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Image by Peter Secan

Which Conversation Are You Having Now?


When we talk to people in our roles as managers, we have different kinds of conversations depending on what we are trying to achieve. While these purposes and roles overlap, we can be more effective if we know from the outset what the primary purpose of the conversation is and focus on doing that well.


Most people recognize four basic business goals of conversation: supervising, training, mentoring and coaching. Supervising and training are information-based, while mentoring and coaching are more relationship-based although even these distinctions can blur in practice. The first two focus on people’s success in their current positions, while the others focus on their success in both the present and future.


What is the purpose of each conversation?


When we supervise people we are attempting to align their goals and behavior to the organization’s goals and systems. We explain how things are done, what deadlines need to be met, what the organizational structure is, and how their work fits into and supports the organization.


When we train people, we are teaching them what they need to know to do their jobs well. The training function is generally thought to be a transfer of information or skill.


When we mentor people, we are giving them tips on how to be generally successful in the organization in the long run. We suggest people to meet, projects to participate in, what to look for in a future position. Mentoring has an internal, future-oriented focus, while supervising and training are more present-oriented. A mentor is also generally not your immediate supervisor, but someone from another department who has been around longer and can be helpful in understanding the organization, at least in theory. Some supervisors are also wonderful mentors.


When we coach someone, the focus shifts entirely from success in this organization to success and effectiveness in general, and can address both personal and professional issues. The coaching conversation can incorporate all the immediate goals of the other conversations and add a unique developmental element as well. 


The coaching conversation is distinguished from all others by the difference of who is in charge of the content and the process. In supervising, training, and even mentoring, the organization or the supervisor is really in charge. That person has all the wisdom, knowledge, and expertise for the role and pretty much determines what is to be discussed. In coaching, the coaching client is in charge. It is the client’s goals that must be met, the client who chooses what to discuss, the client who determines what direction to take, even when the organization pays for it. The client generally wants to discuss the same areas as were suggested by the organization, but they are discussed from the client’s point of view, not the organization’s. Coaching is also much more collaborative than the other conversations because the client has so much influence on both the process and the content.


I know some people will disagree with the approaches and definitions I have used here. Many managers define everything they do as coaching; I don’t agree that every conversation is a coaching session (nor should it be) or even that all managers do it well. Many managers will also say they are always teaching their staff members something new, and I am sure they teach and develop staff members at every opportunity, but that doesn’t make them trainers. And there are all too many managers who don’t want any significant competition around for them to be good mentors.


Each conversation requires different techniques and approaches, language styles and structure, for it to be effective. Rolling them all into one title, “manager,” may be what makes management so hard, but knowing which is your primary goal at any one time and then developing the skills to do each one well can make it easier. 

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