In this new regular column, Lynn Scott shares ‘real-world’ solutions and tips to help managers and leaders use their coaching skills in everyday leadership life. This issue: how can I have a coaching conversation with a team member I find challenging?


Note: First, be sure that it IS a coaching conversation that’s needed (rather than the first stages of a disciplinary/performance management process, for example).

However technically skilled a manager or leader you are, if there’s no safe environment and space for the coaching conversation (or indeed any conversation) to take place, you won’t get very far.

I’m not talking so much about the venue you choose here – the physical environment or whether the conversation is virtual or not (although these things do play an important part and we need to pay attention to them).   I’m talking about what we often refer to as psychological safety.

If there’s little or no trust and no rapport but lots of baggage, work out how to build or rebuild those things. It will take time, patience, goodwill and an open heart and mind on both sides.

The great thing is, in the right environment a challenging conversation – whether coaching or any other type – simply becomes a conversation about something that we can work through together. When we feel psychologically safe, we can be open, honest and vulnerable, rather than defensive or guarded. We can truly see more than our own perspective. We can discuss what we both need from each other without worrying that this might be career limiting or used against us in the future. And if things go off track, we can recognise it and get back on track rather than simmering resentfully and gritting our teeth or going on the defensive – or offensive.

Tried this before and got nowhere?

I’ve occasionally, as part of my team coaching work, facilitated conversations between two people who are so entrenched in their positions that mediation or moving one of the team members elsewhere is the only solution. If that’s the case, don’t be afraid to ask for the right support.

If 80% of your time is spent stressing about or working round this one team member it’s time to bite that bullet. I can assure you the rest of your team will thank you for it.

So, if you’ve got one of ‘those’ conversations coming up, here are my tips to help you navigate it.


Tip 1: Start with the end in mind

There’s no point blaming yourself or the other person for what’s gone before   – that achieves very little. It’s more about re-setting the relationship together with a focus on creating something different from today – because while you can learn from the past you can’t change it – so move on.

A great opener for all of us is this question: ‘How do we co-create a successful future/working relationship for us starting from today?

It sets the intention to move ahead with a different approach, mindset and desire for mutual success.

Now part of that question may include re-visiting past hurts, frustrations or misunderstandings. But if we do this with a ‘what can we both learn from this to help us in the future?’ approach, we’re more likely to be able to move forward together.

That word co-create is important. Coaching is not something you ‘do’ to your team member. You are both accountable for making the coaching conversations work in practice and creating new ways of doing things. And you can’t and shouldn’t work harder than they do! (If you find yourself doing too much of the work when you’re coaching your team members, it’s time for a re-set).


Tip 2: You can’t change other people (much as you’d like to!)

Coaching is about change – but however brilliant a coach or manager you are, you can’t force others to change. We often say people are ‘resistant to change’. But that’s overly simplistic.

When you first seek to understand what you see as that resistance, allowing space and time to explore it, both you and the person being coached will have greater insight, awareness and understanding. It’s then much easier to create the conditions that enable the other person to want to change.

But if they’re unable or unwilling, then a different conversation might be needed about their role or future in your team.


Tip 3: Avoid ambiguity of language

How often do you think you’ve agreed something – and a couple of weeks later you realise there has been a complete misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what you thought you’d agreed?

To avoid this, always ask the person you’re having a coaching dialogue with to summarise their understanding of what their key actions will be at the end of the conversation. Don’t summarise it for them. Summarise any that you’ve agreed to, as well. And if you get vague phrases like ‘I’ll be less confrontational in the meeting’ or ‘I’ll be more of a team player’, get some specifics. Don’t collude.

Beware the client who tells you that ‘it’s not my fault’ or ‘it’s not me, it’s them’. You’ll hear disparaging comments about ‘the exec’ or ‘the finance team’ or certain individuals inside or outside the team. Whatever you do, don’t collude with those comments and fall into the ‘poor you’ victim trap. It changes nothing.

Similarly, don’t rescue with an ‘Oh, I’ll try to sort it out for you.’ (You don’t need any more of those monkeys on your shoulder.)

There are two questions that work much better.

One: ‘What might you need to change to get a different outcome?’

Two ‘How can I help you have a conversation with that person so that you can start to change things?’ (and then do some thinking about the conversation together – even doing a bit of practice together can be hugely enabling).

Hold firm – by doing so you’ll be enabling, empowering and teaching the other party to find solutions and take responsibility, rather than keeping them in a state of learned helplessness.

You’ll be truly helping them to recognise their potential.


  • Lynn Scott is an ICF Master Certified Coach (MCC), director of Lynn Scott Coaching and founder of The Effortless Leader Revolution. She’s a leadership and team coach, coach supervisor and ICF Coach Mentor.
  • www.lynnscottcoaching.co.uk
  • You can join her free Facebook group for leaders and managers, The Effortless Leader Revolution, for more leadership tips and resources that work in the real world. https://www.facebook.com/groups/effortlessleaders