Step 3. Facilitate Discovery – 10 Steps to Successful Coaching, 2nd Edition

Step 3

Facilitate Discovery


• Discussion of personality typing

• What input to gather and how to do it

• How to conduct personal observations

• How to uncover your coachee’s values, skills, and accomplishments

I use the Co-Active Training Institute model to end most of the workshops I facilitate, giving participants a chance to say whatever they need to say to process the information they have taken in and to acknowledge what has happened over the period we’ve been working together. During one of these circles, a participant who’d been rather quiet all day said, “I enjoyed the workshop, and I especially want to thank you for simply asking during one of today’s exercises, ‘What is your dream?’ No one has asked me that in more years than I can remember. I am so thankful to have gotten back in touch with my dream today.”

Like I did for this program participant, you’re about to ask powerful questions that people haven’t been asked in a long time. You want to know what makes your coachee tick. Who is he at his core? Who is he when he’s annoyed or when he gets stressed with multiple deadlines? What brings him joy? Asking these questions is in the service of helping people see themselves—to connect with their strengths, aspirations, and challenges. This starts in this step.

For several reasons, you want this information early in a coaching relationship. Even if you are the coachee’s manager, or have already worked closely with the coachee, you’ll want to embark on this discovery to get a fuller and more balanced view of who the coachee is. By showing the coachee you care about getting to know her, you continue to build trust and rapport. By finding out what drives her, you know how to motivate and encourage her when times are tough. By knowing her strengths and past accomplishments, you can offer genuine feedback about who she is and what she’s capable of. When setting goals (step 4), you’ll know what really will excite her and what she’s most likely to do. These are reasons you may want to share with the coachee in order to make her feel comfortable responding. Additionally, you should make it clear that at all times in coaching, the coachee need only respond to the questions that resonate with her, or that she is comfortable answering.

What’s often surprising is how much coachees learn about themselves while you’re discovering all you can about them. Often, they’ve been too distracted to notice what you are seeking to uncover. The simple act of articulating and noticing their responses to some of the discovery questions you’ll ask can produce positive changes for them.

Finally, when your coachee has done some self-exploration, the coaching to follow will be more effective and meaningful because it will provide context for your work together. There are basically four ways you can collect data about your coachees in this step: using one of a variety of types of personality instruments, asking others, directly observing, or asking the coachee himself. Which ones you choose will have to do with which the coachee will find most credible, which is easiest and fastest to do, what your budget is, or which data will give you the most to work with.

Using Personality Typing Instruments

Many coaches begin to understand their coachees—and help their coachees become aware of personality characteristics that are propelling them forward or holding them back—by having them complete some sort of personality typing instrument or profile at the start of their coaching relationship. According to coach, consultant, and trainer Matt Ahrens, who specializes in the application of the Enneagram personality system, such tools are helpful in describing some typical behavior patterns and stumbling blocks for different types of people. Knowing these personality patterns helps you anticipate where your coachee might get hung up or what blocks might get in his way. And you can learn some of the strengths typically tied to his personality type. Sometimes it’s reassuring to a coachee who is experiencing some trouble when you recognize the struggle as something typical of his personality type rather than some unique shortcoming. That allows him to look at the situation more dispassionately. Also, asking a coachee who’s stuck to look at his situation from the vantage point of a different personality type can help him see things from a fresh perspective.

There are hundreds of personality inventories available, and while all are helpful, they vary in complexity and in the richness of the data they provide. Some of the more popular ones are the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, DISC, the Enneagram, and the Hogan Assessment Suite. More subject-specific profiles also can be useful—for example, Situational Leadership, which measures leadership competencies, or the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode instrument, which provides some insight on how your coachee views and responds to conflict.

Whichever personality typing instrument you use, it’s most critical to reinforce with your coachee that a person is not merely her personality type. We’re all individuals and all possess aspects of multiple personality types. Our essence lies within what the instrument is measuring. Just because an instrument labels your coachee in a certain way, you can’t then ignore what she might tell, share, or show you during your interactions.

Many of these instruments require you to be certified or licensed to administer, score, and interpret them. However, there are several ways to work with profiles even if you aren’t certified:

• Partner with someone who is certified to administer and analyze instrument results. Just make sure that you, the administrator, and the coachee have agreed on the roles each of you will play and the confidentiality parameters you want to have in place. Will you sit in on the interpretation session? Will you and the administrator discuss the coachee’s results with or without him present? Do you have his permission to do so? Your coachee can get a lot of value from this typing process, even if you’re not directly involved.

• Pick an instrument and share with your coachee the instrument’s descriptions of each of the different personality types or preferences. (You can find these online or in books about each typing instrument.) Let your coachee choose the personality type to which she most relates. Of course, this isn’t a scientific approach, but because the coachee knows herself better than anyone else knows her, she’s very likely to pick the type that closely describes her. I feel comfortable doing that knowing that even certified administrators of certain instruments, like Ahrens, give coachees a choice. “I think you’re this type,” he might say, “but you also may want to consider this closely related one.”

• See if your coachee has completed one or more personality profiles in the past. I’ve met people who’ve had the results of several of them tucked away in their desk drawers. Ask your coachee to bring in the results of profiles he’s completed previously, and use these results as the basis of a conversation.

You don’t need to have new coachees complete a personality profile because there are many other ways to uncover their essence, abilities, and desires. Using a tried-and-true tool like a personality inventory can give you a quick snapshot of a person’s preferences and style, but you should not use this in isolation. Be sure to solicit data from other sources to create a balanced view.

Seeking Input From Others

Coaching relationships can start off with the coach collecting information about the coachee from other people. The coach might ask the coachee to identify a variety of people she comes in contact with at work—or even, in some cases, outside of work—from whom the coach can get information about the coachee. Again, even if you think you know the coachee well, you’ll want to round out your impression by getting some alternate viewpoints.

There are several situations where soliciting input from others would be beneficial: When coaching has been requested to address a specific performance-related issue, the coach may need more information on the weakness the coachee’s boss has noticed or the results the organization expects from the coachee. Or, if a coachee wants to set a particular goal that his boss doesn’t consider important, it’s good to know the boss’s feelings before the coachee spends too much energy on an unimportant goal. By getting input from the boss at the start of coaching, you and the coachee learn which goals are realistic and valuable to the boss and to the organization.

Another person’s perspective adds dimension to a discussion or gives the coachee the impetus for working on something she didn’t previously see as an issue. Outside input is also useful when the coachee is working on a particular issue that hasn’t been covered in prior performance evaluations or when she’s being groomed for, or has been passed over for, a promotion.

You can collect data from the coachee’s boss, direct reports, and co-workers during one-on-one interviews or an informal meeting. A very simple format for these meetings is asking about the coachee’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (a SWOT analysis), or using a “Stop, Start, Continue” formula (what should your coachee stop, start, or continue doing?). You can also read the coachee’s existing performance appraisals and sales, service, or performance data.

Another option is to use a formal 360-degree feedback instrument, like the Profilor or Skillscope, to gather data about the coachee from a variety of people. Standardized 360-degree tools are broadly available. These tools allow people to rate your coachee on a series of qualities that others around the world have also been rated on. This allows you to provide norming information about how closely your coachee’s results match other people’s at his organizational level on a particular competency. Sometimes it’s more relevant to create your own collection tool. Although it’s more labor intensive (that is, you’ll have to tally the results yourself and look for themes to share with the coachee), creating your own instrument lets you ask about qualities or categories that are meaningful to your coachee and the organization.

Tool 3-1 is a 360-degree feedback survey I created when I worked for Redwood City. It asks people to rate the coachee on competencies tied to the organization’s values. Surveys also may be based on leadership competencies, job descriptions, or the specific items the coachee feels she should be working on or on which she’d like more detailed feedback. Use the example as a template for your own 360-degree input-gathering instrument.

TOOL 3-1

Coachee instructions:

1.  Decide whose ratings you would like to include in your survey and ask those people if they would be willing to participate as raters. Follow these parameters:

a. Select five to eight raters.

b. Your direct supervisor should be one of the raters.

c. The remaining raters may be your direct reports, your peers, or other managers in the organization.

d. Raters may be from your department or another.

2.  Submit your raters’ names on the rater form below.

3.  Write your name on the top of each of the surveys you will be handing out.

4.  Give each rater an instruction sheet and survey.

5.  Tell the raters to return the surveys to HR by April 15.

Please return this form to HR by April 15.
Your name:
Rater Relationship to You (e.g., Boss, Peer, Direct Report) How Long Have You Known This Rater?

Rater instructions:

Thank you for agreeing to complete this survey. By doing so, you have the opportunity to help the person who gave it to you learn more about his or her strengths as well as areas where development may be needed.

Please be candid in providing feedback and include examples in the comments section that illustrate your ratings. We encourage your honesty and completeness. This is the place for objective performance observations. Be assured that your answers will be completely anonymous; they always will be combined with others and never will be identifiable in any way. Please return the completed survey to HR by April 15.

Thank you for your input!

Part 2. Answer the following two questions about the participant’s greatest strength and his or her challenges. Strengths and challenges might include any of the competencies listed in Part 1 (for example, highly innovative or lacking in sensitivity) or they might be other talents or characteristics you’ve noticed in the participant. Please include descriptions or comments to explain the terms you use.

This person’s greatest asset is:

What challenges does this person have to overcome to be more effective?

Part 3. Circle the appropriate response in the left-hand column and give an explanation in the right-hand column.
Statement Explanation
I would happily work with this person again:

• Strongly agree

• Agree

• Disagree

• Strongly disagree

Why would or wouldn’t you like to work with this person?
This person works best with [circle as many as apply]:

• His or her colleagues

• His or her boss

• His or her team members or direct reports

• Other: ___________________

Why do you feel this person works best with the group(s) you identified?

Source: Sophie Oberstein, Redwood City Succession Planning Program.

Whatever type of instrument you use, be certain that it ensures confidentiality for the coachee and for those offering input about him. Make it clear to the raters that the coachee won’t see their individual comments—except that often the bosses’ comments and ratings are identified—and that they (the raters) won’t see a report of the feedback collected (unless the coachee chooses to share it with them). Explain that the input is only for the coachee’s development.

You don’t always have to get input from others to find out about your coachee, but doing so can provide another perspective on the issues she faces and where she should be focusing her earliest coaching efforts. When you compare the responses of others with those provided by the coachee, you also get some insight on how self-aware she is.


When feedback comes from multiple sources, there may be discrepancies; for example, your coachee may be seen favorably by his supervisors because he is a manager who gets great results, while staff give him low marks because he doesn’t listen and is a micromanager. Alternatively, team members may rave about his approachability and fairness, but his bosses may criticize his lack of progress on key organizational goals. Your role is to help your coachee figure out whose voice matters and how to respond to both sets of individuals.

Making Observations

Sometimes the most powerful way to learn about your coachee’s style and impact is to observe him at work. Ask to sit in on his regular staff meeting, project meeting, or presentation to see how others respond to him, what impression he gives, and how he communicates. Or, depending on the focus of your coaching, set yourself up in your coachee’s office. When I’m coaching on time management, for example, I might spend up to two hours watching how a client uses his time, how he handles interruptions, or how many times the phone rings. If you don’t have time for this, you’ll have to rely on self-reporting, which may or may not be accurate.

Before you begin your observations, work with your coachee to plan how he’s going to position your presence for his staff. I usually guide my clients to say something like, “I’m working with a coach to improve my meeting management skills. Next week, my coach wants to sit in on our staff meeting, and I want to make sure that’s OK with all of you. You should know that she will only be here to watch me and to give me some feedback on my skills; she won’t be watching or grading you. Our ideas aren’t being evaluated, and no one but me is getting any feedback from this observation. Please let me know in the next day or two if this will be a problem for you. Otherwise, I’ll assume it’s OK to have her here next week.”

Also, before you observe your coachee in action, let him know that he should be himself; that trying to impress you or be different than he usually is only cheats him of real learning. Tell him not to prepare more for this meeting, or this day, than any other. And, have him create a signal he can use if he needs you to leave the meeting—for example, if something heated or confidential comes up, if he gets uncomfortable, or if he senses someone else in the room is growing uncomfortable. When you see the signal, leave. Just knowing he has this option usually is enough to make him feel safe. Make sure you know ahead of time the context you’ll be observing him in and if there is anything in particular he wants you to be watching for.

If it’s impossible for you to observe his actions in person, you might have him video or audiotape meetings (with the permission of the people in the room) and analyze his own performance.

When you’re shadowing your coachee, how you take notes during an observation is important. You’re going to want to capture not only what the coachee did well and where there are opportunities for improvement but also what exactly she said and what you notice about the energy and interactions in the room. I generally set up my notes for observations in two columns: + and -. In those columns, I strive to capture verbatim the actual words the coachee and other people in the room used. It’s harder (not impossible) for people to get defensive when you play back their own words to them than it is for them to get defensive about your interpretation of their words. Can you use a recording device? Yes, but I personally find it just multiplies your workload because you then have to listen to the entire meeting over again to extract the same things you could have captured on the spot. When I record interactions, it is just as a backup so that if I missed something in my verbatim notes, I can refer back to it. Whether or not you record, your notes should also capture the intangible things going on in the room.

Another way to record the intangible events in the room is to create a map of the interactions. Draw a map of the room and label each seat with the name of the people present. Then use arrows and symbols of your choosing to document such things as how often each person speaks, who encourages others to speak, and who interrupts whom? Who asks questions and who shares opinions, and so on.

Tools 3-2 and 3-3 show what my notes look like after an observation of a coachee’s presentation and of the group dynamics in another coachee’s meeting (used with permission; names changed). Tool 3-4 is a more formal coaching observation form I might use when I know I am assessing an interaction for specific skills.


After an observation, avoid the often-asked, open-ended question, “How do you think that went?” This can turn into a trap when the coachee says, “I think it went great!” but you have feedback to the contrary. You don’t want to have to say, “Actually, I think it was pretty rotten.” If you have specific feedback to offer, deliver it, then ask how it lands. If you want to make the conversation interactive, instead ask, “I noticed you ended the meeting without locking in the agreed-upon actions and who was completing them. How do you think you can remember to do that in the future?”

TOOL 3-2

TOOL 3-3

TOOL 3-4

Observing can be a regular part of workplace coaching and isn’t limited to this step in the process. In fact, if you do it at regular intervals throughout the coaching process, it can provide dramatic evidence of results. Plus, there really is no better way to make positive improvements than to get feedback based on a direct observation of ourselves in action.

Asking the Coachee

While it’s important to gain insight on how the coachee is perceived by others, how he makes decisions, and the impact his actions and decisions have on others, your discovery is incomplete if you do not engage the coachee himself. Whichever of the tools for discovery you use, it should be in concert with asking the coachee about himself directly.

There are pluses and minuses whether you do discovery work with your coachee before or after you talk to others about him. If you do discovery work with the client before, your vision of him is not clouded by others’ perceptions, but when you talk to others, your vision may be clouded by what you know of the coachee. You may dismiss certain feedback because you know something else to be true. If you do it after talking with others, it allows you to share what you’ve heard and ask him how it lands with him, but it also can narrow your focus to those issues that others raised and overlook something that might be important to know about him. As such, I recommend asking the coachee to do some discovery work with you both before and after you collect other data about him.

Identifying Values

People experience fulfillment when their actions and behavior honor the values they hold. This confluence of values and actions is so critical to getting effective performance from your employees and to having a motivated workforce that I’m going to say it again, inserting a few work-related phrases: Employees experience fulfillment in their jobs (which then translates to happiness in their jobs and increased productivity) when what they do at work on a daily basis honors the values they hold. More broadly, if what we’re doing does not align with what’s important to us, we experience dissonance, frustration, and depression.

In a coaching context, a value is whatever is important to the coachee—whatever he wouldn’t want to live without. I don’t analyze whether something a coachee tells me is important to him is, strictly speaking, a value. If he says, “The hiking trail behind my house is so important to me I couldn’t imagine life without it,” I list “hiking trail” as one of his values. Then I’ll ask him to explain what that hiking trail brings up for him, and he might say, “Nature, physical activity, tranquility, and no stress.” Now we’re getting closer to his values, in the traditional sense of the word. Physical objects may suggest a person’s values, and digging a little deeper can reveal the values that underlie the desires for specific objects. When doing values exercises, you want to be expansive at first, listing, or having the coachee list, as many values as you can think of or as many as you can coax out of the coachee. Don’t critique or question each one. Then have the coachee prioritize the list. Prioritizing values is a real process of discovery for the coachee.

One simple way to start the conversation about values is to talk together about the organization’s values and what those mean to the coachee. Then explore how the coachee’s personal values resonate with those of the team, department, or organization. This is a clear way to link what the employee is doing on the job with what he believes it is important for him to do in the world.

Another way to highlight work-related values is to ask the coachee to close her eyes and think about a time when she was completely excited by her work, when she woke up eager to get out of bed and into the office, when she didn’t even care whether she was getting paid to do what she was doing. This time doesn’t have to be recent. It doesn’t have to be in her current job. And it doesn’t have to be dramatic. It can be a simple moment when she just felt content at work. Ask her to see that time clearly—to notice what was going on around her, how she was feeling, who else was there, and so forth. When she opens her eyes, ask her to share what she saw. Jot down those things she shares that clearly are important to her in a work situation. Check your list with her afterward to make sure that she agrees with what you heard as her values and that you didn’t leave anything big off the list.

Here are a few other ways to discern the coachee’s values:

• Have the coachee write down all the different ways he identifies himself—for example, father, brother, teacher, mechanic, Catholic, coffee drinker, yoga enthusiast, and the like. Then ask him to pick the five descriptors that are most important and to tell you about them.

• Ask her to pull out her phone and show you photos of the things that are important in her life.

• Meet at a site that is important to your coachee and ask him to give you a tour and tell you about its significance. Or, have him bring in one to three items that are significant to him (assuming these are portable) and have him share why they are.

• Use a checklist of values from which she can choose those that are most important to her. Generally, this isn’t an option I favor because no list is complete and, in this case, the list can shape perception. But there is one values survey I do like (Tool 3-5). It was created by Christine Bennett and WorkVantage, an organizational development and training firm.

When working with values, follow this process:

• Be expansive and list on paper as many words or phrases that have meaning to the coachee as you can.

• Ask him to choose the four to six phrases about which he feels most strongly.

• For each of the selected values, have him really bring it to life for you. Ask questions like, “What does this value mean to you? What other words describe this value? How does it make you feel? What’s happening when you’re living this value?”

• Ask questions that reveal to what extent the coachee currently is honoring each value in his work (or life) and what he can do to reach a place where he is more in alignment with it. Here are a couple of sample questions: “On a scale of one to 10, how much are you honoring this value today? What can you do right now to move closer to honoring this value every day?”

TOOL 3-5

Coachee instructions: For each of the values listed on the left, indicate its level of importance by placing a checkmark in one of the columns to the right. Don’t think too long about each one because your first reactions are often the most accurate. When you’ve completed the survey, identify the five values that are most important to you and write a short definition of what that value means in your life.

Identifying Motivators

Motivators are more fleeting and superficial than values, but they do propel (or hamper) performance. One of the things you need to help your coachee discover is what will propel her forward even when things get difficult. This is an important piece of foundational knowledge you’ll come back to later in your coaching: What are those things that will move your coachee to action in a given situation? Does she have an internal competitiveness or desire to succeed? Does she seek positions of more responsibility? Example 3-6 is a great tool to help define more narrowly the types of recognition your coachees most appreciate. These motivators can become the propelling forces that help them achieve their goals. Before giving this questionnaire to a coachee, you may want to rework it a bit—possibly changing the scenario provided to one that more closely matches the coachee’s specific situation.

Don’t assume that, as someone’s coach or manager, you already know how she’s going to respond to this questionnaire. A study in the 1990s in which employees and their bosses were each asked to rate the factors that would motivate the employees showed a huge discrepancy in perceived priorities on this subject. Managers, asked to guess which factors on a list were most motivating to their employees, ranked good wages, job security, and promotion opportunities as first, second, and third, respectively. Their employees ranked those factors fifth, fourth, and seventh. The employees’ top three? Appreciation, feeling “in” on things, and an understanding attitude.

TOOL 3-6

Coachee instructions: Read the scenario. Then rank each of the 12 potential rewards. To the right of each reward, put a number from one to 12, with one being the most appealing reward and 12 being the least appealing.

The scenario: You have just managed a challenging project—one that some people thought was set up to fail. You completed it on time and on budget, and your team still likes you. Your boss hands you the following list of possible rewards for a job well done and asks you to rank them from one (most preferred) to 12 (least preferred).

Reward Ranking
No reward—I get satisfaction from successfully completing assigned tasks like this one  
Praise from my boss and team members  
Some time off after working so hard on this project  
Financial compensation for coming in under budget  
My boss publicly announcing the results so that my visibility in the organization increases  
Being given other challenging assignments like this one now that I’ve shown my stuff  
More autonomy and control on future projects; earning more trust in my abilities from my boss  
A note placed in my personnel file  
This success counting toward a possible promotion  
A gift card to my favorite store or activity  
A budget to take the project team out to celebrate our accomplishment  
I’ve got a better idea: [write your own reward]  

Source: Full Experience Coaching.

Identifying Skills and Achievements

What someone has achieved in the past is often a good indicator of what she can achieve in the future. When times get tough, however, coachees often forget all the great things they’ve accomplished. As a coach, you can collect these achievements and, when necessary, remind the coachee of them. Focusing on achievements and skills that come naturally to the coachee also helps identify what work or projects would be a good fit for her.

Here are some activities you can complete to determine the coachee’s achievements and skills.

• Ask the coachee to list eight to 10 specific accomplishments or projects by which he has demonstrated some degree of skill, achieved a goal, or explored a new challenge. Be sure he is specific when describing his accomplishments. As an example, you’re looking for things like “I had an article published in our trade magazine,” not “writing.” These should be accomplishments that made them feel good, not those that others praised them for, and should include all segments of their lives, not just their work. After they’ve listed these accomplishments, there are several things you can do with them: Notice the themes in the list. Identify the skills necessary to have achieved them, and explore how much the coachee is using those skills today. Or, ask him to rank his accomplishments and their related skills in descending order of importance.

• Ask the coachee to write the text someone would use to introduce her as she was about to deliver a presentation to her colleagues. What would the introduction highlight about her and her background?

• Richard Nelson Bolles’ classic book What Color Is Your Parachute? includes several exercises that help individuals identify their skills and accomplishments. Some coaches structure all their sessions around a particular book of exercises like that one.

• Pull out old performance evaluations and look for themes.

• Use questions like these in your initial coaching sessions:

∘ Which assignments or roles in the past provided you with the most challenge? The least? Why?

∘ What accomplishment are you most proud of and why?

∘ What part of your education or work experience has been the most valuable to you over the years?

∘ What actions have you taken to manage your career?

∘ What lessons have you learned from your successes or failures?

∘ What is your biggest challenge in trying to balance your work and personal life?

∘ What do you want to accomplish before you die?

∘ What do you think your co-workers say about you when you’re not around?

Tool 3-7 is a skills analysis of the type that you may want to use with your coachee. Any exercise that asks the coachee to identify and sort his existing skills is useful. What I most like about this example is that it helps you and your coachee identify a few categories of skills: Core skills are those in which he is highly proficient and takes total delight or very much enjoys using. Knowing his core skills is helpful in coaching because these are the skills he can rely on when you’re pushing him to try new things. Wish-list skills are those he delights in or very much enjoys using but in which he has little or no skill. These are skills he should focus on to accomplish new and desired outcomes. Ball-and-chain skills are those he’s highly proficient in but prefers not to use or strongly dislikes. As a coach, you’ll want to help your coachee restructure his time so that he’s using these skills at work less than 15–20 percent of his time.

TOOL 3-7

Coachee instructions: Create a list of skills you use in your job. Then copy each one into the appropriate box on the chart below, considering both how much you enjoy using that skill and how competent you are at it. It’s OK to have more than one skill in any box.

Sharing Feedback

The information that you collect about your coachee is not for you—it’s to facilitate her own self-discovery. To be of service to your coachee, you need to share it with her. Here are a few tips for sharing what you’ve heard or seen about the coachee:

• Feedback should be immediate. It’s important to deliver feedback as soon after an observed behavior as possible, primarily so that the coachee will remember the action or situation to which you’re referring.

• There are several things to do to prepare for a feedback meeting:

∘ First, if any feedback reports were generated, such as from a 360-degree process, read those over and mark them up to highlight what it’s most important for the coachee to see. Whether you are reviewing a 360 report or your own notes, flag discrepancies in opinion and note themes.

∘ Sharing themes helps keep the amount of feedback you’ll deliver manageable. When you don’t look for themes after observing the coachee on the job, your feedback tends to be chronological, which is less helpful. We want the coachee to come away saying, “I need to involve others in decision making more,” not “first I need to welcome everyone to the discussion, then I need to provide context, then I need to set parameters for their input, then …” Themed feedback is focused, concise, and tells a story the coachee can repeat to himself, or to anyone.

∘ When you’ve used an observation form or have a feedback report to deliver, remember this analogy: At parent-teacher conferences, the teacher has a completed report card he is going to give the parent at the end of the meeting, but (hopefully) he does not spend the time in the conference to read it aloud to the parent. Instead, he uses the time to share his general observations about the child; to ask what the parent has observed at home; and to build a relationship with the parents so they can work together to improve the child’s school performance. That’s the same when you’re coaching and have a feedback form filled out. Talk to the person about some highlights or themes—don’t read it word-for-word—and then give it to her to take away and digest on her own. Often, coaches get nervous that they haven’t covered everything on the form during the feedback session. Coaching to a checklist does not produce lasting change on the part of the coachee because it lacks a richness that a more descriptive, two-way conversation can provide. And you are providing more information than the coachee can absorb at one time. You’ll be giving the form to the coachee, so you don’t have to cover everything. Cover the one or two most extreme points, lock in some accountability, and you will have provided good feedback and good coaching.

∘ If your interview notes with different stakeholders show variances in opinion, either go back and ask for clarity, or prepare to talk to the coachee about whose feedback takes precedence.

∘ You might want to think about suggestions in any of the areas that indicate weaknesses. Coaching is about helping people find their own answers, but if you have resources where they might look for those, or if you have suggestions in an area that you can tell is his blind spot, it might be appropriate to provide it. Just make sure these are suggestions—not directives. Offer them and ask for a response.

• Set the stage: When you sit down with the coachee to deliver the feedback, there are a few things to do before diving right in.

∘ Ask the coachee how he’s feeling about getting the feedback or how he tends to respond to feedback in general.

∘ Remind him that the feedback is for his development, not for evaluation, and that no one else needs to see or hear the results, unless he wishes to share it with them (see item 7 on this list).

∘ Explain that feedback measures perceptions, not necessarily facts. But even though they may not be accurate, they influence how others think of you. I use an analogy to make this point, like this one: A car company solicits feedback on how customers like their cars. The customers say, “I don’t like how the passenger seat doesn’t recline.” The company knows the seat does recline, so should they dismiss the feedback? Not so fast. What this valuable feedback tells the company is that they are not doing a good job educating customers about how to recline the seats.

∘ Tell them what their role is during the delivery of the feedback—for example, to ask clarifying questions, to listen and not to explain, and so on.

∘ Explain that there will be moments when he’ll recognize who said something, or he’ll wonder “Who said that?” In these cases, you’ll want him to stop worrying about who said it and to focus instead on whether, regardless of who said it, there is any truth in it.

• The feedback itself should be BASIC. That is:

Balanced—Not always negative and not always positive. Don’t get me wrong, not every conversation needs to be balanced, just overall across your several meetings. You don’t want your interactions with another person to be all positive or all negative. They should be balanced over time so the person to whom you always say bad things doesn’t dread seeing you, or the person who you’re always positive with doesn’t dismiss these meetings as not valuable.

Authentic—Above all, feedback should be genuine. Don’t force yourself to add something good or bad if there isn’t anything good or bad to share. Don’t sugar-coat problems, and don’t make things up.

Specific—Your feedback should be an objective, detailed reflection of what you’ve seen or heard the coachee do. Avoid assumptions or generalities. Don’t focus on things that are nonobservable, but instead focus on distinct examples (for example, “You knew just what to say” versus “You said these right words here and here …”).

Impact-focused—Share the observed behavior’s impact on you or others. Such feedback might sound like this: “When you send the agenda in advance of your meetings, people show up with more questions and the meetings are shorter” or “It’s embarrassing to me when our boss asks me what’s happening with your projects and I don’t have a report from you so that I can answer her.” This type of feedback rarely elicits a defensive reaction because it’s hard for someone to argue with the observable facts you describe—such as the number of questions or the length of the meeting—or claim that you didn’t experience something (embarrassment, in the example given) that you’re saying you did experience.

Concise—Be brief. You want to avoid giving a laundry list of feedback. It’s too much for them to remember and they get overwhelmed. Besides, research has shown you can’t work to improve that many things at one time, so you need to focus on the one or two things that will have the greatest positive impact right away.


Some people downplay their accomplishments or don’t see their strengths as anything special. When they hear something positive about themselves or their work, they say things like, “It was really my team that did it” or “That’s really no big deal” or “I’m not the greatest at that.” Like everything that happens in a coaching session, this is a coachable moment. Ask him what that downplaying is about. Suggest that he just say “Thank you” when he gets good feedback or is reminded of a strength—and nothing else!

• In addition to being BASIC, constructive feedback should be achievable, addressing aspects of the coachee’s behavior or characteristics that are within his control. Giving feedback on someone’s accent, height, or boss, for example, is counterproductive because these aren’t things the coachee can change.


While one of the tenants of this feedback model is giving balanced feedback, I cannot stress enough the importance of sharing positive feedback. For one thing, your coachee is probably already getting more negative feedback than positive. Negative, or constructive, feedback is more commonly delivered, and negative comments get much more of our attention than good-to-glowing ones. I often need to slow coachees down to make sure they processed what was good in their feedback, even when the good is far more prominent than the less-than-good. Additionally, many people are simply not aware that their strengths truly are strengths. They just take them as givens and assume that the traits and talents that come naturally to them are equally natural for everyone. Perhaps they don’t realize that their common sense isn’t always that common. They don’t appreciate that what they’re bringing to the table is unique and needed. Altering this lack of awareness is an aspect of coaching that I love. It feels great to help a coachee see that what he or she takes as normal and not extraordinary is really unusual and fantastic.

• After delivering feedback, it’s a good idea to allow the recipient to respond. What’s his immediate perspective on the situation or on your feedback? Questions you might ask include: How do you feel hearing this? What does this feedback mean to you? How do you move forward with this feedback? After that immediate response, I generally suggest he take the feedback back to his office and put it away for at least 48 hours. When he comes back to it at that time, his head will be clearer, and he’ll have had a few days to let his initial reactions sink in. You’ll want to follow up with him after some time has passed to see how he’s feeling about the feedback now.

• While I’m very explicit when delivering the feedback I’ve collected about a coaching client that he does not need to share the feedback with anyone, I also encourage him to do so. If he is an individual contributor, I suggest he think about the themes from his feedback and share them with his boss, especially when his self-assessment differs greatly from his supervisor’s. This allows the two of them to come to a mutual understanding of where the employee needs to focus and what support he will need. It also sets the two of them up to continue working on the employee’s development once I, as the coach, am no longer in the picture. If my coaching client is a supervisor or organizational leader, I propose that she share her feedback with her team. It is a courageous act to share one’s strengths, as well as one’s opportunities, with the people who report to you, but that vulnerability can build trust and deepen relationships with team members. Someone who recently did this told me: “Sharing the results of your feedback with team members turns out to be a very empowering thing to do. The reality is that your colleagues already know the feedback. It’s a little bit like the back of your T-shirt—it’s plain for everyone to see except for you, the person wearing it. So sharing what you’ve learned from the feedback with your team, and sharing it with others, demonstrates a certain self-awareness. It shows that you understand the way you’re seen, that you’re taking ownership for the things that you want to do better, and it allows you to enlist their support in helping you be a better leader.”

Here’s how a concise piece of feedback that incorporates many of these elements might sound: “Carl, may I give you some feedback on your interaction with that angry customer who just left (immediate)? [Wait for response.] I noticed that the customer’s voice got louder when you repeatedly used the phrase, ‘I know just how you feel’ (specific/impact-focused). Did you notice she was saying, ‘You don’t know how I feel—how could you possibly know how I feel?’ (impact/asking for response). May I suggest a response that’s less likely to get that kind of reaction from an angry customer? [Wait for response.] How about using an apology, not for causing the situation but for the situation she’s in, like, ‘I’m sorry this happened to you’ (suggestion). Would you be willing to try that next time and tell me how it goes (asking for response)?”

And here’s how a coaching conversation in which you’re delivering feedback might start:

Coach: I’m looking forward to reviewing the results of your 360 with you today. It will provide lots of good food for thought in your development planning. How are you feeling about this meeting?

Coachee: I’m anxious—but also excited. I think I’m generally doing a good job, but you never know where you might have a blind spot. I did one about two years ago in an old job. I still incorporate some of the feedback I got from the 360 today.

Coach: I’m glad you’ve had a positive experience with a 360 in the past, as that will allow us to spend time focusing on the feedback itself, rather than talking about the value of this exercise. The feedback we’re going over today is from the people you asked to participate—your boss, your direct reports, your peers, and others. And it’s anonymous except for your boss. That’s how we encourage their honesty. Try not to get wrapped up in guessing who said what, but more in determining if anything they said is valid and valuable.

Coachee: I’ll try …

Coach: The report is for you and you alone. In fact, I’ll give you my copy at the end. There are no copies for your boss and it’s not part of any performance review process. Finally, the feedback is in a very dense, thorough report. I recommend that after we walk through it today that you put it away for a few days before pulling it out and reading through it again. That’ll give you some time to digest. How does that sound?

Coachee: Sounds good.

Coach: OK, then let’s get started with a couple of overall themes from your feedback.

Discovery Forms and Fun Questions

Discovery forms are tools that coaches use to facilitate the learning part of this step. These forms are places where coachees may write their responses to questions prior to a coaching session and where the coach can get a peek at the coachee’s values and personality before or between sessions. They’re good jumping-off places for initial coaching discussions. There are many different types of discovery forms that include many different types of questions. As a sample, I’ve included the discovery form I use with my new clients (Tool 3-8), and one created by Ben Dooley, a coach who works with other coaches (Tool 3-9).


Some people may be resistant to responding to questions about personal things in the workplace. Of course, we don’t want to force people to talk about anything that’s uncomfortable for them, but this resistance is also worth coaching through. That might sound like: “How does it serve you to keep your personal life out of the workplace? How does it harm you?” “When have you been vulnerable about sharing personal information and what were the positive or negative results? Which of these types of results would you expect here?” Check your own limiting beliefs around the lines between work and personal lives (remember we dealt with one of these back when we were tackling your coaching gremlins) and remember that as much as we might want to leave our personal lives at the door when we come in to work, we are holistic beings and that’s mostly impossible to do.

TOOL 3-8

Thank you for becoming my client! I look forward to working with you to bring a higher level of fulfillment to your life.

In coaching, we often call our initial conversations “discovery” sessions. These are conversations that enable me to discover who you are and let you experience self-discovery. There are three main objectives to these discussions:

• to learn about who you are

• to create a compelling vision for the future

• to design how we can best work together.

The questions below help illuminate some of these areas. You may need some time to consider your answers. Please come to the first session prepared to discuss as many of them as you can. Either think about them, jot down some notes about them, or (better yet) send me your random thoughts about them prior to our first session so we can use them as a jumping-off point for our discussion.

Please note that you need only respond to the questions that attract you. Answer as many or as few as you like. Try not to be restricted by the size of the response box. Write as much or as little as you desire.

Part 1. About Me

1.  What does my coach really need to know about me (and how I make changes) that will help her most in coaching me?

2.  What are my greatest gifts?

3.  What am I most challenged by?

4.  What is my unique contribution or passion?

5.  What activities have heart and meaning for me?

6.  What brings me joy?

7.  If I could add any course to the nation’s school curriculum, what would it be?

8.  If I could add one room to my current home, what would it be?

9.  Who are two people who inspire me? Why?

10.  What’s my dream?

Part 2. A Compelling Vision

1.  What are three big changes I want to make in my life or career in the next three years?

2.  What’s missing in my life that would make it more fulfilling?

3.  If time and resources weren’t issues, what things would I want to do?

4.  If this coaching were to have a huge impact on my life, what would that impact look like?

Part 3. My Coaching Needs

1.  More than anything else, what do I want from my coach and from the coaching relationship?

2.  What are my big doubts about coaching and how do I think coaching might (or might not) help me?

3.  What can my coach do or say when I’m most “stuck” that will return me to action?

4.  What do I think about “homework”? How much of it do I want between sessions? Do I want each session to start with a check-in on homework? What should my coach do if I don’t complete the homework?

Part 4. Prior Self-Discovery

Here is a description of other self-discovery work I have done (or am currently doing):

Note: This might include other coaching, therapy, seminars, personality typing, and so forth. Knowing this enables us to integrate what you’ve already done with what we are embarking on together. If you’ve already developed vision, mission or life purpose statements, values, or goals, please send along whatever you’re comfortable sharing.

Source: Full Experience Coaching.

TOOL 3-9

Coachee instructions: Please complete this form to the best of your ability and return it to me. (Don’t worry about items you leave blank. We’ll fill them in as coaching proceeds.)


Over the next three years, what are the three biggest changes you want to make in your life so that you will be on a path to living a life with no regrets?




If there were a secret passion in your life, what would that be?

What would you say have been your three greatest accomplishments?




What is the hardest thing you have had to overcome in your life?

What major transitions have you made in the past two years (e.g., new decade of life, new relationship, new job, new role, new residence, and so forth)?

Have you worked with a coach (or been in therapy) before? If so, what worked well for you and what did not?

Who are the key people in your life, and what do they provide you?

What’s missing in your life? What would make it more fulfilling?

What are you learning or accepting about yourself at present?

Rate the amount of stress in your life right now (1 = low, 10 = high).

What are your primary stressors?

List five things that you are tolerating in your life right now:






List five adjectives that describe you at your best:






List five adjectives that describe you at your worst:






What motivates you? What are your three major concerns or fears about yourself?




What are your three major concerns or fears about life?




What would you like me to do when you get behind in your goals? How do you like to be held accountable?

Do you have a personal or professional vision? If so, what is it?

What would you like to contribute to the world?

What dream or goal have you given up?

If you continue to live as you do, what regrets will you have?

Source: Adapted and used with permission from Ben Dooley.

Have fun with the discovery step. It’s an expansive, magical time. You may want to integrate more lighthearted or deeper questions than we’ve already used. Collections of such questions are available in books like The Book of Questions: Revised and Updated (Workman Publishing 2013) and the If series of books, several titles published over a number of years by Evelyn McFarlane, including Questions for the Game of Life; in game form in a product called Table Topics Conversation Cards; and online at sites like “36 Questions for Falling in Love” ( While this site suggests asking these questions to someone you want to fall in love with or someone whom you want to deepen your love for and having that person ask you the questions right back, the questions included among the 36 can be inspiring and revealing and can work in establishing a nonromantic and less two-sided relationship too, like in the discovery phase of coaching.


Coaching is all about the coachee and about him being self-full. That said, some self-disclosure on the part of the coach during this step can help create safety and build trust. If you can keep the focus entirely on the coachee but sneak in any morsels about yourself that would enhance transparency, demonstrate vulnerability, and deepen the relationship, by all means, do so.

The Next Step

People generally enjoy these self-exploration activities and questions, but some wish you wouldn’t spend time here. They want to “get to work.” Don’t let them rush you. The exercises that are part of this step are not just fun and games. They are meant to help the coachee learn more about himself—who he is at his core, where he wants to be, and what tools he has to help him get there. They also involve making a deeper connection with another person—something we all want to do and something that makes the workplace warmer and more human. Be creative and curious. Discovery is one of the most fun parts of coaching and of being human. But, after discovery, you do indeed “get to work,” starting by determining the focus of that work and what your coachee wants or needs to accomplish.

Applying the Learning

“The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches, but to reveal to him his own.”

—Benjamin Disraeli, statesman and writer

• Make it a point to find out all you can this month about a new coachee, an existing coachee, or one of your employees, using a variety of tools from this step—personality typing, input from others, observations, identifying values, motivators, skills and accomplishments, or fun questions. Put the information you learn in a very visible spot in his coachee or employee folder so that you can refer to it often during future coaching sessions.

• What are your loved ones’ values? Your direct reports’ values? Your own? Your coachee’s? Are they being honored now?

• Do you know your own strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats? Perhaps you want to give others a 360-degree feedback instrument to complete about you.

• What motivates your coachee? Use Tool 3-6 to rank those things that will help your coachee remain active in pursuing her goals.

• Practice giving at least two pieces of feedback that are BASIC. Try to share the impact of the coachee’s observed behavior as well as a suggestion, where applicable. Make sure your feedback is welcome and that you give the recipient time to respond.

• This week, use five of the questions found in this step with someone in your life or work. (There are plenty in the section “Discovery Forms and Fun Questions,” including Tools 3-8 and 3-9.) Notice how knowing the answers to these questions affects your relationship with that person going forward.