Coaching in Awkward Situations

Prologue

Coaching moments are not always obvious. What might start out as a humorous, questionable, or awkward situation may evolve into a perfect opportunity to step back and provide some impactful advice and counsel.

Our team’s global teleconference calls frequently provided just that chance. We regularly had ~300 people from more than 10 countries and 50 locations on our quarterly updates. Our operations reviews had slightly fewer participants.

You know the drill – regular, virtual meetings to update everyone on the progress and activities of the organization.

Typically, you learn to recognize voices quickly. Regardless, many insist on continuing to re-introduce themselves to the audience that already knows them well. “Yes, Emily, please continue.”

You also learn speakers’ habits … especially of those who participate frequently. Some speakers may have speech patterns or verbal ticks that can become annoying to some audiences. Some may even become chat-room fodder for the distracted teleconference meeting participants.

Let’s start here.

 

Saying Um

When Opportunity Strikes

Conference calls can be tough. Staying on track and being both effective and efficient with time is a challenge. Echoes due to poor phone connections, background noises, the unintentional use of the mute button, and questions such as “Can you go back one slide?” make achieving all of the call’s goals difficult.

One of our peer directors that had a key role in cross-organizational communications was required to speak often; he regularly led the conference calls. He had one of those vocal habits that grated on people, like fingernails on a chalkboard: he constantly used filler expressions. Filler expressions are useless words or phrases that create a pause in the conversation such as, “I mean” or “you know.” If used infrequently, they are less obvious as audiences usually focus on digesting key messages rather than analyzing every single word streaming from the speaker’s mouth.

Most of us are prone to use a filler word or two. Like, I mean, you know, those words that do, er, absolutely nothing for the content of the conversation other than creating an, um, you know, annoying or distracting pause. Right?

Derek’s vocalized pause of choice was “Um” and he said it quite often. Actually, he said “um” so often that nearly everyone on our calls became absorbed with keeping and posting the “count” on a subgroup instant message thread during our 100+ person calls.

“10! 25! 50!” And, so it went. Needless to say, this little “joke” got old fast and meetings devolved to the point where we all thought, “I hope Derek is not speaking today.” Unfortunately, he always did speak and everyone continued to keep score, whether consciously or subconsciously.

During one such two-hour meeting the count neared 100. Something had to be done. Instead of Derek’s intended message coming through to the audience, the “ums” seemed to completely obscure his important business communications.

What should be done about this?

 

Stop Saying Um Star Trek

Time to Coach

I thought about this for a bit after one call and felt terrible that one of my peers was unknowingly being mocked due to something that many speakers suffer from, so I called his office.

“Hey, Derek. What did you think of that call?” We chatted for a few minutes. “Derek, I have a question for you. Has anyone ever given you feedback about your speaking style?” “No, Michael, no one has. Why?”

I knew Derek well and I was confident that he wouldn’t mind my ribbing him so I decided to use his filler word of choice in my explanation.

“Derek, um, I want to share something about, um, the way you, um, speak during our calls. Um, you have a tendency to, um, say ‘um’ often. In fact, way too often.”

No one had ever bothered to share this issue with Derek. I was nervous at first, but he took it well. His involvement in our organization and business meetings was too important for his communications problem to be treated as flippantly as it had been.

Derek asked, “What should I do about it?” I inquired if he had ever considered Toastmasters. He hadn’t. I suggested that he seriously consider joining them and added that the company would probably pay for it.

He thanked me with deep sincerity and an also-noticeable degree of embarrassment. I told him that he’d do just fine!

Derek enrolled in Toastmasters shortly after the conversation. I told our boss what I had spoken to Derek about to ensure that the idea would gain traction.

 

Bad Habits Die Hard

And In the End

I shared the conversation with several of the scorekeepers over the next few weeks so that the background games would stop. Improving the habit of using filler words takes time.

At first, Derek’s pauses were more awkward than natural as he focused intently on reducing the “ums” that had infiltrated prior conversations. Sometimes improvement comes after a step or two back. By the time six months had elapsed, he was well on the way to being completely de-ummed.

At one point later that year we were together and discussed what he had been doing. Joining Toastmasters was a seminal moment for him. It had dramatically improved his speaking pattern in several ways and he was grateful that someone had been brave enough to make him aware of this habit. The conference call tracking games were now ancient history.

 

Making It Work … For You

What made this coaching experience successful? First, it started with a clear example of an issue to be resolved. Second, it was addressed during a private conversation because coaching is best done one-on-one as it keeps the recipient from becoming defensive or embarrassed. Third, the approach was rooted in trust, authentic concern and support. Derek had no reason to question my motives for speaking with him despite the levity of the approach I had elected to use.

As a professional, colleague, or leader, one has to remain conscious of what transpires in a given setting. Coaching moments rarely advertise themselves with bright, flashing neon lights. Most of the time, they are more subtle such as in the story above where they may present themselves in a more embarrassing or awkward manner.

True coaches and mentors do not shy away from these opportunities. Rather, they address the situation as a coach or advisor should, directly and candidly with the coachee. More often than not these opportunities develop into a successful endeavor.

It is very important to remain aware of the environment in which you and your colleagues are in. The subtle undertones of office humor may actually be a sign of the need for coaching intervention. The next time you encounter a situation that may require coaching, identify the issue, devise a plan, and, as a team, come up with a solution.

 

Michael Massetti is an Executive Partner with Gartner who really does enjoy being a supply chain professional! Seriously. All opinions are my own.

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