Last week I was responsible for introducing a faculty group to the concept of peer coaching. Most in the room had heard of it but few had participated in any sort of formalized peer coaching experience and no one could define peer coaching or differentiate it from other forms of coaching, mentoring, or training.
What is Peer Coaching?
Peer coaching is a confidential, mutually beneficial relationship through which two professional colleagues reflect on current practices, learn new concepts and share ideas, and solve work related problems…TOGETHER.
Peer coaching is characterized by certain key behaviors. First, peer coaches function within a formalized structure: They meet at scheduled intervals for a specific period of time (usually devoting 15-30 minutes to each peer); work through explicit goals or problems; focus on action-oriented conversation; and identify next steps or means for accountability before the end of each session.
Second, they engage in active listening. Active listening requires the listener to think through what is being said. Does it make sense? What are the implications related to the specified goals or desired outcomes? What sorts of patterns of thinking or behavior are present?
Third, when peer coaches are actively listening, they take a curious stance. This means that when things don’t make sense to the listener (based on their understanding of the situation or their past experience), they ask the speaker to clarify until it makes sense to both of them. “Can you help me understand?” allows the listener to find out more without putting the speaker on the defensive with a bunch of “Why did you do that?” questions. When being curious, it behooves the speaker to remember that whatever is being said needs to make sense from the context of the speaker and not necessarily the context of the listener. Empathy and openness to new perspectives is key to success.
Finally, peer coaches become reflective mirrors for the speaker, paraphrasing what the speaker has said so that both can be sure that they are hearing the same things. When peer coaches reflect the speaker’s thoughts back to them, these thoughts become external and concrete. The speaker can engage with their own conclusions more critically and effectively, often finding their own solutions with very little original input from the listener.
Peer Coaching Is Not:
- Peer coaching is not mentoring. It differs from traditional mentoring relationships in terms of power dynamics. Since peers work on things together, peer coaching is rarely an exercise in advising or guiding. There is much less modeling and much more give-and-take in peer coaching than in mentoring.
- Peer coaching is not chatting with a friend. It differs from a conversation with a friend in terms of structure. Peer coaches stick to schedules and explicit goals with much less whining, joking, and moving off topic, and much more active listening, receptiveness to feedback, reflecting, and problem solving. Most importantly, structured peer coaching events are action-oriented and always end with “next steps” to ensure accountability.
- Peer coaching is not sharing of technical expertise. Peer coaching does not focus on the same type of content as a technical tutorial; this is not teaching a co-worker about the agency database; this is about professional and personal development.
- Peer coaching is not mental health counseling. Oftentimes, peer coaching is personal development, which means conversations often wander into emotional realms. For example, peer coaches often provide feedback on things like interpersonal communication and impact of homelife on work life (and vice versa). However, if a partner’s concerns seem to require more or different sorts of feedback than their peer coach feels comfortable providing (or if they are taking over more than their share of the conversation…remember, this is a mutually beneficial activity), then the peer coach needs to speak up and suggest professional counseling and the speaker needs to be open to accepting that feedback.
Peer Coaching Topics
The leadership development literature suggests that peer coaching can be helpful at any point in the career arc. Early professionals who engage in peer coaching tend to develop higher levels of confidence in their professional identity and organizational and disciplinary knowledge while also building the foundations of the professional network that will sustain them throughout their career. Mid-career professionals often use their peer coaching relationships to facilitate re-evaluation and growth. Finally, late-career professionals can engage each other around the self-reflection required to develop their legacy and transition away from their career.
After definitions were provided, session participants took a moment to consider a question or concern they might want to address in a peer coaching context. Once they had a topic in mind, they paired off and took turns discussing it with their peer coach. After 15 minutes each, the partners provided each other with feedback before reporting out to the group.
Overall, the session was well-received. These particular participants did not seem to have any difficulties engaging in active listening or taking a reflective or curious stance. However, they voiced surprise about several different aspects of their peer coaching experience.
- Their experiences and problems are not entirely unique. Because participants were randomly paired, they spoke with peer coaches from very different units within the organization. Many were pleasantly surprised to find out that their peers from other parts of the organization had had similar experiences or were facing similar problems – it added a sense of validation (and relief) to the process.
- The efficiency of the process. Others were surprised they were able to identify a goal or problem and work their way towards a concrete action plan in a 15 minute session. They credited their results to the intentional focus and active listening of the peer coaching experience.
Ultimately, many session participants – none of whom identified as engaging in peer coaching activities at the beginning of the session – recognized that they were already *almost* engaging in peer coaching with work colleagues or friends… often over lunches, coffee dates, or afternoon walking breaks. We discussed how, with just a little bit of tweaking (usually around the integration of next steps or accountability into the discussion), they could take those conversations to the next level.
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Featured image by Unsplash contributor, Annie Spratt (CC-0). Slide images by Unsplash contributors, Breather (CC-o).