I was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 2001. By 2003 I could no longer speak intelligibly or walk, and any muscle control became more difficult as the disease progressed. I knew I couldn’t keep facilitating team meetings and giving strategy presentations — staples of the consulting services I had provided for many years. But I still loved my work and needed to stay active, and my clients were open to trying a new approach, so I began managing my coaching relationships exclusively through written dialogue in instant messages, emails, and other electronic documents.
This started out as a tentative experiment. My clients and I were skeptical at best about how it would go. We assumed that the lack of in-person interaction would get in the way of open dialogue. But that hasn’t been the case — at all. In fact, we’ve discovered several unexpected advantages. I’ll describe those and share some practical guidelines so that others can reap them in a variety of coaching contexts — from leadership development to organizational consulting to professional mentoring — even if they aren’t similarly constrained by a handicap.
Why Do It?
As you’d imagine, the written communication enhances accessibility, because people can fire off an email and then schedule a follow-up chat session if one is needed. The gains are both tangible (quicker feedback and action for time-sensitive problem solving) and intangible (the increased confidence and peace of mind that come with feeling immediately heard and validated).
But there are some surprising benefits, too. For one, coaching through writing can increase psychological safety, which leads to greater disclosure and builds trust. Before my ALS diagnosis, it often took two to three months of meetings and phone calls to establish a close connection. Now clients open up more quickly. In coaching various managing directors’ teams at a large investment bank, for example, I found that people shared personal stories (some funny, some embarrassing, some gut-wrenching), discussed thorny problems they were having with their managers (often my senior clients), and raised sensitive career management questions — all within a month of weekly instant-message sessions. Clients consistently tell me that written dialogue makes it easier to be candid about what they’re grappling with. Without someone looking at them, they feel freer to express themselves and less concerned about criticism.
Communicating entirely through writing also inhibits stereotyping on the basis of physical attractiveness, how people speak and present themselves, their body language, and so on. Even when I am told that a new client is unlikable or unapproachable or downright negative, I can build a strong connection. I attribute this largely to limited interpersonal noise. Instant messaging (IM) approaches 100% content (though emojis and writing styles try to approximate body language and vocal inflection). All around, there’s less “packaging” to skew your or your client’s perception of the messages exchanged. Though we do judge others on how they write, a casual medium like IM can mitigate this. We make allowances for people in informal written interaction.
You and Your Team Series
And many of us do a better job of listening in writing (as long as we’re making an effort), both in real time and upon reflection. Without the visual or auditory distractions — or the pressure — of having the other person in the room, we can better focus on what’s being said. I initially expected that instant messaging might be too slow. But clients say they like having more time to listen, absorb, think, and respond during a conversation, even in cultures that prize speed and urgency. It makes the communication more precise, which prevents confusion and misunderstandings later on and speeds up alignment for effective problem solving. Of course, both the coach and the client must be comfortable with responses like “hmm, am thinking” and “can you clarify?” during IM sessions, but that comes with practice as mutual respect and trust grow.
In my experience, coaching through writing can help people manage highly charged emotions. Take, for instance, my IM exchanges with a technology manager at a financial services firm. He wanted to advance in his career, but he thought his stormy relationship with his boss was holding him back. We needed to develop a strategy for how he could better engage with his manager and highlight the value of his contributions. But to get into a constructive frame of mind, he had to vent first, and IM turned out to be a great tool for that. The act of writing his frustrations down and looking at the words on the screen seemed to help him move past them. It was almost like a journaling exercise: I read and acknowledged how he felt, but without judging it. (“Listening” in writing also enabled more patience on my part than if we had met in person.) When he finished unloading, he was ready to get to work.
Finally, there’s the impact on accountability: Research shows that we’re more likely to achieve our goals when we write them down. The power of written declaration may seem fleeting in instant messaging, but the notes reflect present “objective truth” and make it harder to later forget or distort what was said. Clients tell me they actually welcome these conversations that feel more on the record, because they want to make progress on their goals, and the “record” can help measure that. Every conversation is automatically documented, so details are more easily recalled without the kind of follow-up, “just to recap” notes that can make people feel misunderstood or criticized. In addition, as clients have pointed out, the written record also holds me accountable for any ground rules we’ve established and follow-up commitments I’ve made.
How to Do It
Whether you simply want to increase the amount of coaching you do through writing to reap these benefits or you’ve decided to go all-in because of life circumstances, as I’ve done, here are some principles I’ve gleaned over the past 14 years. Though these basic guidelines can be applied to all business relationships, they’ve especially helped me in my remote work with clients.
Signal open access and flexibility. On the front end of any coaching relationship, it is essential to convey credible commitment and caring. I do this in various ways: Before a first session, I send out my bio and a proposed agenda, and then allow plenty of time for a new client to ask about my background, my perspective on coaching, and my experience in using IM. I invite people to ask personal questions, too. Next, I say that I am available anytime, to signal my commitment to a needs-driven (versus schedule-driven) arrangement that enables timely feedback, problem solving, action commitments, and learning. Coaching through writing makes it easier to deliver on that promise, and making myself always available provides peace of mind for the client. The main message I’m sending is “Hey, I am here for you and totally committed to you.” I always want to know if a client needs me (or thinks they do) beyond our scheduled meeting times. If a pattern of problematic dependence on me were to emerge (it never has), IM and other written communication would help me identify that pattern and address it.
Manage confidentiality. I’ve observed that clients worry less about confidentiality issues when they’re coached through written exchanges, and I think that has a lot to do with setting clear expectations. I never make a blanket promise to keep mum. Rather, at the beginning of an engagement I ask the client to trust my judgment to share anything that I see as a potential win for them. But I also say that if the client wants something specific to be kept between us, I’ll honor that request. You might think people would feel vulnerable in an arrangement like that, but most say they are comfortable giving me latitude to make judgment calls, and they become more and more so as the relationship develops. They know it’s up to them to flag anything that isn’t meant to be shared, and they do so.
Hone your written voice. Informal language in writing can build camaraderie, but only if it feels natural. Imagine in your head how the words will sound to the receiver, and then write how you would speak them. It takes time to develop this skill and to do the extra thinking, but it forces you to empathize with people, and they’ll pick up on that. Spelling and mechanics don’t matter much in instant messaging, because such mistakes are easily forgiven and forgotten in real-time chats — but in emails and other formal documents, attending to those details is essential for credibility.
In the early stages of a coaching engagement, I usually stick with descriptive (rather than evaluative) language. New clients are generally more receptive to “This is what I see happening” than to “This is what I think you should be doing differently,” and it shows them, by example, how to think less judgmentally and more objectively. Once you’ve built a stronger relationship, you’ll have more latitude in offering constructive criticism; people will be less likely to perceive it as an attack. Still, ask permission first, and perhaps frame it as “If I were in your shoes, I might…” Written criticism can linger in misunderstanding; once it is typed, it is harder to take back than a spoken comment. The communications discipline will be well worth the effort.
Get comfortable with personal disclosure. This may be the most important part of developing and maintaining an open, trusting relationship. We know from social exchange theory and studies on interpersonal communication that if an individual openly discloses thoughts and feelings to others, the other party is more likely to open up too. As I mentioned earlier, the perceived distance of coaching through writing doesn’t put up walls; it actually allows for freer dialogue, with fewer boundaries — which further promotes trust. The coach and client may engage in a broader, more robust search for root causes of problems, for example, or they may communicate more candidly about what the client needs to do.
Plus, a productive relationship of disclosure requires authenticity — on both sides. If you model that as a coach, and it’s reciprocated, clients can then transfer what they have learned from you to all kinds of situations and relationships, both business and personal.