Coaching Skills

Individual and Group Coaching

Chip and Dan Heath in their Book Switch beautifully narrate the elephant and the Mahout. I am trying to build on this concept to explain a few important coaching concepts. The intent of this article is to highlight the types of coaching skills with respect to Individual and Group Coaching.

Individual Coaching

Every human being has two facets,

  • The emotions
  • The logical decision making

Chip and Dan Heath compare the emotions to an Elephant and the Logical making & the willpower to the Mahout. India is home to elephants, I decided to delve little deeper to understand the relationship between an elephant and the Mahout. The relationship, between an elephant and the mahout, starts very early in life and they remain bonded to each other throughout their lives. The most common tools used by mahouts are chains and the Goad Ankusha.

Now let us look at human beings. Human beings are born with emotions and logical thinking. They both grow together within us. The logical thinking matures between 18 and 25 years and develops into a character which wants to control the emotions. On the other hand, the emotion does not mature, but continues to grow and as time passes it starts becoming rigid.  A mahout controlling the emotion is similar to the  Prefrontal cortex controlling the emotion. Mahout compared to the elephant is small in size and our logic delivered from prefrontal cortex is very small in front of the emotions. I hope you understand the magnitude of the problem.

Prefrontal cortex and the mahout play a very similar role of controlling the emotions and the elephant respectively.  They both can exercise their command using the tools like Ankush and logical reasoning. We need to understand that they will be successful in controlling to a greater extent. However, we need to understand that if the elephant decided not to listen to the Mahout, in a matter of few seconds the mahout will lose total control of the elephant. Similarly, when the emotion takes control, it will become extremely difficult for the logic emitting from prefrontal cortex to extend any control of the human being.  If you can close your eyes and visualize how a mahout tries to control the elephant with his Ankush and when the elephant does not listen to the command, mahout increases the intensity of the punishment with the Ankush. As the intensity increases the elephant becomes more stubborn and beyond a point can just throw the mahout and run wild. That is exactly what happens when the prefrontal cortex exerts pressure on the emotions. The emotions can throw all the logic to wind and will start doing what it feels right. This will probably give you the answer as to why we do so many things which are not logical.

Let us now look at some examples in our own daily lives. Logic says smoking is good, emotion throws the logic to air. Exercising and exposing our body to early morning sun is all very important and the logic is saying it but we curl and stay in bed because the emotion dominates.

Let us now look at the typical coaching assignment. Coaching is largely limited to getting the individual to logically understand issues more clearly, bring out the possible solutions, draw up a timeline and follow it through to ensure that the one being coached adheres to the timeline and completes the task. The next step would be to ensure that this is internalized by the individual so that it stays with him/her. Logical thinking is like a rubber band. To start with let us assume it to be in a triangle shape. Coaching can covert the logical thinking and the rubber band into a square or a trapezium.  When this happens you are actually building additional tension in the rubber band in other words on the emotion. The rubber band and the emotions are waiting for the first opportunity to get back to the triangle shape. When that happens there will be vibrations in the rubber band in other words, emotional disturbances in the human being and they both eventually settle back to their comfort zone or the original state they were in.

Thus in most cases, coaching does not succeed in the first instance or fails over a period of time in spite of seeing initial success.  This brings to an important point what the coach should do to ensure that the coaching succeeds.  The following steps can ensure that coaching assignments can be successful.

  • Coach has to clearly understand the logical reasons
  • Coach has to clearly understand the emotional rationale behind those logical reasons

As a coach, if you able to clearly understand the above two aspects the next set of steps could be easy.

Step 1: Motivate the emotion: What looks like a mental block is actually the exhaustion of the emotion. No matter what the mahout tries, the elephant does exactly what it wants to do and similarly, emotions in a human being will do what it wants to do when there is exhaustion. This exhaustion starts when an individual is assigned for coaching. As his emotions are working against the whole idea of coaching as it feels it is insulted. Even in those cases where an individual seeks coaching, the emotion could be strained to start with and can potentially reach a stage of exhaustion.

As a coach, you should look at motivating the emotion and prepare it for accepting the changes.

Step 2: Clearly explain the situation and lay down a clear path: It becomes extremely important for the coach to make the emotion and the prefrontal cortex to be aware of the environment. The coach should take time to understand each of the emotional and the logical issues and clear them. This way you are clearing the bushes and the thorns in the path. This will ensure that the elephant clearly sees the path and is sure of not being hurt while traveling in the new path and the mahout will be able to steer the elephant in that direction. When the coach brings in clarity to the emotion, clears all the doubts, the next step of working teeth logic to travel in a new direction becomes easy.

If this approach fails then the coach should adopt one of the following aspects

  • Highlight the pitfalls ahead and how it is going to impact the individual being coached. The coach is making aware of the crisis the individual can get into if he fails to take action now.
  • Generate such a strong craving that emotion moves from its stated position to accept the directions of the prefrontal cortex.

Step 3: Coach the rider: Now that you as a coach have clearly established a good rapport with the elephant and the mahout, you should give complete clarity on the topic/issue to the prefrontal cortex. Once the prefrontal cortex and the emotions have got the clarity the coach will start directing both emotion and the logic to move in the desired direction.

Group Coaching

Organizational transformation through people, process, product and environment

Now let us look at the organizational context where you may need to coach more than one individual. I foresee two scenarios in an organizational coaching assignment.

  1. Follow the leader:

In this situation, the coaches responsibility will be to identify as to who is that one person who is regarded as the role model, the team would like to follow in the organization. If you are successful in identifying this one individual, you have won half the battle. The other half is to establish a good working relationship and making sure that the individual looks forward to being coached. You will need to adopt some of the aspects explained in the individuals coaching skills and all other skills which have been taught to you in the last few days. You will need to work with this one individual and demonstrate the achievements to the rest of the individuals who need to be coached. However, we need to understand this approach is best suited where the head of the organization leads by example. The world is fast changing from this kind of leadership to organizations which are headed by individuals who are facilitative leaders.

Mahatma Gandhi is probably the greatest example and we can find many such heroes both in our personal lives and in the organizations

  1. A mix of fixed and growth mindset individuals:

In the second type of organization, the leader will create a facilitative environment for the team members to perform. The leader would want to make sure that the organization continually refines its strategies, continually enhances customer satisfaction/value creation and builds a team who will challenge themselves and grow continually. In my view, in the years ahead of the facilitative leadership model, metamorphose into subordinate leadership.  Let us now look at such organizations wherein you need to undertake a coaching assignment.  Important characteristics of such companies

  • Subordinate or facilitative leadership
  • The organization will prefer an individual with a growth mindset and not a fixed mindset
  • The organization recognizes the individual who adds maximum value to the client and not the individual who is a  leader/manager
  • Organizations prefer teams win over individual exemplary performance
  • The team of growth mindset individuals is like a bunch of tamed elephants who will create their own path to achieve the goal collectively. This will be very contrasting to the winning horse.
  • Dominant number of individuals with a growth mindset

This is an ideal situation. Each organization is very unique and they differ from each other. It is in these situations the Coach’s skills will be tested and this also demonstrates the capabilities of the coach.

Organizations in transition will always have two categories of individuals. The growth and the fixed mindset ratio and their relative position in the hierarchy determine the complexity in the coaching assignment. Now let us go back to understand these individuals by comparing them to the tamed and wild elephants. The growth mindset can be categorized as tamed elephants and the fixed mindsets are typically the ones who could be compared to the wild elephants. These are the individuals you need to be worried about because they can trample you, they can pull the entire exercise in a different direction than the one you were planning.  These individuals are characterized by

  • These individuals are running their own kingdoms/fiefdoms within the organization.
  • When the organizations want to make structural changes, they will run wild/astray.
  • They enjoy their freedom and want to do what they think what is the best.
  • They potentially can derail the entire organization or the change process.

Keeping the above aspects in mind, the coach’s primary responsibility will be to identify the tamed elephants and wild elephants. Since several thousand years, humans have evolved multiple processes of luring the wild elephant and one of them is (Khedda). The elephant gets tamed when the Emotion/will is broken. The taming process involves two tamed elephants flanking on either side of the wild element and squeezing till the emotion/will is broken.

Now let us look at an assignment wherein you as a coach is assigned with the responsibility of organizational transformation through process and people. What would be the process you will adapt to make sure that the assignment is successful.

  • Identify the early adopters (tamed elephants). You will need to seek this information from the organization leadership. These individuals are the ones with the Growth Mindset
  • Identify those individuals who are difficult to transition (wild elephants), These individuals typically have a fixed mindset. The book Mindset has elaborate strategies outlined to change the mindsets.
  • Undertake an initial briefing session to all the concerned outlining the goals and the process.
  • Work with the leadership team to identify what success looks like.
  • Identify the right work, form teams and measure what matters.
  • Continually work with the rest of them to move them one step at a time while the POC teams are making quantum strides
  • Celebrations of success in front of the leadership team are an important aspect of breaking the will of the fixed mindset individuals. Care has to be taken to ensure that you are constantly talking and understanding with the tough ones.
  • Once you build confidence that these individuals with growth mindset have internalized the changes, you can now look at getting the individuals with a fixed mindset to become part of the transition.
  • You will get one fixed mindset individual to work with few growth mindset individuals so that he/she does not stray or lead the entire pack in the wrong direction.
  • Your entire focus during this period will be on the fixed mindset individual. You will have to adopt all the techniques outlined in the individual coaching skills to make sure that this individual turns around.
  • Being a fixed mindset individual by nature, he/she would to prove and demonstrate their success. This will be the most powerful demonstration of the success you can ever think.
  • Being a fixed mindset they would want to prove it again and again. This will make your transition assignment much easier to accomplish.
  • Celebrating small successes with fixed mindset individuals are a great way of motivating.


Author: JP Shivakumaraswamy is a multifaceted personality wearing multiple hats in the field of industry, commerce, finance, and environmental conversation. An accomplished business leader and a voracious reader, his passion lies in generating continuous improvement and high performance in individuals and teams. Lately, he has taken a foray into the world of coaching and has been selflessly contributing to its cause.


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