Virtual Coaching: Designing Effective Experiences for Those you Serve

In 2009, after 13 years of college and workforce coaching overseas, my world shifted. Political and visa law changes required that we relocate from Russia back to the United States without much warning. My coachees were at pivotal points in life: graduating, launching careers, starting families, overcoming traumas. And suddenly, “Welcome to your unwelcome new reality!”

The circumstances behind our forced physical distancing evoked feelings of shock, sadness, fear and frustration. I believed that actual presence — across a table sharing a teapot — enabled much of the value I brought as a coach. Could personal breakthroughs happen without a teapot? As the global coronavirus pandemic has forced so many in helping professions into a new virtual reality, I’m wondering if this story might somehow resonate with some of you. 

This blog provides some virtual coaching truths, tools and tips you can count on, whether your clients are six miles across town or 6,000 miles across the world. The end goal is that you feel hopeful and are equipped to truly connect — heart to heart from beyond six feet apart!

TRUTHS (VS MYTHS)

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, in-person meetings had declined to just 32 percent of coaching sessions. By contrast, virtual coaching had been growing steadily and accounted for 1/3 of all coaching services. Here are some common myths about virtual coaching, debunked by truths:

Myth: Virtual coaching reduces presence,  openness and working alliance.Truth: Coachees can experience increased attention, openness and results.

According to the findings of a premier mental health clinical counseling and coaching practice,meeting online often increases the likelihood of openness and sharing because clients are sharing from their space — safe, comfortable. In an article published on the Future of Work Hub, the outcomes and satisfaction levels of online coaching are just as effective and more affordable than meeting face-to-face. The most important element is that you build trust and rapport.

Myth: I can’t read emotions in an online setting.Truth: In virtual coaching, we have all we need to read feelings and empathize.

Beyond the mere words, much of interpersonal communication is nonverbal. It is estimated that at least 70 percent stems from how words are conveyed via the voice and the body. And while individuals don’t fully see one another in a virtual conversation, they still perceive voice intonation and volume, facial expressions, gestures, posture and distance. We have more than what we need to detect emotion in a well-structured video call.

Consider the many psychiatrists who have moved to online services, despite their heavy need to properly interpret human emotions. According to an article by Thriveworks, online therapy with the limited visual distractions enables therapists to focus on an individual’s face and listen to the voice. In a review of studies published in the World Journal of Psychiatry, patients receiving mental health treatment through video conferencing reported “high levels of satisfaction.”

Myth: Audio coaching works as well as video.Truth: Adding video provides better communication than audio-only.

Why go to all the trouble of video coaching when you could easily connect via phone? Because there is truth in the phrase, “A picture paints a thousand words,” as evidenced by the wide use of emojis . 

In the practice of active listening, good coaches watch for congruence: Do my client’s words line up with the emotions conveyed via nonverbals? It helps to be able to see if someone is slumped and frowning despite telling you, “I’m feeling fine!”

Another benefit is that a camera holds people more accountable to the interaction. Our clients (and us!) are 82 percent less likely to multitask on video than an audio call. But in a pinch, do what you can to connect. Currently, telephone comprises just 25% of the various coaching delivery methods.

Myth: I must be a tech wizard to host effective virtual sessions.Truth: Current-world technology is simple and widely accessible.

I’ll admit my first Skype sessions were awkward and fraught with connection failures, buttechnology has improved vastly in the last ten years. A little practice will do wonders in helping you ramp up to speed.

Bonus Truth

The greatest coaches in the world all coach virtually —  no shared table or teapot, yet offer their presence to clients scattered around the globe. And while you may not feel like a polished master, you matter! Your virtual coaching may be the life line thrown into the waters of an individual drowning in isolation — especially if you work with an at-risk population.

TIPS

BEFORE coaching begins, whether in person or virtual, I use a coaching agreement to outline what we can expect of one another. It also gives instructions on how to use the virtual tools we will be using. Here are some further best practices to apply in advance of each session:

Prepare yourself:

  • Turn off your dogs, phones, notifications
  • Tidy & simplify your background (or go virtual)
  • Wardrobe — basic solid colors, simple accessories
  • Appearance — teeth, hair, skin, makeup — using a mirror or video camera
  • Read meeting prepwork, notes and other related material
  • Take few minutes to clear and center yourself

Check your equipment:

  • Do you have a stable Internet? (Be ready to switch to phone as a backup).
  • Is your computer ready? Is it plugged in or fully charged? Close extra apps or browser tabs.
  • Are your microphone, speakers and camera working and adjusted? Adjust camera to eye level, framing a chest up portrait with lighting directed toward your front.

DURING your meeting, you will want to establish rapport just as you would when entering a physical room. Greet your client warmly by offering a smile, openness and eye contact. Lean in and keep a relaxed body form. Focus on the core coaching competencies, which include establishing trust, agreement, communicating effectively and facilitating learning and growth.

DO what you can to simulate eye contact. If you have an extra monitor, you can configure the set up shown here to simulate as much eye contact as possible. If you don’t have an extra monitor, you can tape a photo or two eyes to the top of your screen near the camera.

DON’T present yourself on screen as  the “Creeper” or the “Grim Reaper” as illustrated in these images:

AFTER your meeting ends, plan to spend a few minutes writing your follow up notes. Rather than full or half hour sessions, consider limiting yours to 25 or 50 minutes. This will give both you and your client time to reflect on and process what was discussed.

TOOLS

The only essential tools you need for virtual coaching are your smiling face, a phone/computer and a connection. But below are some additional tools that might be helpful to your preparation, scheduling and connection.

Preparation

Have your clients take a few minutes before meeting to reflect and communicate their goal for the time with you. As an example, here is my  Coaching Session Prep Form. The most loving and respectful thing we can do in coaching is to come alongside another in a focused manner. Additionally, our clients will be 42 percent more likely to achieve their goals just by writing them down according to a study by Dr. Gail Matthews, a psychology professor at Dominican University in California.

If possible, use a shared document (like a Google Doc) and keep all of your sessions in one place in descending date order. This will provide a scrolling record of progress and a place for making  comments to one another. While this tool is useful for focusing in-person meetings as well, we find the added connection point a must for virtual meetings.

Scheduling

Consider using online appointment software for scheduling your virtual coaching meetings. You will eliminate the back and forth emails, and both parties will have access to the video “link.” In addition, providing a link to your calendar will empower your clients to schedule a mutually convenient time with you.  Calendly offers a free version that accommodates one meeting type.

PRO TIP: Have clients set a regularly scheduled meeting time or embed your calendar link into your coaching prep form so that as a part of their prep, they can schedule their coaching sessions. 

Connecting

There are many applications for video meetings on the market today. This article by Process Street compares key industry leaders in video conferencing. Our favorite is Zoom which offers video and audio calling that supports a wide variety of computers, mobile devices and phones. Their free version allows unlimited call time for 1:1 meetings and a 40 minute limit for group meetings. 

Finally, if you virtual coach frequently, be sure to investigate options for headphones with a microphone. They are purpose-built to make your voice sound clear, and eliminate outside noise.

TRAINING

Below are some training recommendations you might find helpful.

The Coaching Pathway

https://www.pairin.com/product/the-coaching-pathway/

Zoom Free Training

www.zoom.com

For PAIRIN Clients: PAIRINOLOGY Series – Understand foundational boosts and barriers to performance and growth. Learn the art of debriefing and coaching using the PAIRIN coaching tool.

To learn more about how PAIRIN can support your coaching needs:

https://www.pairin.com/schedule-a-demo/