The Three Whats of Coaching

123 BlocksBeing a new manager can be exciting, confusing, and sometimes even a frightening experience, especially if the person hasn’t been adequately trained in management and leadership principles. One of the most common mistakes a new manager can make is the practice of being too much of a “teller,” “commander,” and “controller,” and not enough of a “listener,” “learner,” and “asker.”

On the surface, it may sound reasonable to expect a manager to demonstrate control by telling people what to do. And if the people don’t comply well enough, or fast enough, it’s equally reasonable to expect that a manager would show who is in charge by exercising some form of sanction or discipline. In days long past, this philosophy was quite common, and to some extent, it worked.

Today, however, workers simply won’t tolerate what they believe to be unfair management practices, especially when the unfairness comes in the form of a manager who is overly bossy, unreasonably unfair, or inappropriately controlling. Workers today have grown up in a different world, one that expects managers to be efficient and leaders to be effective.

When a manager would like to influence the behavior of a worker (either reinforcing a desirable behavior or discouraging a negative one), the best method that leaders can use is coaching. Effective coaching has the power to either reinforce or correct behavior without the manager being perceived as bossy, unfair, or controlling. Coaching works, and there is the research to prove it. There is so much research on the power of coaching that it is amazing more managers haven’t learned how to coach. Those that do know how to coach don’t often practice the time-tested techniques, missing out on the many benefits of coaching for no real reason.

Coaching models range from simple to complex. The simple models work in most situations with most people, and complex models work in almost all situations with almost everyone. Although there are many coaching models that have been developed, most of them focus on a couple of basic principles. The most basic model involves a simple process called “The Three Whats.” This simple process is so easy to learn that virtually any manager can memorize what each what means and how to apply it in a coaching situation.

“What” One

The first “What”of coaching is to find out more about the situation by asking questions and making statements like the ones seen below:

  • “What happened?”
  • “What is going on?”
  • “Describe for me what happened.”
  • “Tell me what you see.”

The purpose of the first “What” is to define the situation, clarify the details, and discuss the facts of what happened from the employee’s point of view. A controlling manager might begin a coaching conversation by saying, “This is what you did and I’m upset!” By contrast, effective coaches would begin the conversation with a neutral demeanor and an open-ended “What” question. The difference between the two approaches is quite striking. Beginning a coaching session with an accusatory statement and a demeanor that immediately challenges the employee will typically cause the employee to become defensive. Once the employee is defensive it is difficult to move the coaching session forward, if it moves at all. This explains why so many new managers (and sometimes experienced, too) have problems changing employee behavior.

What Two

After the employee has explained the situation, the coach moves to the second “What” question. The purpose of the second “What” is to clarify for the employee the impact of his/her behavior. A person’s behavior can make an impact in a number of different ways and affect many different individuals or groups of people: the employee personally, another employee, a group of employees, a customer, or the entire organization. Both the coach and the employee must be clear on the breadth and width of the impact. Until the employee clearly understands the impact of his/her behavior, changing that behavior will be difficult.

Examples of the second “What” question include those like the following:

  • “So after that happened, what reaction did you see from other employees?”
  • “What did the customer’s face tell you about your actions?”
  • “If several of our employees did the same thing, what impact would it have on our customers?”
  • “How long do you think we could we stay in business if many of our employees acted that way?”
  • “So, what do you think happens to your standing in the company when you do things like this?”
  • “When I hear things like this, what do you think goes through my mind?”

Answers to the second “What” question(s) can be slow to emerge from an employee. This is easy to explain: if the employee had had a clear understanding of the impact or consequences of his/her behavior before taking action, the outcome would likely have been very different. People often act without first considering the outcomes, consequences, or impact. Because the employee may not fully grasp the impact of his/her behavior, it’s important for the coach to proceed slowly through both the first and second “What” questions. Ineffective coaches practice “speed coaching,” while effective coaches practice “slow coaching.”

What Three

The third “What” question should progress naturally from the first two questions. After the situation and its impact have been clearly defined and understood by the employee, the next logical step for the coach to take is to ask questions like those below:

  • “So, what do you need to do next?”
  • “Now that you have described what happened and the impact of your behavior, what would you like to do next?”
  • “I appreciate your honesty in describing the situation. With equal honesty, could you please tell me what you think would make this situation better?”

If the plan to resolve the situation is merely created and explained by the coach, then the coach owns the plan. The best employees (the top 20 percent) can hear their coach’s plan and adopt it as their own, thus creating psychological ownership of the plan. The other 80 percent–the clear majority of employees–will not. A plan owned only by the coach is unlikely to work. However, if the employee contributes significantly to the plan, he or she will be invested in the plan (psychological ownership) and far more likely to implement the plan and resolve the problem.

When an employee has psychological ownership of both the problem and its solution, there are clear, immediate benefits: not only will the employee work hard to fix the problem, but he or she is also far less likely to cause a similar problem in the future. In other words, resolving problems correctly with the Three Whats of Coaching not only solves today’s problems, but it also helps prevent tomorrow’s problems from happening at all–something that is of particular importance to busy managers.

Thus far, we have spent most of our time discussing corrective coaching, but coaching is not merely a corrective technique, it is also a method that can be used to support or reinforce desirable behaviors. Indeed, world-class coaches use coaching to reinforce behaviors they want repeated far more frequently than they use coaching to correct problems. In fact the ratio is at least 5:1, meaning that world-class coaches use coaching to support positive behaviors five times more often than it is used to correct unwanted behavior.

The good news is that the Three Whats of Coaching works equally well to reinforce positive behavior as it does to correct poor behavior. The same sequence applies, as do many of the same questions. Rather than saying to an employee, “Way to go!” or “Good job!”, an effective coach takes a couple extra minutes and asks the three “What” questions. And by doing so, the discussion is much more powerful, resulting in far better results for the coach (and the employee).

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About the Author

Richard Williams, Ph.D.

Dr. Richard L. Williams has been a business consultant for over 40 years and has conducted more than 5,000 workshops to more than 350,000 managers and executives. Rick’s interests include maximizing human performance, team building, leadership development, executive coaching, process improvement, and instrumentation research and design. Rick has experience in working with a wide range of industries globally.