Conducting an effective and meaningful coaching conversation is one of the most challenging aspects of leadership and management. For most managers, these conversations happen immediately after a sales call that didn’t go the way it was supposed to, and emotions are running high. Or they happen in one-on-ones, which typically means a lot of time has passed between the poor sales call and your meeting with your team member. Neither scenario is ideal for providing valuable, well-received feedback.

The Indirect Approach

While listening to one of my favorite leadership podcasts, episode 285 of Jocko Podcast titled “How the Long Way Around is The Shortest Distance Between Two Points,” it occurred to me that when faced with coaching situations like the ones above, managers potentially should not give direct feedback. Direct feedback is clear and candid, sometimes abrasive and confrontational. It is no mystery that very few people respond well to direct, negative feedback on their performance. Most become defensive, passive-aggressive, self-conscious, or angry, which can defeat the whole point of providing feedback.

In the Jocko Podcast episode referenced above, Jocko Willink, a retired U.S. Navy SEAL officer, says, “The direct assault of new ideas provokes a stubborn resistance, thus intensifying the difficulty of producing a change of outlook.” He goes on to discuss the importance of understanding how to effectively use an indirect approach in combative conversations. It resonated with me because it aligns with the coaching model Carew International teaches to new trainers and the model we introduce in our Excellence in Sales Leadership™ and Results Producing Leadership™ workshops.

Effective Sales Coaching

When providing effective coaching and feedback to your direct reports, it is easy to think that being brutally honest and “telling them like it is” is the shortest way home (home being the desired outcome or behavior). But based on Willink’s insights from military and business strategy, being indirect with your coaching style is the best approach to get the most out of your team.

Here are 3 ways to make your coaching conversations more indirect vs. direct.

1. Allow for self-coaching before you give any feedback. Asking questions like, “What went well?” and, “What could you have done differently?” is a great indirect coaching strategy. It allows for self-reflection and potentially even some self-coaching.

The podcast episode discusses the difference between a truth that is imposed upon somebody compared to the truth somebody discovers on their own. Willink says a good leader empowers the learner to discover the truth themselves. So, by giving your sales reps the opportunity to admit something went wrong or a situation could have been handled differently, it saves them from hearing it from you and the learning will be more significant.

2. “Catch them doing things the right way,” aka start with the good. Whenever you give someone constructive feedback, we recommend you begin by pointing out one or two things they did correctly, or skills you noticed were particularly strong. Chances are your team members are doing quite a few things the “right way” and, as a leader, it is your responsibility to reinforce those positive aspects of their performance.

Additionally, after delivering your positive feedback, avoid transitioning with the words “but,” “with that being said,” or “however.” If you follow up with any of these words/phrases after saying great things about your rep, it ultimately diminishes the desired effect of building them up. They will focus on the perceived negative feedback, disregard all the positive things you said about them, and potentially shut down.

3. Have a common sales language. Establishing a common sales language or sales process, like the language and processes contained in Carew’s Dimensions of Professional Selling® (DPS) workshop, lets you lean on a discipline (vs. your “opinion”) when coaching or offering advice. This is especially helpful when coaching around sensitive subjects, such as, “I don’t think you understood the need,” or, “That presentation fell flat and missed the mark.” Having process models to call upon, like Carew’s Exploratory Process and Presentation Process, means you can show them what great looks like. Further, it enables you to lean on observed behaviors rather than perceived judgements.

In Conclusion

Taking an indirect approach may seem counterintuitive to many leaders. On the surface, it can feel like a waste of time when you could simply opt to “fix” their problem by being brutally honest and to-the-point. But taking a direct approach can damage relationships and make a change of outlook even harder. Great leaders empower their team members, so the next time you must give harsh feedback, or are heading into a tough coaching conversation, remember Willink’s words: “The direct assault of new ideas provokes a stubborn resistance.” Allow your direct reports to self-coach, make sure you begin your conversation with the positive aspects of their performance, and establish a common sales language on your team.