Coaching as a business tool continues to grow in popularity. Louise Palmer explains how it can be used effectively in managing lawyers, and provides a number of practical techniques to help you develop a successful coaching relationship

Coaching is growing in popularity, and more managers are starting to incorporate its principles into everyday working life. It can be particularly effective in the management of lawyers. As business coach Iwan Thomas says: ‘Managing lawyers has been likened to herding cats. A directive style does not work.’

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Coaching, on the other hand, involves asking team members specific questions to help them to focus intently on their own internal thought processes, and subsequently develop their own effective solutions to situations and challenges. In this article, I provide some coaching knowhow which will enable you to use some basic coaching techniques in the management of your team.

When to use coaching

It’s important that coaching techniques are used appropriately. Choose the wrong opportunity, and you could do more harm than good. In a nutshell, if there is a known answer – for example on how to carry out a particular task – then an instructional-based approach is required. If there is a situation where there are various solutions available, then coaching is ideal.

The benefits

So why go to the effort of learning a new management technique? Well, coaching has a multitude of benefits. First, it empowers individuals to develop their own clearly thought-out solutions. Through the development of their own solutions, they experience a real sense of achievement, which in turn increases their motivation.

Coaching can also highlight personal obstacles and habitual behaviours. Deborah Clarke, business coach at LifeChanges, says: ‘Coaching provides the space for an individual to reflect and take stock of any work-based issues. It helps to highlight unhelpful behaviours, attitudes or self beliefs which may be hindering more creative and appropriate solutions.’ As a result of this process, success is more easily within the employee’s grasp.

In addition, research has shown that coaching helps to strengthen positive relationships in the workplace.

Deep listening

A key skill in any coaching situation is the ability to practise ‘deep listening’. Consider whether you are guilty of any of the following behaviours while listening to others.

  • Do you act as if you are listening, yet you are thinking about other things?
  • Do you think you know what the other person is going to say next, and attempt to finish their sentences?
  • Do you momentarily switch off, and then realise that you haven’t been listening?
  • Do you interrupt the person to clarify what they mean?
  • After the person has finished speaking, do you reply with your own story before fully investigating the other person’s story?

If so, you may be listening ineffectively. Deep listening involves focusing more on the other person than on yourself. It involves taking the time to fully commit to what the other person is saying, and trying to understand their beliefs, values, thinking patterns and habitual behaviours.

While delivering public training courses, I used to ask people to note down three people they considered to be good listeners. You can try doing this exercise now. You might be surprised how difficult it is. I did not proceed with the training until every person in the room had written down three people. This often took five minutes or more. One delegate had a thought-provoking reflection on this: ‘It’s interesting that it has taken us five minutes to think of three good listeners when most people consider themselves to be good listeners.’

Once every delegate had three names in mind, I asked three questions. Are any of the people on your list disliked by you? Are they loved by you? Are they respected by you? In every case, even if the people were not liked by the individual, they were at least respected. This highlights how important listening is. It therefore stands to reason that managers who use a coaching style of management within their law practice, and who practise deep listening, are more likely to be highly regarded by their team.


Replacing ‘why’ with ‘what’ questions

When you ask an individual ‘why’ they have acted in a certain manner or carried out a task in a particular way, they may perceive that you are attributing blame or trying to find fault. It can result in a defensive response, and ultimately make it far more difficult to get to the bottom of the situation. Instead, you can use questions which begin with the word ‘what’. This takes the heat away from the individual and makes the questioning far less personalised. The individual is still responsible for their thinking and actions, yet it reconfirms that you believe the person to be competent.

‘What’ questioning can help you gain real insight into the mitigating factors that led the individual to act the way they did. It can help you discover how much power they had over the outcomes, and therefore how much responsibility they can take. This type of questioning is excellent for assisting employees with decision-making processes and developing successful action plans. The table opposite gives some examples of ‘what’ questions.

Examples of ‘what’ questions

  • What factors contributed to the late filing of the report?
  • What caused that to happen?
  • What is causing these mistakes to occur?
  • What is affecting your ability to answer the client’s questions?
  • What made you decide on this particular course of action?
  • What was the thinking process behind your actions?
  • To what extent did you have full control over the outcome?
  • What possible solutions have you thought of?
  • What are the pros and cons of the different solutions?
  • What would be a successful outcome?
  • What is the very minimum you would like to achieve?
  • What obstacles do you foresee and what can you do to overcome them?
  • What is the next step?
  • What do you need to do in order to achieve this?
  • What difference would it make to you if you achieved your goal?
  • What impact would it have on you if you failed to achieve your goal?

What else?

If you really want to challenge an employee’s thinking, you could try asking the question ‘What else?’. You can either ask this question once, or ask it repeatedly to encourage them to delve deeper into their own minds. Sometimes this technique can have surprising results for both manager and employee. Depending on the situation, you might find that the question ‘What difference would that make?’ is more suitable (see below). Choose whichever question makes the conversation flow more naturally.

The following transcript is of a manager using a coaching style during an employee’s appraisal:

Manager: What would you like to achieve in your position in the next few years?

Employee: I’d really like to be considered for a promotion.

M: What do you think you need to do in order to be considered for promotion?

E: I’m not sure.

M: Any ideas?

E: I could ask you.

M: Yes, I can certainly give you some pointers, although first I’d like to hear what you think you might need to do.

E: Well, I suppose if I’m being honest, I probably need to work longer hours. I realise that those who seem to receive promotion get in earlier than me and they stay later.

M: What else?

E: Not sure [coach remains silent]. I know I tend to avoid them a bit at the moment, but I should probably get more involved with the networking events. If I develop a good number of contacts, I think that might help.

M: What else?

E: I don’t know [coach remains silent]. I suppose I could offer to write some pieces for the company blog.

M: What else?

E: Perhaps get involved with the in-house training courses. I could offer to be a part of those. I guess it’s basically getting my face seen a bit more. I know I am performing well in relation to my targets, as I usually manage to achieve those. I think I just need to start working a bit harder on the other aspects of my job.

You can see that asking the ‘What else?’ question repeatedly provided the employee with time and space to think through a number of possible positive actions that they could take in order to achieve promotion. If the question had only been asked once, they may have only had one option in their mind. The manager’s role in this conversation is to keep challenging the individual’s thinking and encourage them to develop a plan of their own. They are far more likely to feel motivated to try some of their own ideas than if the manager had dictated what they needed to do.

Note also how the manager remains silent when it appears the employee has run out of ideas. This silence allows the employee time to think and is an excellent technique for encouraging them to consider a few more options. Filling the silence too quickly can prematurely halt additional thoughts being brought to the consciousness of the employee.

David Dean, a coaching psychologist and career and MBA development coach, highlights an interesting aspect regarding ‘what else’ questioning. ‘Clients can sometimes begin to struggle and can feel “stuck” when persistently asked the linear “what else” questions regarding their career and personal development,’ he suggests. ‘As an alternative, I ask them to think more about the value and purpose they bring to their roles. This helps them create new development frameworks while rekindling the passion for their work and career.’

What difference would that make?

As an alternative to ‘What else?’ questioning, you can ask ‘What difference would that make?’. Below is an example of a manager using this technique.

Manager: What caused you to not speak up about your concerns during the meeting?

Employee: I felt I wouldn’t be listened to.

M: What made you feel like that?

E: It was all getting very heated and I didn’t think that anything I would say would make a difference.

M: From what you have told me, the points you had were valid. What would have helped you to speak up?

E: I guess I wasn’t sure how to put my points across in a way that would make the other people listen.

M: So what would have helped you to speak up?

E: Knowing how to put my points across.

M: What difference would that make?

E: I would have voiced my concerns and this situation would not have escalated like it has.

M: What difference would that make?

E: The client would have been happier with the outcome of the meeting.

M: What difference would that make?

E: The client would feel happier with the firm in general.

M: What difference would that make?

E: Well, I guess it would make them easier to work with.

M: What difference would that make?

E: I wouldn’t dread their calls as much.

M: What difference would that make?

E: It would make my working day a lot nicer.

M: What difference would that make?

E: I would feel less stressed.

The manager could then move on to ask further questions to help the employee develop an action plan regarding improving their communication skills in conflict situations, including possible training they could attend.

You can see how this scenario went from not speaking up in a client meeting, to the employee realising that if they could master these skills, it would make a big difference to their working life. It identified a learning need which could be easily addressed and make for a more successful employee and, ultimately, law firm. As the employee has thought through the difference the training might make to them, they are far more likely to feel motivated to engage with the training, rather than feeling defensive after the manager has ordered them to attend a course due to their skill deficiency in this area.

Using a third person

At times, it can be useful to introduce the perspective of a third person. This is particularly helpful if the employee appears unable to think of possible solutions, needs a few more options to choose from, or would benefit from seeing the situation from the viewpoint of a more senior member of the team. Possible questions to ask the employee in order to introduce that third perspective could include the following.

  • How do you think the CEO would manage this situation?
  • What action do you think the managing partner would take?
  • How do you think the managing partner would have managed their personal feelings if faced with this situation?


Using scales can be an excellent way to help the individual plan next steps, overcome failures and appreciate what they have achieved. So, for example, you could ask: ‘On a scale of 1-10, 1 being low and 10 being high, how confident are you at being able to deliver this presentation?’ The employee might reply with a 6. You can then respond with ‘OK, what would make you a 7?’. This can provide key ideas for additional work, training or preparation they need to do before the presentation.

If an employee has experienced a setback, you might ask: ‘On a scale of 1-10, 1 being low, 10 being high, how well did you handle this situation?’. The employee may be feeling particularly negative about the situation and reply with a 1. You could then ask: ‘How come you were not a 0? What did you do that prevented the situation from escalating further?’.


Summarising the employee’s thoughts back to them has two benefits. First, it shows that you were listening. Second, hearing their thoughts relayed back to them can provide clarity. Obviously, you don’t want to repeat the employee’s words verbatim. It needs to sound natural. You might find it helpful to say: ‘So, in your experience you have found that …’ or ‘OK, so you feel that …’.

Look for exceptions

While it might be rare for employees to be honest with managers about their skill deficiencies, you might on occasion find yourself faced with an employee who is negative about themselves and their abilities. In this situation, it can be helpful to encourage the employee to look for exceptions. Let’s take the example of someone who feels they lack confidence. You could ask them a number of questions: ‘On what occasions, whether at home or work, have you felt confident in the past?’; ‘What helped in this situation?’; ‘Can this be applied to situations in the future when you wish to feel more confident?’.


Using a coaching style of management helps managers to develop a deeper rapport with their employees. It fosters a positive environment where managers encourage employees to develop their own successful solutions to unique situations. By using a variety of coaching questions, as detailed in this article, you can help your employees to challenge their thinking patterns and achieve higher levels of professional success.