How to Coach a Colleague Who’s Stuck in Their Story

One of the things I occasionally get to do as an executive coach is help a client who’s stuck in their story get unstuck and move on. You, the reader, may or may not be an executive coach yourself, but my guess is you likely have a colleague or two or ten who are stuck in their stories too. How do you help them get out of the mud and move on to a more productive place?

Here’s the five-step process I’ve used with my clients who need that kind of support. It doesn’t always work but it does most of the time. Chances are it will work for you and your stuck in the mud colleagues.

Step 1. Meet Them Where They Are – If a colleague is complaining about being stuck or you notice that they are, meet them where they are. Don’t start out by saying, “You’re stuck. Get it over it and go do something!” If it were that easy, they already would have.

Step 2. Ask for Permission to Coach – There are few things more annoying than being coached when you don’t want to be coached. (At least that’s what my family members tell me.) Before you dive in and start asking a bunch of questions or, worse, offering suggestions, ask your colleague if they’d like to be coached about their situation or if they just want to vent. Venting can be healthy within limits. If all they ever do is vent, then you may want to point that out and suggest that some coaching could help them get unstuck.

Step 3. Help Them Distinguish Between What Should Be and What Is – Folks who are stuck quite often get stuck in a loop of should’s and shouldn’t’s. When you hear them saying, “It should be like this,” or “They shouldn’t be doing that,” you can interrupt the thought process that has them stuck by asking them to describe what actually is going on. That’s reality or at least their version of it. Once you get them focused on the current actual, factual reality, they can start getting past the should’s and move on to productive actions they can take.

Step 4. Ask So Far and What Else – This step involves one of my favorite questions and my absolute favorite question. One of my favorite questions is “What have you tried so far?” This is a good recap question for the client or colleague and also helps me learn more about their situation. My absolute favorite question is “What else?” and its various variations. “What else?” is perfect as a standalone question to encourage the colleague to keep going. When you ask “What else could it be?” you can help someone challenge the assumptions that may have them stuck in the first place. When you ask, “What else could you try?” after their recap of what they tried so far, you help them generate options for getting unstuck. When you ask it more than once, you help them generate multiple options. In my experience, the most fruitful options are the ones that people come up with after the second or third time they’ve been asked, “What else could you try?” To help them get unstuck, you have to get them past rounding up the usual suspects.

Step 5. Pace the work – Help your stuck colleague make progress by helping them identify the next one or two steps they need to take to move forward. It’s rare in life when you can solve for 100% at once. Help them build momentum by helping them pace the work. Highlight the small wins they’re having and use Step 4 above to help them get back on track when things don’t work out as planned or when they get stuck again.

The great thing about this process is it helps your client or colleague do the work. The only work you’re doing is providing the coaching and support to help them recognize that most any condition in life is temporary and subject to change. From there, you’re helping them exercise their agency to create the changes they need to get unstuck.

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