If you’ve ever tried to coach someone to stop doing a particular behavior or change a certain action, then you know how difficult it can be to get adults to alter their ways. Why is it often so hard to help people improve, even when you specifically point out that what they’re doing is hurting them? Because most adult learners are already self-critical and typically don’t learn by hearing negative feedback.

In fact, the natural tendency for most people is to defend their existing behavior, no matter how disruptive or self-sabotaging it is. If you want to motivate someone to go to her own next level, then you have to do so in an authentic way, with positive, solutions-oriented language.

First of all, make sure to remove all judgment from your own mind and remind yourself that people always do the best they can based on the knowledge and experience they have at the time. This awareness will put you in a compassionate disposition, stripped of the slightest criticism that may sometimes sneak in through your tone of voice or facial expression.

Then consider using the following coaching techniques to inspire people to improve:

1. Coach the Positive Rather Than Critiquing the Negative

In order to help someone build to her own next level, you need to first identify what you want her to achieve. Once you have determined the positive behavior, you can then determine the skill sets that can build that person to the desired outcome.

For example, in a selling situation, most new distributors will naturally want to tell all they know about their company. They talk about the company, about the product and about all the reasons why someone should buy from them. In the midst of all their talking, they neglect to ask the prospect open-ended questions that prompt dialog and encourage the prospect to reveal wants and needs.

In order to get the distributor to change her approach, a typical manager might say, “In that last call I noticed that you did most of the talking and then ran out of time to ask questions. Do you really feel you know what the prospect needs? Next time, ask some questions before giving an explanation and see if you can get them talking.” This kind of feedback focuses on the negative first, which could result in the person shutting down prior to hearing your suggestions.

A better approach, and one that will motivate the distributor to be more open to change, is to say, “For the next call, let’s talk about how we can facilitate more discussion with the client.”

See the difference? Instead of criticizing what you don’t like, you’re stating what you’re going to help the distributor achieve. With the criticism gone, the person is automatically more open to your suggestions.

Here are some other lead-in statements you could use:

“Let’s have you experiment with this process…”

“Let’s talk about taking you to your own next level…”

“Let’s discuss how we can engage the customer to create more conversation…”

After the distributor hears your willingness to build her skills, then you can give specific suggestions to help her facilitate discussion with the client. Keep it positive so she is motivated to listen to your advice.

2. Ask Them What They Need to Learn

Asking people for their input regarding their own performance engages them in those skill sets they want to learn or fine-tune.

After you ask someone what he would like to improve, have him clarify in two or three statements some very specific things he would like to learn. This enables you to get agreement that change and improvement are necessary. Next, have him prioritize what he feels the most pressing learning objective(s) should be. Lastly, give some coaching tips and learning ideas so that the person feels he has some power in the learning process. Now you’re empowering the learner to have a say in his own change.

What should you do if one of your teammates often gets defensive during meetings? Instead of saying, “That meeting didn’t go very well. You were a little defensive,” simply ask, “How do you think the meeting went?” Most people will know (and admit) that the meeting didn’t go well. Then immediately ask, “How would you have handled that meeting differently?”

Listen to what the person says and coach to those points.

If the person doesn’t seem to say anything of value, then refer back to the first point and say, “For the next meeting, let’s talk about how you can take your skills to the next level. In particular, how you effectively facilitate a meeting.”

3. Focus on the Future

During your discussions with the person, always talk about “next time.”

Never go back and recreate the bad situation. For example, with the person who becomes defensive during meetings, rather than point out when she became defensive, you could say, “Next time, when you find that you’re getting in a defensive conversation with someone, immediately put on your facilitation hat. At that moment, stop defending your position and start asking questions.”

Begin the coaching dialog directly after the behavior has occurred—within twenty-four hours—so the event is fresh in the person’s mind and she can grow from it. Never wait until the next scheduled performance evaluation to give someone feedback.

By using these coaching techniques on a regular basis, you will motivate and inspire people to improve. By providing feedback with positive language, people will look forward to your coaching sessions. When that happens, you’ll have professionals eager to change and achieve to their own next level of performance.

SHERI JEAVONS is known as the Virtual Presentation Coach.
She is the founder of Power Presentations, Inc., a company that
specializes in presentation and communication skill
training programs and products.