Introduce coaching principles into your work in four easy steps

Coaching is a popular tool for personal and professional development. Rushana Khusainova discusses how it can be used in higher education

Rushana Khusainova's avatar
1 Mar 2023
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Coaching and its application in higher education has gained attention and interest in academic circles in the past decade. But, there is still not enough clarity about what it is and how to use it. In a 2018 Stimulus Paper titled “Exploring the Impact of Coaching in Higher Education”, the authors urge universities to demystify coaching.

Commonly associated with asking questions rather than giving direct answers, coaching is a personal and professional development tool that rests on a set of key principles. These include building rapport, active listening, asking questions, summarising (feedback) and reflecting.

Coaching has a positive impact on employees’ knowledge and development of skills such as problem-solving, according to recent research published in the Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology. It also leads to enhanced confidence, decreased stress, and greater motivation and satisfaction.

In higher education, there are several areas where coaching principles could be usefully applied.

How to use coaching in teaching and learning

Coaching principles could be used in personal tutoring, student supervision and small group teaching sessions. In the latter, instead of explaining a concept, consider acting as facilitator of a discussion.


In a seminar with second-year undergraduates, the discussion leads to the notion of primary data and secondary data. When asked if they know the difference, some students nod “yes”, while some say “no”. Instead of telling the class about the differences, ask for student volunteers to explain what these are.

How to use coaching in peer support and colleague mentoring

Try supporting colleagues in their work by helping them explore their own professional values and aspirations. Ask goal directed questions rather than giving your own opinions.


A junior colleague asked me whether they should consider a teaching pathway or a research pathway after they completed their doctoral studies.

Instead of sharing my own opinion on the subject, I ask them about their personal values, preferences and professional passions. At the end of the conversation, they said that deep down they always knew that a teaching route was the right choice, but they didn’t know how to get to the bottom of it.

Create a coaching culture

Creating a culture of coaching within universities and academia requires a gradual shift in the way people work together. Such small steps towards change may include normalising talking about failures and rejections, giving ownership of development and progress to staff and encouraging personal initiative and creativity. Any change takes time and requires key figures to practise what they preach. When applicable, moving away from any micro-management or blame culture is vital.

Below are four easy steps to bring a coaching approach into your work with students, colleagues and the university at large.

Step 1. Use small talk to build rapport

Devote a few minutes of your time to small talk with students and colleagues. Stay open-minded, make eye contact, be genuinely interested and friendly. Small talk, although small, helps build rapport, which at worst creates a friendly and supportive atmosphere and at best can lead to important relationships down the line.

Good rapport is seen as one of the foundational elements of successful team-working and collaboration.

Step 2. Practise active listening

Try asking a colleague or a friend an open-ended question, for example, about a holiday they just had or about how they are settling into a new role. Observe yourself. Notice if you feel like you want to jump right in with your own thoughts or insights. Ask a couple of questions, nod and don’t interrupt. You may be surprised how rewarding this may feel.

Step 3. Make peace with silence

Silences are uncomfortable in any conversation. We rush to fill the silence with a follow-up question or a comment about the weather. All the while, silences can be used to give conversation and thoughts space to mature. A student or a colleague may share an important insight knowing that there is space for them to do so. Don’t avoid silences, embrace them.

Step 4. Ask a question instead of giving an answer

Next time someone asks you a question, consider if it’s a good question to throw back at them. Try asking goal-directed questions, such as “what do you think?”, or “what is your own take on it?”, or “This is interesting – talk me through your thinking here”.

Can coaching be used in all situations?

No. As with any development approach, there are some limitations to the use of coaching in higher education. There are times when instead of coaching, clear and directive guidance is required. For example, is a student is asking a regulations-related question.

There could be limited time and resources to use a coaching approach. There could also be situations where there is a language barrier or cultural expectations of power dynamics (for example, where arriving at one’s own solution may be seen as disrespectful towards a superior).

Although we all have our innate tendencies and capabilities, anyone who is willing to learn can adapt coaching principles to their work with others. It requires time, patience and energy in the short term when compared with a more conventional directive, top-down approach. But the results are worth it. Try some of the tips outlined in this article and reflect on how it feels.

Rushana Khusainova is lecturer in marketing at the University of Bristol and a qualified coach.

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