Designing Effective Virtual Coaching Processes

Field Report

Christine Fuchs-Jonsson

Virtual Coaching

In order to successfully conduct virtual coaching, the classic coaching skills are still required. But building on this, there are some factors that are important for virtual settings. Using the power of the process, establishing contact through presence, and building empathy digitally in a targeted way. As a basis, technological competencies of both the coach and coachee are essential. 

Power of Process

Coaching has always drawn part of its power from the individual setting. Coach and coachee build a trusting relationship, and the collaboration is highly individualized in terms of content and process. This also applies to virtual coaching. For these to be effective, more frequent interaction is usually necessary. So we continue to think in terms of a coaching process, but even more small-scale. A good combination of coaching conversations in video conferences with individual reflection methods has proven to be particularly effective. For example, we work with diaries that a coaching client keeps, reflection sheets or test instruments. In virtual settings, we can interact more easily and quickly. We stay on task, which is especially helpful for counseling-related and solution-focused coaching. Coaches can more easily vary interventions in the process: when is a longer and more in-depth conversation needed, when is a short check-in enough, how can coaching clients continue to work between conversations.

Factors for Successful Virtual Coaching

Power of Process

Contact through Presence

Digital Empathy

Technological Competencies for Coaches

Contact through Presence

Contact is a real challenge in coaching. Everything is limited to audiovisual perception – body perception does not take place. We do not feel ourselves. Three aspects make it even more difficult: workload, acceleration and declining attention. Most people work more and faster, breaks are rare and they stumble out of a virtual meeting and into virtual coaching. They’re also more quickly distracted in the meeting itself: e-mails pop up, family members come into the room, a new message constantly flashes in the chat. Many coaching clients are more on tenterhooks virtually and less in touch. 

To create contact in virtual coaching sessions, it is first important as a coach not to fall into the same traps, but to be present yourself. What rituals do I have as a coach to adjust to the situation and my coaching client. Video conferences are for us coaches what stage performances are for actors. Tense and nervous inside, they need ways to focus, arrive and build strength. This is how they get in touch with their audience. This ritual of inner gathering is also important for virtual coaching. After all, the more present I am as a coach, the more I can establish contact via the camera as well. 

How is my own virtual coaching space designed? As in physical coaching, the design of the space also plays a big role for contact in virtual coaching. For my own feeling, for example, it makes a big difference if I sit at a table, work with a large TV monitor, run the sound through an external speaker with an integrated microphone. I feel more free and closer to people than when I’m wearing a headset and staring into my notebook. There are initial research results that show that it is also important for coaching clients to see their coach in a larger picture. (cf. Claudia Deniers) 

Focusing the conversation is particularly important in virtual coaching sessions, since the attention span online is usually shorter. For coaches, this means taking enough time to allow coaching clients to clarify themselves and create focus for the coaching. Slowing down the conversation by increasing paraphrasing and asking more in-depth questions. Pauses seem dauntingly long in virtual meetings, but this is where they are helpful. It’s also important to sensitize our coaching clients to the way conversations are conducted. We learn together how communication works online and therefore have to go to the meta level again and again to reflect and discuss just that. Particularly when it comes to conducting conversations, we can draw on years of experience from the telephone counselling service, who also conduct empathetic counselling sessions and do not even have a video image.

Digital Empathy

No, we don’t feel each other virtually. And yet we can build empathy. If we understand empathy as I feel what you feel, then this works very difficult in a video conference. But if we understand empathy as I understand what you feel, then it works very well online. We can work specifically on the relationship level and on emotions. 

Talk to a stranger is what science calls the phenomenon that many people often open up faster and more strongly online than in physical meetings. The term originated in reference to a meeting on a train, when you suddenly tell strangers very personal things. In virtual coaching, we can take advantage of this phenomenon. When coaches establish contact as a prerequisite and create psychological safety, they are welcome to be bold and address observation more quickly, asking directly about emotions or biographical patterns. In the discussion at the Consulting Impact Workshop, one aspect was particularly emphasized in this context: We can be courageous, but we should always make this transparent in coaching, reflect on the approach and interventions with our coaching clients, and always leave the decision about the process with the coaching client. 

Working on emotions in a targeted way. There is also a wide range of methods in virtual settings. First, coaches can address their own emotions. Explain what triggers a particular behavior, for example, and thus open up another level of conversation. We can mirror in virtual meetings, feedback our perceptions.  Visualization is important for working on the emotional or personal issues. Here we can work analog-digital (draw a picture and hold it up to the camera), use whiteboards, work with constellation figures and a second camera (Lothar Wüst gave an impressive presentation here at the workshop.) or with metaphors and analogies, which often works better online than in face-to-face meetings.