions?