How fire officers can be better coaches

There are two types of coaching fire officers engage in, and both take unique skills to get the desired results from the coached firefighter

The ability to be an effective coach is now considered to be an essential part of any supervisor's skill base. Company officers are expected to provide coaching and counseling to their crews as needed. Some departments test for these skills during assessment center processes.

But what does it really mean to be a coach to someone at work?

There are basically two kinds of coaching, and how they are done and with what purpose are quite different. These two approaches are coaching for compliance and coaching for compassion.        

Most people associate coaching first with sports, and that is a good place to define the different ways coaching might occur. In sports, a coach's job is to create game strategy and tactics and develop skills in players so that game strategy can be achieved.  

Coaching for the purpose of achieving a specific goal or doing something better is coaching for compliance.

Underlying goal
Coaching for compliance happens all the time in the fire service. A coworker shows you a better way to pull a hose, an instructor corrects your technique for raising a ladder, or a company officer offers tips for doing a more effective public education program.

This type of coaching can take place in either a formal or an informal manner, and can be done in many different ways.

Coaching for compliance can be tough — think of the stereotypical military drill instructor. This type of coaching can also be done in a compassionate way, such as when an officer shares his own fears about public speaking when helping a firefighter to develop better strategies for doing public presentations.

What defines coaching for compliance is not how it is done but rather its underlying goal: to improve performance in some way.

Deeper understanding
Coaching for compassion is different. The purpose of this type of coaching is not to affect outcomes as much as to understand. This type of coaching may begin in the same place as coaching for compliance: some type of problem exists that needs to be addressed.

For example, say there is a firefighter on your crew who does not interact much with the rest of the team. This firefighter avoids contact with others outside of required work, he offers nothing about himself personally and shows no concern for others he works with, and his overall demeanor is humorless.

His actual work is acceptable, but other firefighters don't like working with him and have begun to develop negative theories about why he acts the way he does.

This firefighter's lack of integration into the team is a problem that might be addressed by coaching. But if an officer only does coaching for compliance in this case ("Try to interact more with the others on the crew.") more critical issues might be overlooked.

Why is this firefighter behaving in this way? To find out, coaching must go deeper than just suggesting things he might do to improve. You must find out how this firefighter feels, what his issues are, and how he perceives the situation.

Good listener
The first and most important skill associated with coaching for compassion is the ability to listen. You have to initiate the conversation in such a way that the other person feels safe and wants to talk. With someone who is extremely introverted or reserved, this might require more than one attempt.

Coaching of any type should take place in private. When coaching for compassion, allow enough time for the other person to feel comfortable and get to the real issues. Use active-listening skills to draw the other person out.

Coaching for compassion requires that the coach demonstrate empathy for the other. But empathy can come in two forms.

Self-centered empathy is where most people start. How would I feel if I were in the other person's place?

A deeper form of empathy comes when it is other-centered. This is when you open yourself to understanding not how you would feel but how the other actually does feel, even if it is very different from how you would react in similar circumstances.

The ultimate purpose of coaching in any context is to facilitate improvement in some way. In most cases, the goal will be clear and definable — score higher on the promotional test, be able to start an IV on the first try.

At times, coaching will require a more open-ended effort and even cross over into a kind of counseling intervention as you seek out root causes for behavior. This kind of coaching is important but should always be done with one's personal limitations in mind.

Be open, learn to listen well, and know the resources available to you if problems emerge that are beyond your experience or expertise.

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