When it comes to development conversations most people think of having an experienced person in your field as a source of advice, giving suggestions on areas of focus, directing you to learning resources and providing an overall direction. This is more accurately described as mentoring and may happen either:
Formally, perhaps as part of a mentoring program where your organisation matches mentors to mentees and they meet periodically to discuss career growth and learning.
Informally, in mixed skill teams where more junior members are helped along in their careers by the more experienced staff as a matter of course.
The underlying principle is that of telling/being told (in one way or another) what to do, what to read, what to learn, what to focus on. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially if the mentee aspires to follow the mentor’s career trajectory but the mentee isn’t making many decisions – the mentor is driving the conversations, drawing on their own experiences and acting as a career guide.
Asking questions rather than providing answers
Coaching is a different way to approach career development conversations – centred around asking questions and where necessary offering (rather than giving) advice. Mentoring is guiding, coaching is empowering others to solve problems.
Coaching doesn’t necessarily require an expert in the field – the coach isn’t there to provide answers.
The right questions
Asking “Have you tried doing it this way?” isn’t a good coaching question – it’s a leading question. It’s very easy to accidentally start providing a solution (and something I find very hard to avoid at times).
Better questions might be:
“What do you want to achieve?”, “Tell me more about that?” – open questions.
“What is holding you back?”, “What else could you try?” – probing questions.
“What does success look like?”, “If you had no constraints what would you do?”- hypothetical questions.
Avoid things like “Do you think that is the right approach?” which is a closed question with limited answers (typically yes and no), and will stifle conversation.
While you’re not talking in a conversation you may be:
- Surface listening. Tuned out, while thinking about the weekend, lunch, or some pressing problem.
- Conversational listening. You’re not interested in what’s being said and are constructing a reply to get a point across.
- Listening. You’re paying attention and trying to understand what is being said.
- Active listening. You’re fully engaged and after consideration will ask a followup open or probing question to make them explore what they’ve just said.
Make sure you’re having your conversation in an area free from distraction. Focus on the speaker. Don’t interrupt. Suspend judgement until they have finished, and then once you’ve assimilated all the information think about a response.
There are several frameworks to structure a coaching or mentoring session (and plenty of training resources and courses around them), but the fundamental approach is to determine:
- A goal
- The options
- An initial plan
Your questions should be structured around getting the coachee/mentee to answer these points as fully as possible, rather than providing the answers yourself.
This may seem counter-intuitive but once you remove the answers to the questions you’re asking then you can’t revert to providing a solution – instead, follow the framework allowing the coachee to answer the questions silently (without revealing the answers to you).
Include some follow-up questions that should make the coachee rethink any assumptions they’ve made – for example after asking “what options do you have?”, follow up with “If there were no constraints, what else could you do?”.
My development conversations
I’ve always been happy to talk to anyone about testing, tooling and techniques, and share any experiences as a mentor, but my initial forays into coaching soon had me changing back into mentoring as I’d passionately start to provide answers rather than ask the questions.
My first successful coaching session with a colleague was a conversation about learning opportunities – I’d asked a few probing questions around options and it was clear (to me) they were struggling to find time to do everything they wanted. I didn’t know what the solution was but a few questions later a furrowed brow turned into a beaming smile as they’d answered their own question (eventually).
If your workplace has a mentoring & coaching program, then get on it – if it doesn’t then suggest that one be initiated!
You can be a mentor or coach at the same time as being mentored or coached. Old dogs can learn new tricks and your career development may pause from time to time but should never stop.
If you can’t find an someone to talk to inside your organisation then ask around in the wider tech community – there’s bound to be someone willing to meet up for a chat for the price of a coffee/beer 😉