Strengths Coaching Blog

Friday, December 16, 2016

Coaching With Insight: When Telling Works

By Jacque Merritt


I have a coaching confession: When CliftonStrengths was first released back at the end of the ’90s, I spent more years than I can count using it to “tell” people who they are. It was how we rolled back then, and there was a certain magic to the tool that made my insights deadly accurate. My clients would often say, “Wow, that’s really spooky! How did you know that about me?” Or, “You know me better than my spouse!” And the classic, “If this tool can tell you this much about me, I want to do it with my entire team so you can sit down and tell me about them!” 

With the more recent focus on powerful questions, inquiry versus advocacy and neuroscientific research on using questions as a means to spark transformational change, the magic of the “tell” has been relegated to the role of the ugly stepsister. While I fully agree with leaning toward asking versus telling in coaching, I’d like us also to appreciate the power of the information our clients have already provided through the instrument itself. With such valuable and valid information at our fingertips in the form of a CliftonStrengths profile, it is a shame to shy away from moments when us choosing to tell instead of inquire may lead our clients to great discoveries.



Here are a few suggestions for how to successfully include “telling” in your strengths coaching conversations:

1. Build credibility quickly.  CliftonStrengths acts as a mirror to reflect a person back to themselves, and as a Gallup-Certified Strengths Coach, you possess incredible insight to validate what you see in the person’s theme language. During a first meeting, an easy way to accelerate intimacy and trust is to demonstrate to your client that you not only are interested in helping them, but you know them in ways they don’t even know themselves. 

Before your first call, review the individual’s CliftonStrengths profile and develop your theories and hypotheses about the person. Then, as they introduce you to their purpose for hiring a coach, you can use your knowledge of their profile to provide a quick diagnosis of what might be the source of their issue. Of course, ask great questions throughout the conversation to test your theories, preparing to back up your interpretations of what you discovered in their profile. Upon validating your analysis, you are at a perfect point to incorporate more detailed telling. You might tell a leader who confesses he has difficulty making decisions that his abundant strategic thinking talents might get him stuck in the processing mode and then mention that others who share this talent might turn up the volume on their dominant Responsibility theme to commit to a deadline for decisions. 

2. Create a true believer. Sometimes you have a skeptic on your hands. Some people look at CliftonStrengths results and claim them all or claim none, or they simply don’t believe that such a seemingly simple tool can provide any self-awareness. To help create a true believer in CliftonStrengths, put on your cape and drop some assumptions on them based on their themes. For example, “You must know a lot more about others than they know about you” (dominant Individualization and Deliberative) or “I bet you fall into the ready-fire-aim camp when you’re making decisions” (dominant Activator). This “gotcha” technique might feel like you’re grabbing power, but it can get them over the hump of disbelief and into a mindset that’s open to more exploration. These moments can also create openings for you to follow up your observation with inquiry regarding how these discoveries make a person feel or what effect they may have on others. 

3. Flip your clients’ self-limiting narrative. We all have tapes in our heads that play the same reel over and over again and, as a result, influence our behaviors. For example, if you view yourself as a person who doesn’t connect well with people, then you’ll regulate how you interact with people by stepping away as others lean in. 

As coaches, we get to challenge people’s assumptions and use CliftonStrengths to help people identify their ideal selves and carve the pathways to that outcome. Let’s take a closer look: Someone with no dominant relational themes could benefit from hearing that you’re experiencing a connection with them through their Learner and Input themes. This insight may shift how they perceive themselves and how they apply their non-relational themes to forge stronger connections in the future. Another example is how to coach a person who believes they aren’t capable of producing desired results because of a lack of executing themes. This person may need to explore the power of their dominant relational talents. Relational themes such as Woo and Includer do much more than make individuals seem approachable. When clients understand how to use them, they can inspire individuals to follow through on commitments. 

Most clients need guidance from their coaches to understand the connections between their dominant themes and desired behaviors so they can flip their self-limiting narratives. 

4. Build stronger teams. I’m constantly in a debate with myself on whether I should create the conditions for a team to do a self-analysis on their Strengths Team Map during a team building session or if I should come in with it already in-hand and have them react to it. I’ve tried both approaches and over the years have landed on having it in my back pocket and simply playing it by ear during the session. I make my decision based on how much time we have, how familiar the team is with theme language, and how familiar I am with the team dynamics and culture. I might create a one-pager with my assessment (aka assumptions) of their potential strengths and gaps, as well as how the strengths and gaps can create problems and opportunities. Or, I might organize my insights by domain and identify both strengths and opportunities in terms of how the team executes, influences, builds relationships and strategically thinks. 

My observations of potential areas of strength and opportunity are simply that — observations. But the outsider’s clinical perspective just may be the spark of conversation the team needs to make deeper, more lasting discoveries. 

CliftonStrengths is a starting point for building awareness of our greatest potential. Our commitment as coaches is to help our clients embrace such potential. We know the power of asking, and we should embrace it. But we also are equipped with valid and research-based information about our clients. It is important to use our knowledge of talent, as well as our understanding of human beings, to offer the very best of our practice to our clients. And sometimes that means offering a healthy balance of asking and telling. 



Jacquelyn Merritt, Senior Practice Consultant, provides consulting and executive coaching to leaders around the world. Since joining Gallup in 1989, Jacque has helped leaders and managers maximize their effectiveness by providing insights on how they can build and apply their leadership capabilities. She has consulted with many of Gallup’s U.S.-based and international clients on team building, succession management, talent and executive development.







Jacque's top 5 strengths are: Woo | Maximizer | Input | Focus | Connectedness


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