Have you seen those social media posts that tell you how to say things at work ‘in a professional manner’? 

Off-screen, the social media influencer asks, “How do you professionally say, ‘That’s not my job’”?  

They reply with something like, “I’d love to help, but that task is outside of my usual duties. I’d recommend asking our supervisor to see if they can find a solution”. 

In the workplace, this professional style of communication is clear in its meaning, shows positive intention and offers a ‘next steps’ solution. It’s difficult to argue with that! 

In the same way that using professional language at work helps us communicate clearly and in a positive manner, the language we use when coaching can make all the difference between a conversation that doesn’t go anywhere, and a measurable change in behaviour. 

You’ll already be aware that the most successful coaching conversations are built around the coach asking questions.

✔️Questions to encourage coachees to reflect on and evaluate their own performance.

✔️Questions that stimulate conversation between coaches and coachees.

✔️Questions that nudge and challenge. 

So when your customer service advisor regularly misses out steps in your well-documented sales process, what exactly do the questions sound like when you decide to have a coaching conversation with them? 

And what is your opening line of the coaching conversation with a team member who doesn’t check their work before sending it to a client? 

How do you nudge a reluctant new starter to recall an item you know was included in their onboarding training? 

Our preferred coaching approach uses language techniques to help ensure

  • You open positively, not critically 
  • The conversation covers a specific issue, fast 
  • The coachee owns the change. 

Criticise at your peril 

A coachee who is criticised at the outset is immediately put into fight or flight mode. They are occupied with defending their action or working out how to end the conversation so they can leave – fast.

Notice the difference between:  

‘What happened with that customer?’

and  

‘What went well with your last customer?’ 

In the second opener, the question implies there is already something good happening. This puts Sam into a positive mindset.

Calm and unpanicked they are able to recall what went well – which in turn, reinforces their positive mindset. 

How might you use this technique to open your next coaching conversation? 

Keep it on track 

As well as the language they use, good coaches listen to the language used by their coachees.

When we recount a story, it’s all too easy to delete parts of the message, make assumptions and use general, sweeping statements so that details are distorted or lost.  

When a coachee replies with, ‘It’s not going well’, there might be a tendency to adopt the coachee’s mindset and commiserate with them, taking you off track.

Instead, notice that the coachee missed out the details of their thoughts. What did they mean by ‘it’ – and they made a sweeping statement ‘going well’.

How have they defined well?  

An empathetic and useful approach would be to find out what specifically they think isn’t going well, and what they mean by ‘going well’.

So to keep the conversation on track, follow-up with, “What isn’t going well? In what way, specifically, is it not going well?”  

Create ownership of the change 

If you’re already involved with motivating teams you’ll be familiar with intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

By their very nature, coaching conversations tap into intrinsic motivation that keeps people acting in the best way to achieve desired outcomes.

As Nick Drake-Knight, the originator of Continue & Begin Fast Coaching® says:

“When we ask people good questions, we can stimulate their interest in their own performance. We can help them feel so capable and ‘good’ that further personal development is an opportunity to feel even better”. 

Very subtle language changes create different mindsets.

Earlier, we suggested that the following could be asked in a constructive, coaching way, “You did well, but how could you improve?”


So how else could this be worded? What’s wrong with the original?  

First, the congratulation, ‘You did well’ is immediately diminished by the dreaded ‘but’ word.

When you have an opportunity to acknowledge a coachee’s actions, do so as a standalone celebration. 

Asking the coachee to identify how they could ‘improve’ creates a negative feeling about what they’ve already been doing.

What about…

‘What could you do better?’

Does that create a more positive feeling?

How about adding the word ‘even’ before better?

Asking someone what they will do even better, is asking them to be specific about their actions (what) and using the word ‘even’ implies they have already been doing something well. 

Try it yourself, “What will you do that’s even better?” 

It’s not all in the words, your body language and tone of voice will play a part, but if your words create good questions the other aspects of your communication are likely to be more positive too. 

Beth Webb

Beth Webb

Learning Specialist and e-Learning Developer

An Electronic Engineer, Beth started her career creating technical, maintenance and operator manuals for land-based and naval radar systems at Plessey Company plc. 

Her eye for detail and ability to translate complex information into easy-to-understand and engaging content allows Beth to create courses through which users can digest and assimilate extensive concepts effortlessly.