The 7 Key Skills of Group Coaching

To master group coaching is to master a very particular set of skills. Whilst many of the core skills of individual coaching feature in group coaching, the move from one-to-one to one-to-many brings a number of important new elements that demand extra skills.

It is easy to underestimate the importance of the skills needed and to assume that simply showing up with good intentions is enough. But as anyone knows who has ever tried group coaching, it is very easy to get it wrong.

The group context carries with it, for both the coach and the participants, the risk of shame, withdrawal, aggression, collusion, group think, resentment, inequality and much more. Coaches are as human as the the participants and the same emotions that run like electricity through the circuits of the group are just as likely to make themselves felt within the coach. The need to be seen as in control, having the answers, able to manage “difficult” participants and to be seen as the expert, leader or even “guru”, to use a much-overused word, can all show themselves to the coach.

It’s therefore important for those embarking on running group coaching sessions to develop the skills that allow them demonstrate their human qualities of vulnerability, curiosity and non-knowing just as much as their professional, skilled and competent aspects.

The following list represents some of the critical skills of group coaching whilst not claiming to be exhaustive. These skills are ones we believe allow group coaching to flourish within any group setting but there may be many more skills brought to bear for particular moments or specific contexts.

Here are the seven key skills we identify:

  • Contracting and framing the experience to set the right conditions.
  • Enabling exchange and contact within the group.
  • Wide attunement with narrow focus.
  • Noticing, naming and surfacing.
  • Maintaining consistency and equality in process.
  • Utilising group theory at a practical level.
  • Managing contracted processes whilst remaining flexible to the group needs.

Contracting and framing the experience to set the right conditions.

So much of a group’s ability to work well together (even if working well is facing discomfort and challenge) is generated by the way a group coach lays out the “rules of engagement” and effectively contracts with the group for how they’re going to be together.

Inexperienced group coaches often fall in to the trap of diving headlong in to the coaching process without exploring what the groups expects, needs and hopes for, and what their fears might be.

Effective contracting and framing ensures that the group “buys in to” what lies ahead, whether that’s a facilitative, exploratory approach, a hands-off encounter group session or a robust,challenging and provocative process. There is no right or wrong coaching approach but the lack of a contract or frame can leave the group members variously anxious, confused, frustrated, cynical or even simply determined to follow their own agenda, free from any agreed conditions.

Enabling exchange and contact within the group.

A key outcome from any group coaching is the “exchange” that occurs between participants. Group coaching at its best is not simply one-to-one performed in a group in which each member is like a spoke that directs itself to the coach. Rather, the aim of group coaching is for the members to become a working unit in which exchange happens across and within the group.

A key skill of group coaching, then, is the enabling of this exchange, and what is often called, in gestalt terms, the “contact” within the group, in which members encounter one another in a deeper sense and become in affected, transformed or changed by the experience. This does not have to be as profound as perhaps this language suggests. The change might be one of learning or a commitment to an action. But equally, it might be one in which a participants fundamentally looks at how they show up in a group and what this says about their view of life. Again, purpose, contract and frame are vital ingredients here but as the group takes on a life of its own, the coach is seeking to nurture the connective qualities of the emerging whole.

Wide attunement and narrow focus.

As with so many things in coaching, there is a sense of opposites pulling from different directions in group coaching. Such is the case with focus. The group coach needs to be both outside of the group in order to see and name the patterns that reveal themselves, and yet also inside the group to feel what’s going on, what tensions, what excitement, what conflicts, what relationships.

We can think therefore of group coaching requiring both wide attunement to the patterns within the group and yet a narrow focus for the specifics of what’s happening within it. The skill for the coach is to balance these two perspectives.

Noticing, naming and surfacing.

A key element of group coaching that emerges from wide attunement is the ability, and the importance, of the group coach noticing and being able to name what is being seen. Of course, the skill is to be able to notice it and name it in a way that is useful rather than gratuitous, empowering rather than shaming, opening up rather than closing down. The art of naming is to bring awareness to something happening in the group in a way that allows for an exploration by the group.

Naming is not about diagnosing or labelling from a position of expertise. It is surfacing the unspoken in order to allow it to be examined. These moments are often the most powerful for change.

Consistency and equality in process.

Human beings are sensitive to fairness and difference.

We feel it when there seems to be imbalance in how people are treated. As a result, a very practical but often difficult skill in group coaching is simply maintaining fairness and consistency in the process.

As a group coach, you might find your frustrated, bored, annoyed or challenged by someone. You’re human too and these feelings can come up. But it’s how you handle them that matters. Your feelings might point to a bigger issue that is happening within the group and your ability to name this from your perspective may be catalytic for the group. Equally you might recognise that these feelings are your personal reaction to an individual and left unchecked your own emotions may pollute the coaching space.

The skill needed here is that of bracketing your personal reaction to individuals such that you maintain the process consistently.

Utilising group theory at a practical level.

Group theory abounds! There’s no shortage of it. From individual theorists such as Kolb, Gardner, Honey and Mumford, Bion, Lewin, Tuckman and many more to the seemingly endless processes that have been described by gestalt, psychodynamic theory, systemic theory and many more, you can get lost for a very long time in the world of theory.

The skill, however, is to be able to utilise it when it’s needed; to be able to draw from and create impact with theory as its applied. There is no doubt that the vast literature on group theory and group processes has supported us in doing our work, but as coaches we hold theory lightly and treat every group as unique, unfolding as it does with you and with each other.

Managing contracted processes whilst remaining flexible to the group needs.

Lastly, we have the skill of managing contracted processes. There are many processes that group coaching draws from including Action-Learning, Balint, Open Space, World-Cafe, Encounter Groups and many more. But the true art is not the process itself but the way in which you, as a group coach, apply the process fairly and consistently, whilst be open to recontracting with the group for how you work together.

It is very easy to become wedded to the process without regard for the needs of the group. It’s equally easy to be swayed from the process by your perception of how well it is working. The real art is to be flexible “in partnership with” the group – to work collaboratively so that, as a group, you are engaged in a joint venture of exploration.

Summary.

As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, there are many more skills that group coaching might draw on but, for us, these seven are the bedrock of good practice. Everything else is built upon them – the specific processes chosen, the style of coaching, the level of involvement of the coach, the outcome; without the bedrock, these interventions rest of shifting sands.

If you’re interested in training as a group coach, Animas runs a twice-yearly two-day ICF approved CPD course. To find out about our Certificate in Group Coaching, go here.