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Salvaging Derailed Coaching Conversations

Matt M. Starcevich, Ph.D.
(For individual use only, not to be reproduced or used in any way without permission)

Derail: to cause to fail or become deflected from a purpose

As a coach, have you experienced a time during your normal coaching conversations:

When the other person:

  • Became argumentative

  •  Withdrew from the conversation--clamed up

  • Showed various emotions from anger to crying

  • Was overly agreeable and couldn't wait for the conversation to end?

Or, found yourself:

  •  Raising your voice

  •  Pointing your finger

  • Trying desperately to persuade or convince the other person

  • Losing your composure

  • With a bad feeling in the pit of your stomach

  •  Talking louder, harder, faster?

If any of these conditions exist a well-intended coaching conversation has become derailed and the coach is wondering "What happened?"


The simple reason is that the other person doesn't feel it is safe to continue an open discussion. At the center of our 8 Step Coaching Model[i] is "Be Supportive." The effective leaders we observed during their coaching discussions exhibited these supportive leadership behaviors:

  • Collaboration/flexibility

  • Help/assisting

  • Empathy/understanding

  • Listening

  • Recognition of the other persons value

  • Mutual respect

  • Positive exchange

  • Openness

If the other person perceives that the coach is exhibiting the opposite of any one or all of these behaviors, they feel the conversation is not in their best interest and feel threatened by where it is going.

Psychologists have identified a universal reaction when we feel threatened: Fight or Flight. There has been a lot of research on this finding; for this application accept that universally this is the reaction to situations we find threatening.








Running away



What to do?

Keep one eye on the process

Every conversation has two parts, the Content (what we are talking about) and the Process (how we are talking or not talking). Spotting fight or flight behaviors are process observations. Practice stepping out of the conversation and asking yourself "How are we talking." The sooner you can notice that the conversation has derailed the better.

Skilled coaches are good at hearing both the words and music of the conversation. Don't respond in kind to fight or flight behavior, observe and take action to address the causes of the derailment. Put the content on hold, focus on the process. The real challenge for the coach is how can I create a more supportive tone where the other person will feel safe and they can trust that I have their best interests at heart and want to engage in a collaborative conversation.

Easier said than done! We get so caught up in what we're saying or pushing our agenda that it is difficult to pull ourselves out of the conversation in order to see what's happening to ourselves and to others. Take heart with practice it becomes easier.

Question your goals/behaviors

What are your goals for this conversation? What do you want? What don't you want? What is your intent? Is your behavior consistent with your intent? When conversations derail your goals are more often than not misinterpreted. Rather than a give and take conversation others see you as wanting to win, or having a malicious intent.

Reflecting on your goals and behaviors helps you focus on the higher goal of coaching conversations--to help! Does the other person appreciate this, probably not or they wouldn't feel threatened. Ask yourself "What do I really want out of this conversation?" The second question is "How would I behave if I wanted this result?" Are you behaving that way, the other persons perception is NOT!

Invite a discussion of goals

"It seems like we are not talking, let's step back and explore what we want out of this conversation. Why do you think we are having this conversation?" Listen, and then state your goal--finding common ground is the bedrock of feeling safe to converse about how we can achieve this goal.

An alternative to flushing out our common goal is to ask what you don't want out of this conversation. Listen, and then state what you don't want. This can be the spring board to articulating and agreeing on what our mutual goal is for the conversation.

Articulate your support

Be willing to genuinely state your support and to apologize if your behavior during the conversation was inconsistent with your mutual goal.

"I am concerned about______. I respect you and want to help you reach your goals. My intention is to have an open give and take discussion, unfortunately my behavior has not been in-line with my desire and I apologize."

Test if content is back on the table

When there is agreement on a mutual goal, test if the conversation can resume on the original topic:

"We are in agreement about what we both want and don't want from this conversation. With that in mind, can we reopen the original purpose for this meeting?....If so let's start with an exchange on how we see the current situation."

Key to keep an open dialogue--talk tentatively--hypothetically

All you can control during the ensuing conversation is how you talk and behave. Always keep the question in the back of your mind, is my behavior consistent with what we want or don't want out of this conversation?

Present your opinions, facts, inferences in a tentative way. Talking tentatively is non-threatening, less judgmental and open for sharing alternative opinions.

"Could it be that....?" "I would like you to think about something. You don't have to agree just tell me your thoughts about....?" "I am puzzled why....?" "Perhaps others might feel differently about....any thoughts?"

Keep one eye on the process

Pay constant attention to the process and signs that the other person may feel threatened during your coaching conversations. If you sense the conversation is starting to derail, ask the other person what is going on to keep from continuing the downward slide. "What's going on?" "Seems like we are stuck, what do you think?" "I can't read what you are thinking. How do you see our conversation?"

Bottom line--Being Supportive with a mutual goal makes for a safe conversation.

[i] Starcevich and Stowell, The Coach: Creating Partnerships for a Competitive Edge. Center for Coaching & Mentoring, Inc.

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