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Set Yourself Up for Success When Coaching to Break Bad Habits

Published: February 25, 2016

Author: Oliver Eldredge

One of the most challenging tasks that can come your way as a trainer is to coach someone while they are changing an engrained habit. This is especially true when the habit you’re trying to change isn’t necessarily bad, but just isn’t helpful and needs to be changed.
A common example of this when you’re working with someone who is moving between teams that require different communication techniques to manage the relationships that they have with their respective primary points of contact. This often means that you will be coaching someone to start implementing something that they already know and understand, but just aren’t in the habit of doing.
This happens a lot when someone transfers between clients, and goes from one client who was less of a search expert and needed more high level explanations in communication, to a new client that is more technically savvy and just needs the important details without much in the way of explanation. It’s common for folks in a situation like this to have developed communication techniques that are effective in the old situation, but detrimental in the new situation. When kicking off a coaching session with someone like this we would want to place emphasis on the habit and situation, not them.
This could be the difference between:
“I wanted to dedicate some of our time to talking about this client, and the kinds of communication habits that work well in this situation”
“You need to make an adjustment in how you’re communicating with this new client.”
While coaching someone through a situation like this, it is easy to inadvertently cause resentment from your team member. There’s a good chance that they developed their habit out of good intentions, and it may have been downright useful under the circumstances they were under when they picked it up. Because of this, there is a fine line between being a leader who is coaching someone through an important change, or simply reprimanding someone for doing something that they’ve always been doing. Famous UCLA basketball coach John Wooden summed this up in a well-known quote.
“A coach is some who can give correction, without causing resentment.”
There are few steps that you can take in a coaching situation like this to set yourself up for success and ultimately ensure that you end not only correcting your team member’s bad habit, but also improving the value of your relationship.

Step 1 – Identify the bad habit and determine its intended purpose.

A great starting point is to discuss the current habit, as well as the intentions behind it. This cuts off the potential for our team members to perceive themselves as the problem, and instead establishes up front that we’re working together to adjust a habit to better suit their new team. This step also makes our goal clear by clearing up the differences between the intentions that our team member has, and the impact that their habit actually has.
It’s also important at this time to discuss the situation that our team member was in when they formed the habit in the first place. This is critical if our team member was previously in a situation where the habit was a strength.
In the previous example, working with a team member who has switched clients, taking the time to discuss their communication technique and where it was developed will help to make it clear that we’re working with them, and that we recognize their intentions in forming the habit. Being able to differentiate those intentions, from the actual impact of the habit is critically important when trying to ensure that we’re providing meaningful coaching.
This could be the difference between:
“I wanted to talk about how you’re calibrating how much discussion goes into our meeting agendas. Our point of contact on this account prefers shorter agendas that are more focused than what we’ve delivered in the last couple of weeks.”
“The agendas that you wrote for the last couple weeks are too long, and we need to make sure that next week’s is much shorter and to the point.”

Step 2 – Identify how the climate has changed.

Our next step is to describe the differences between our new situation and the old situation, as well as clarify the impact that the old habit has on the new situation. Our goal in this conversation is to lock down the purpose of our training. By now it should be very clear what we are trying to accomplish – and why it is important.
By now we should have discussed what the habit is, what it was intended to accomplish, and why it may have worked well in a previous situation. Addressing all of this will allow us to contrast a previous situation to the current situation. This gives the ability to justify the need to change, without necessarily telling out team member that we need them to change.
We’re also free now to make it clear that we are interested in changing the habit, even if the intentions behind the old habit were correct and just. This focus allows us to avoid telling someone that they are misguided and wrong. Instead it empowers us to coach them through developing a better way of doing things.
With our team member who we are coaching, we’re now free to connect the dots between the original intentions, the old situation and habit, and the new situation that demands a change in habits. We’ve isolated the problem and justified why it needs to be changed. We’re free to make comparisons between the old and new habits, and our team member’s old situation to their current situation. In short, while coaching we can offer corrections with clear intention of helping our team member.

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