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Talk to the hand


imageEmail and telephone methods have traditionally supplemented face-to-face coaching but will they ever become fully-fledged alternatives? Verity Gough reports.


The coaching industry has seen some significant changes in recent years, thanks to government endorsements of elearning in the Leitch report and the widespread use of communication technology. Yet as a training method that relies upon the nuances of human interaction, isn't the very concept of telephone and ecoaching flawed?

The number of international businesses implementing cross-company coaching programmes to encourage personal and professional development helped spawn a coaching hybrid that supplements face-to-face sessions with distance support. Often, it was a simple case of the travel logistics.

Photo of Professor Bob Garvey"A big advantage of email that other forms of communication don't have is it gives you time to reflect, to think about what's been said and how to respond."

Professor Bob Garvey

However, the emergence of better video conferencing tools and voice over internet (VoIP) services are at last offering real virtual coaching alternatives. At the same time, Blackberries and other mobile technologies have made it easier to keep in touch with people on the move.

According to experienced mentor and coach Professor Bob Garvey, it all depends on how the technology is used. For example, some coaches will be more skilled at exploring the real meaning of what someone has said in an email. "A big advantage of email that other forms of communication don't have is that it gives you time to reflect, to think about what's been said and how to respond," he says.

Another benefit Garvey has noted is the removal of prejudices that would normally exist in the traditional coaching environment. A good example of this has been the success of ementoring in the education sector, which offers anonymity to students who may not have otherwise participated in a face-to-face scheme.

Cathryn Priestley, a consultant at coaching consultancy, Academee, has been telephone coaching since 1999. She believes the concept of call-coaching versus face-to-face is no longer an issue. "The obvious benefits are costs relating to travel but also the client being able to fit it into their busy schedules more easily," she says. "I have also found this method is suited to more introverted individuals."

Horses for courses

However, despite the fact over half of learning and development managers now offer elearning as part of their training provision, it isn't for everyone. A study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development revealed that while learning and development managers were open to the concept, there was a reluctance to fully implement it as a stand-alone training method.

Allan Mackintosh, coaching consultant and founder of Team Builders International, can relate to this. "I piloted ecoaching but found people weren't too keen on it. They had enough emails coming into their inboxes," he says. "It made people think more but because I wasn't physically or audibly there, there wasn't that essential two-way communication."

But both fans and critics agree that the internet and mobile phones are convenient tools for offering advice, especially if clients are constantly travelling. Ecoaching can also be more effective for people with disabilities, such as impaired hearing, or for those who have difficultly expressing themselves in person. "There is a group in the population for whom the written word is an easier means for them to express themselves other than verbally," says John Blakey, director of brand development at the International Coaching Federation (ICF).

Photo of John Blakey"Some people are comfortable on the phone, some people are comfortable face-to-face, some like to express themselves thorough written word. Email interaction is a very powerful part of the coaching experience."

John Blakey, ICF

"Some people are comfortable on the phone, some people are comfortable face-to-face, some like to express themselves thorough written word. Email interaction is a very powerful part of the coaching experience."

But for any coaching relationship to be successful, Garvey stresses that ground rules need to be established and regularly reviewed. "This could involve asking such questions as: How available are you? Within what length of time can you expect a response? What are the boundaries? People then know what's involved or what the conditions are."

Also, research suggests over 50% of the communication of emotions and feelings is non-verbal, so the lack of visual cues means coaches using telephone or email have to work even harder to pick up these signals.

Sending out the wrong message

If gauging non-verbal cues over the telephone or email is tricky, then dealing with clients over text is an even greater challenge. "The worst form of coaching is using text messages," says Peter Ryder, CEO of The Coaching Academy.

He prefers Skype, a VoIP service similar to video conferencing that has been the surprise success out of all the new emedia communication tools. "Not only does it enable me to read body language and hear intonation, it allows visual aids such as graphs or plans to be shown to help illustrate a point," he says.

While it is obvious face-to-face meetings are still an essential part of the coaching experience, even if it is just for the early stages of development, it is only a matter of time before virtual coaching becomes more commonplace. There is still no definitive route for training and accrediting ecoaches, but the ICF uses 11 core coaching competencies for accreditation purposes. Other organisations, such as The Association for Coaching, are also starting to develop a more structured approach to eaccreditation.

Yet, however popular new coaching methods become, the technology is simply the tool for communication. The real success of a programme is down to one thing only: the ability of the coach to adapt to the needs of the client.

Secrets to successful coaching


Ecoaching* Craft your questions carefully to ensure you are asking the right ones but make sure you provide structured feedback within an agreed time frame.

* As the relationship develops, keep revisiting your agreed boundaries to accommodate any changes.

* Be open to your client's wishes to change the coaching method if it doesn't suit them or offer additional means of coaching to see what works best.

* The European Mentoring and Coaching Council and International Coaching Federation have standards and an ethical framework that can be used as a template to build a coaching framework.

Telephone coaching

Telephone coaching* Remember to make noises so the coachee knows you are listening.

* Try to pick up on the subtle nuances your client gives out in order to gauge their response to a certain issue. If you are unclear about something, ask!

* Regularly supplement telephone coaching with face-to-face, at least in the first instance.

* Think about using voice over internet (VoIP) services such as Skype as an alternative coaching method as it provides a richer experience.



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