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The do's and don'ts of coaching conversations for leaders

|  —  17/10/23

As a leader, investing time in proactive 1:1 coaching conversations with your team members is one of the smartest moves you can make. These conversations not only strengthen relationships but also help achieve better business results.

Coaching conversations are not about providing quick fixes or playing the role of rescuer; they are about asking questions with curiosity, prompting reflection, and using future-focused inquiry to help people find their own insights and answers. These conversations focus more on the person rather than their tasks and are an opportunity for leaders to get to know their people better, so they can then lead them more effectively.  

While many leaders believe they don’t have time for regular 1:1 meetings, the truth is you can’t afford to neglect them. Proactively dedicating time to connect with your team members is more efficient than dealing with people problems, low morale, lost productivity and poor behaviour later on. Coaching conversations build trust and provide valuable insight into a person’s engagement and challenges. This allows leaders to intervene and offer support before issues escalate and also provides a deeper understanding of each person’s uncertainties, concerns, goals, motivations and career aspirations.

While there’s not a one-size-fits all approach to coaching conversations, there are some basic dos and don’ts you should adhere to:


  • Make enough time to meet. Set aside at least 30 minutes.
  • Focus on the person, not their tasks.
  • Tailor your approach to suit the individual. Consider their communication style, motivations and circumstances.
  • Open with warmth and a genuine “why” for having the coaching conversation. This is particularly important if coaching conversations are new for you.
  • Let them know that what you discuss is confidential. The only exceptions are if they tell you they plan to harm themselves or someone else, or commit a crime.
  • Make an observation. “I’ve noticed…What’s up?”
  • Ask open-ended questions and listen, really listen. Your aim is to understand, not to respond.
  • Go where the conversation needs to go. This may mean moving away from the questions you had planned. Be prepared to adapt and adjust.
  • Clarify and repeat back to ensure you’re clear. “What I’m hearing is…”
  • Embrace pauses and silence.
  • Respect if someone doesn’t want to share. It may take a few conversations for them to feel comfortable opening up.
  • Ask what you can do to support them. While not rescuing, you are trying to help.
  • If you’re providing feedback about performance or behaviour, try to feed-forward rather than back. Ask future-focussed questions that look for the learnings, such as:
    • “What could you do differently next time?”
    • “What did you learn and how could you respond in a more appropriate way in the future?”
  • Ask for permission if you want to take notes and explain what they’ll be used for (perhaps to keep track of any actions so you can follow up next time).
  • If you say you’re going to follow up, make sure you do! Accountability for yourself and them is important.


  • Get weird by launching into heavy and uncomfortable questions with no warm-up or explanation about what you’re doing. If you’re awkward, it will make the other person awkward.
  • Go outside your wheelhouse – you’re not a psychologist or counsellor. Yes, offer support and empathy but don’t offer advice that you’re not qualified to give.
  • Fill every gap in conversation.
  • Jump into problem-solver mode. Your goal is to help them find their own solutions.
  • Disagree with how they say they feel or what they describe their experience to be. Their experience is their experience.
  • Move on because emotions are uncomfortable.
  • Hold so close to your question list that the conversation feels like a “tick and flick” exercise.
  • Fall into the trap of one-upmanship. “Well, if you think you’ve got it bad, you should hear how hard Kathy is doing it!”
  • Make assumptions.
  • Say “I know how you feel”. You don’t.
  • Push someone to open up if they’ve made it clear they don’t want to. Respect boundaries.
  • Get sucked into “bitch fests” or rants. Remember your role as the leader.
  • Lose your cool or threaten. Stay calm. Breathe. And make it clear what is and isn’t ok.

Remember, these are high-trust conversations and their success lies in asking questions with genuine care and curiosity, and then listening to the response. By prioritising 1:1 coaching conversations with your staff, you shift from simply managing tasks to empowering and supporting your people. These conversations are the gateway to stronger relationships and more engaged and resilient teams.

Leah Mether is a communication and soft skills trainer obsessed with making the people part of leadership and work life easier.

With more than 15 years’ experience working with thousands of clients, and an acclaimed book to her name, Leah knows what it takes to communicate under pressure. Like you, she knows the challenge of conflict, personality clashes, and difficult conversations.

Leah is renowned for her practical, engaging, straight-shooting style. Utilising her Five Cs® model of communication, she helps leaders and teams shift from knowing to doing, and radically improve their effectiveness.

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