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The power of peer coaching

(November 27, 2023 Newsletter)

Reflecting back on the last two years, an increasing amount of my time is dedicated to holding space for groups of peers to coach each other. Looking ahead to next year, I see that upward trend continuing, and I’m becoming more and more convinced of the power of teaching these skills to teams and groups.

Sometimes those peers are colleagues, though sometimes they’re in similar roles across organizations. The dynamics may differ (the trust building process varies, for example), but the fundamental skills are the same.

Why it matters: There are two main reasons why I believe that peer coaching is essential –

  1. Participants’ ability to support each other, as people who either know the organization well or are familiar with the intricacies of the role, adds an enriching layer to the conversations.

  2. The skills that they practice – deep listening, encouragement, inquiry, timeboxing conversations, accelerating to the core of the issue efficiently, letting other people come to their own conclusions – are often not taught in other professional contexts, but once the participants learn them, they can use them in a variety of other work situations.

How to run these conversations: I play around with a variety of “protocols” (that’s technical jargon for structured flow and pacing of the conversation), but here’s a simple one:

  1. Context – the person who’s bringing the case shares the challenge they’re facing and ends with a specific question to the group.

  2. Questions – the group asks clarifying and probing questions, which help the person in a few ways: a. Sharpen the “question under the question” – what’s really going underneath the topic that was raised. b. Articulate the ideal outcome they seek and the obstacles they face. c. Explore possible pathways being considered and choose the most relevant.

  3. Input – my clients have all heard me say that I’m allergic to advice, but giving one another feedback on what they’ve heard, along with reflections from their own experience, can be extremely valuable. I’ve seen it be most helpful when it’s phrased as: a. “In my experience with a similar situation…” b. “What I’ve seen work best is…” c. “The pitfalls I’ve observed/experienced are…” d. “From knowing you, it’s sounds like… is really important to you.”

  4. Takeaways – the person wraps up what was most useful from the conversation and next steps they plan to take

Who can do this: This can be a helpful format for you do with one peer, but groups of up to 8 work well (too many people and the conversation can get unruly).

How long does it take: Short answer: between 15-45 minutes, depending on the complexity of the question and how many you’re trying to get through at once.

  • I’ve found that with larger groups, or with timeboxed meetings, someone should take the reins for keeping the pace moving. When I’m facilitating, that’s part of my role, but you can just decide that each person gets 20 minutes, take a few for the opening, a few for the closing, and divide the main two sections into larger blocks (with someone keeping their eye on the clock).

  • You can dedicate a whole meeting to round robins, or allow people in staff meetings to request in advance some peer coaching, and then put a 20 minute block on the calendar where all attention goes to helping that person solve the challenge. To make it a regular practice, set up a rotation where team members can sign up in advance and everyone gets a chance to have the hot seat over the course of a few months.

When an outside facilitator can be useful: I’m laying all of this out so that you and your peers can self-run, but there are certain factors that call for outside facilitation:

  • To get the group into the right rhythm

  • When the participants tend to speak over each other or give advice quickly

  • When there isn’t much trust within the group

  • When a new group is just forming and are building rapport

  • When the topics are extra sensitive and temperatures may rise

In short: It's a wonderful thing watching peers get into a rhythm of asking thoughtful questions and reflect back what they’re seeing and hearing. It’s empowering for participants to draw their own conclusions, to be able to articulate uncertainties and get back reflections of strength and gentle guidance.

Share this post with your peers and suggest finding a time to try it out – and if you have any follow up questions for me, don’t hesitate to reach out.


The Coaching Corner

As the end of 2023 approaches, what haven't you accomplished yet that's top of mind?

This question can be helpful for your team members for a number of reasons. First of all, it can help focus those who are underwater with unexpected tasks. Second, it gives them the agency to look at their lists and prioritize.

A big complaint I hear from my clients is that their supervisors - often CEOs or other senior executives - expect them to keep up all the "regular" work while they lead unexpected projects. If you're in a position to help your team pick the most important things to accomplish by the end of the year - or validate their desire to do so - take it, this week more than ever.



"It's Time to Define Your Company's Principles" - what I love about this HBR article is the distinction they make between company values and principles, and the process the authors take us through to crafting them.

“Your Future Self Needs Your Help Today” - podcast episode from Maya Shankar’s “A Slight Change of Plans.” Many of my clients have gone through a “future self” visioning exercise with me, so I was excited to hear from a professor who studies the relationship between our present and future selves… and the impact on our decision making today.


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