Cultivating Connection: What I’ve Learned about Coaching at a Distance

We are all making our way through an extremely tumultuous time. For most of us, our personal and professional worlds have been completely disrupted (and in some cases, blended, as we find ourselves working in close quarters with all members of our household). While disruption clearly comes with challenges, it also presents opportunity. One of these opportunities is that now is time to hone your virtual interaction comfort level. I feel lucky we live in a time where even though my daughter can’t physically attend preschool right now, her class can meet virtually (this may be the best thing I’ve ever witnessed).

In the coaching world, interpersonal connection is an essential part of our work. Working in isolation doesn’t preclude interpersonal connection, but it does change it. At MRG, many of our clients are in remote locations around the world, so long-distance coaching has been a part of our DNA for some time.

It’s not a perfect process, but over many hundreds of long-distance coaching hours, I’ve adapted my style and found a few fundamental elements that make it work.

  • Video coaching? Offer an option. I prefer video, but I always give the option of video to the person I am coaching and defer to their wishes. Some people are uncomfortable with it, and if they’re uncomfortable, it will negatively impact their experience.
  • Act like yourself. With or without video, I try to treat every conversation as if it’s happening in my office. This means I don’t alter anything about my facial expressions, intonations, hand gestures, etc. I think this makes the conversation feel more authentic.
  • Take the time to build rapport. I find that during any virtual interaction  people have a tendency to get right “down to business.” But building rapport is even more important when the interaction is online. Remember, the entire world is being impacted by this right now. Allow it to be a point of connection. On a recent coaching call with a distant coachee working for a humanitarian organization, we spent 30 minutes just talking it out. It was cathartic for both of us, and we are now closer because of it.
  • Know your tech. A few things to consider here:
    • Establish one preferred way of connecting, and know it inside and out. Select one preferred way of connecting (Skype, Zoom, GoToMeeting, etc – there are many options!). Then get to know that program inside and out. Experiment until you feel confident adjusting audio, video, and connection settings. Know your profile name so people can find you. You don’t want shakiness around your technology to distract from the work you’re doing to connect with the person on the other end.
    • Have a backup. Just because you have one preferred method doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have a second option. Also, pay attention to what programs others you interact with are using. While you probably don’t want to flip around too often (see prior point), it’s wise to have another option you could transition to if circumstances require it.
    • Have your phone ready (and charged) as a last resort. WhatsApp and FaceTime have served me well as alternatives when all other technology fails.
    • Be patient and roll with the punches. Sometimes things just don’t work well and it can be immensely frustrating. Don’t force it – if it’s not working, it’s not working. If you’re busy trying to work around a tech issue that’s out of your control, the value of the conversation will be lost anyway, so reschedule.

This is a challenging and uncertain time for all of us. And while we are physically isolated from each other, people have a deep need for connection and support. As coaches, I hope we can play some role in meeting those needs, helping people retain what is best about them so that we can all emerge from this experience with renewed strength and wisdom in the face of adversity.


About the author

Drew is MRG's resident I/O psychologist. When not at MRG, he's either with his family (most likely) or in his workshop (less likely). His stack of unread books is commendable.

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