Experiments in email coaching
Wright, N. (2004) ‘Experiments in Email Coaching’, Quality Learning, British Learning Association, Spring, Issue 3, p12.
Peter Vaux, in his Sceptic’s Thesaurus (1999), describes continuous improvement as, “a rather haphazard way of doing things better.” This definition fits well with my experiments at using email for distance mentoring and coaching. I will outline my experiences and learning below for fellow travellers on this road of e-discovery.
Eighteen months ago, I was approached by clients based in Asia and Africa to ask if I would be interested to provide remote development support using e-technologies. After initial discussion, we decided to use email because it was (a) familiar, (b) inexpensive and (c) convenient for the colleague in Africa who had unreliable energy supplies and only occasional access to a PC. We agreed to communicate once a month by way of each client contacting me with a presentation of current issues and scenarios. I agreed to respond with my own observations, analysis, questions and ideas within 7 days.
Shortly afterwards, the first emails arrived, loaded with multiple accounts of stories, experiences, issues and dilemmas. I tried my best to discern patterns and key underlying themes and fed these back as stimuli for further reflection, exploration and discussion. I then waited eagerly for 3 weeks to receive their responses. The next emails arrived on time as agreed but made little reference to my previous emails or my ‘inspired revelations’. Instead, they simply communicated multiple accounts of new stories, experiences, issues and dilemmas. Putting my bruised ego to one side, I responded as before and waited again for the next responses. Surely enough, 3 weeks later new emails arrived in exactly the same manner.
I found the lack of feedback both frustrating and disappointing but realised, in retrospect, that we hadn’t discussed or agreed how the pattern of our communication would work, especially bearing in mind the time-discontinuity of email conversation compared to the immediacy of, say, face-to-face contact or phone. Conversely, from my clients’ point of view, my input was apparently helpful at the time but, when it came to the next contact 3 weeks later, they had forgotten the detail of the original communiqué and were preoccupied, instead, with new pressures and issues of concern. This illustrated how soon the din of life and work can drown out conscious learning, especially when the opportunity for immediate, reiterative dialogue is absent.
I quickly learned, too, how dependent the mentor-coach is on feedback from the client in order to maintain personal motivation and pitch subsequent interventions appropriately. Email lacks the subconscious feedback signals communicated ordinarily through things like eye contact, body language and tone of voice and so the different parties involved need to find alternative ways to convey the human dynamics of communication. This could have taken the form of, in this instance, “I felt a little disappointed when I didn’t hear whether my comments were helpful. Could you give me some honest feedback so that I can learn how best to support you?”
I also learned that agreeing a process of interaction at the outset is critical. Although my clients and I had devised a practical mechanism for communication (i.e. monthly, by e-mail), we hadn’t explored or agreed what form that communication would take in practice. Whereas I think I had expected, implicitly, a dialogue over time on certain core issues (e.g. managing cross-cultural relationships), my clients’ expectation was that they would have access to a sounding board outside of their national contexts who would provide external advice on whatever issues happened to be problematic for them at the time.
In conclusion, I would recommend that those involved in mentoring and coaching by email adhere to the following protocol as a helpful starting point. Firstly, agree a mechanism that provides opportunity for 2-way dialogue within a relatively short timeframe (e.g. 2 days), even if that mechanism is only applied periodically (e.g. monthly). Secondly, agree what form the communication will take, including what each party will communicate (e.g. single or multiple issues; questions or advice) and what kind of communication will be needed or expected in return. Finally, agree a timeframe and process for periodic, honest review of all aspects of the mentoring/coaching arrangement (e.g. technical, relational). I know that’s what I’ll be doing next time!