One-on-one coaching sessions with direct reports can be bruising affairs, for the manager/coach as much as for the employee; however, they could be opportunities for collaboration and mutual creativity. US coaching expert Margaret Moore suggests some simple steps that could transform grizzly gladiatorial skirmishes or defensive deadlocks into mutually beneficial exchanges.

Step 1: Pay attention 

If you don’t give your employee your undivided attention from the outset, he or she will almost certainly feel unimportant. It can also give an impression of a lack of respect. Make it a strict rule to switch off your phone, avoid your emails and clear your mind of everything but your colleague and the topic under discussion.

Step 2: Form a genuinely appreciative connection 

Start things off with a brief foray into the informal. Ask about how the weekend went, how the family is; share an anecdote about your weekend or family. Above all, demonstrate real interest. Rapport has to be made, not assumed. As Moore puts it: “Two brains work better together when there is emotional attunement.”

Step 3: Create a positive atmosphere 

Make sure you compliment your colleague on something done well and explain why you valued that contribution. Keep your focus on strengths. Neuroscientific evidence suggests that our brains need at least three positive emotions to counter a single negative one. Peak performance is unlikely in an atmosphere swamped by anxiety or muffled anger.

Step 4: Ask for objectives 

Asking what the employee hopes to get out of the meeting helps activate the thinking and problem-solving parts of his or her brain. You’re showing that you’re not into dictating a solution (which will nearly always evoke resistance). You’re opening the door to brainstorming and mutual creativity instead.

Step 5: Keep it light 

Use a light touch throughout the meeting. Use your sense of humour: laugh at yourself and laugh at the situation. Mutual humour helps create an atmosphere of playfulness; something that British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott equated with true creativity.

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