What skills does a coach need to be good at? What makes a good coach and what do you do to become one? We’ve already discuss why we coach, what coaching can’t do, and the mindset of a coach. Now it is time to dive into what coaching looks like. What is required to help coaches do and be what we are called to do and be? A coach comes into a leaders’ life to help them discover their agenda, their next steps, and their next lessons to teach others. Coaches engage leaders as a resource, and partner who asks powerful questions. A coach equips leaders through questions, encouragement, and partnership; not telling, teaching, and consulting.

How do we make the mental shift from teller to listener?

1. Asking Powerful Questions

A powerful question is one that requires the leader to think, pray, or both. This is good, because as they do this, leaders have to drown out the noise of the urgent and the details and focus on what is important, true, and obedient. Powerful questions help leaders gain information, insight, discovery, generate options, uncover obstacles, determine next steps. You know you have asked a good question if they can’t immediately respond. Usually leaders will say, “hmm…that’s a good question.” And then they sit in silence. This is the most awkward part of being a coach. This is also the most fruitful part of coaching. For perhaps the first time in weeks and months, they are considering what is important.

Powerful questions are usually simple:

  • What is God calling you to do?
  • What has God made and prepared you to do in this moment?
  • What does God call all of his people to do?
  • What is God not call you to?
  • What is hindering you from doing what you are called to do?
  • What could obedience look like?

It’s okay to ask weak questions to get to powerful questions. If a leader doesn’t have to think about their answer and the  they can quickly deliver the answer you aren’t there yet.

Tips for asking powerful questions:

  • Ask the first question in your head and formulate the question when they are done talking. In other words, listen to what they are saying. When they are done talking come up with the next question. Don’t create a list of questions to spit out.
  • Don’t stack questions
  • Ask open ended questions. Good questions start with what, who, how, and when. Conversely, bad questions start with: why, do, is, tell me, have, or should. These are bad because they are leading questions. We usually ask these questions when we want to say something but instead form it into a question. With closed questions, the coach is doing all the work. With open ended questions, the leader is doing all the work.
  • Pick up on things they have said and use their language, ask them to define terms they use freely–even if they seem basic. “What does discipleship mean to you?” “What do you mean by “healthy community.” “You say you want to help people to grow in their love for the word, what does ‘loving the word’ look like? How will you know someone loves the word? These questions help leaders clarify their own heart, intentions, and understanding. This is crucial equipping. Don’t do it for them!
  • Ask question with plural options. For example, “What things that can be done?” “What are some ideas?”

2. Offering Observations

Another crucial skill is by offering observations, themes, or patterns to a leader. As you listen to a leader think about what  is being shared, the context surrounding what is being shared, and what isn’t being shared. Then, when you have the opportunity speak directly about what you are seeing and ask them to name it and explain what you see. This process forces leaders to see their own assumptions or might jar them into seeing their problem or opportunity in a new light. Mostly, it helps them see themselves.

I was once coaching a leader through the process of discovering their calling and for them that meant church planting. They were struggling with their calling and where they would be. He had tried different avenues and aspects of ministry. He had experience as a youth minister, international church planter, and worship leader. One day we sat down for a coaching meeting and he described what he was learning about caring for children who lost parents through accidents, death, separation, addiction, etc. Never before had he done this, but on that day, he wept.

As he was wiping his tears away, I said: “We’ve been talking about church planting, where, how, and what you are called to do for a long time. We’ve even talked about people in your community you are  discipling and you have discipled. This is the first time you’ve ever shed a tear. What do you think that means?”

This conversation blossomed into a wonderful conversation and next steps about discovering how his entrepreneurial gifts, love for the church, and love for orphans work together to form a beautiful calling. He became part of a team that led our church into holistic-relational care for children in foster care and foster families. He also realized the business he started employs mostly young men who did not have active fathers in their lives. It started with observing his tears, and asking him what he thought it meant.

3. Speaking Encouragement

The world is in an encouragement drought. We are able to track approval–through likes, retweets, and comments like: “You’re Beautiful Girl!” Tragically, this isn’t encouragement of a human and the way they are following Jesus. This is cheap affirmation and its help is fleeting in the life of a person. Leaders need to be reminded they are on the right track, they’re moving forward, and God is at work. More importantly, they need to be shown the transformation God is doing as they follow Jesus. Truth be told, encouragement as a coaching skill is not a matter of boosting the esteem of our leaders. Rather, it is crucial to our worship of God and his glorious works.

To affirm Christlikeness in transformed believers is to affirm what Christ purchased with his own blood…I am suggesting that we rob God of praise by not pointing out his reflection in the people he has knit together in his image. – Sam Crabtree, Practicing Affirmation

When a coach and leader exclusively move from one strategy, issue, concern, or opportunity to the next, the miss the transforming work God is doing through their obedience. Through coaching, we see God do miraculous things like give confidence to the cowardly, patience to the uptight, grace to the perfectionist, and hope to the despairing. If we see inattentive and disobedient leaders turn their ear to God in prayer and then take steps of faith, we ought to celebrate! This is what encouragement is in missional coaching: bringing clarity to the work that God is doing in and through the life of the leader and celebrating it!

Tips on good encouragement

Encouragement ought to be specific. Meaning you acknowledge and celebrate a real action, attitude, repentance, and character growth in the leader. Good encouragement isn’t a generic: “You’ve grown and you’re  doing a good job.” Instead it is: “You’ve grown as a leader, establishing boundaries and understanding your limits. Just look at last week when you told that person in your community that you couldn’t help them but needed to pray! That’s huge!”

Encouragement ought to be genuine. You can’t do encouragement well if you are doing it simply because you think you ought to do it. Instead you have to truly be caught up in the wonder, grace, and transformation the person is on. You must agree with the encouragement and not force it.

Encouragement ought to be timely. Try to encourage your leaders soon after they have experienced and done the thing you are encouraging them in. Encouragement looses its impact when you say in June: “You guys really did a great job celebrating Christmas as a community! Wow, I don’t remember the details, but I remember thinking it was good.”

Encouragement ought to be relevant to the conversation. I’ve frequently been caught in the desire to encourage a leader so badly it comes from left field and isn’t about what they are experiencing at all in the moment.

Encouragement ought to be theologically true and aligned with the gospel. For example, you wouldn’t say: “Look at all the people you are saving! Wow, remember that guy who didn’t have anything going for him, and then you sacrificed and save him!” Unless you are coaching Jesus, this is heresy. Instead you might say, “God really has you in a fruitful season right now. He is using you in to bring people into the family of God and you are physically showing God’s love to people through your sacrifice and generosity. God is being know through that.”

Encouragement doesn’t have to be about them or something they are doing well. This one is huge. Many times, if not all the time, a clear and relevant articulation of the gospel and the pilgrimage that is discipleship with its ups and downs is encouragement. Often this can be a reading of a passage of scripture that you think is helpful. Remember, you are brining clarity to the work God has and is doing. Follow-up encouragement with a question. Questions like:

  • What do you think is causing that growth?
  • What has changed that allows you to be believing and doing these things?
  • How do you see your growth in this area?
  • What would help you excel even more in this transformation.

4. Delivering Clear and Concise Messages

Sometimes, coaches get to preach and teach. They get to provide punchy messages to help move leaders forward. These are short! Think typically of seven words or less. Think in terms of bullet point messages, not three part sermons. What kind of clear and concise messages are helpful?

  • Short story from a coaches life about a similar situation.
  • Parables and illustrations from life.
  • A quote from a book, passage of scripture, or from a recent sermon.
  • Useful information on how the church is organized, etc.
  • Can be a short training on discipleship, spiritual disciplines, missional community life, etc.

The aim of these short messages is to bring clarity, instruction, or offer a new way for a leader to think about their issue, opportunity, or calling. These should be used sparingly: one direct message per coaching conversation.

Once, I was coaching a leader who was struggling with being a doer and not resting. He was filled with anxieties about money, work, home improvements, leading, and comparing his work to others. He has a cocktail of idols that completely stop him from resting–even though he has stated that’s what he wants to grow in and lead his community in. I said, “You have a lot things you are thinking about, do you pray about them?” He said he didn’t, to which I followed up with this direct message: “We don’t pray about things we think are in our control, our problem, our mess.” He nodded and as that sank in I shared a story of how I learned to pray and yield control to God. I asked him, “What would it look like if you yielded control by praying for just five minutes?” This unlocked a new pattern and next step beyond simply telling himself to just rest over and over again.

5. Outsource Resourcing 

Though we can occasionally put on our ‘trainer’ hat, a key aspect of this coaching relationship is understanding the leaders’ learning style, and being able to point them to resources and tools that will help them learn. Drawing upon their own experience for learning, give them resources and tools that will help them. This one is simple and hard at the same time. It is simple because we just share resources with people. It is hard because we tend to think that what was good for us is good for everyone else.

For example, one of my preferred ways to learn is through books–thick and dense books. I get to coach many leaders who also love to read and wrestle through long books. Many others don’t want to read and if they do, they want it to be short an accessible. I don’t like podcasts or training videos, but many I coach do. One of the selfless acts of a coach is to be knowledgeable about resources that could help those you are coaching.

One of the best ways to learn what tools and resources to give is to ask: “What sort of things would help you in this next step? What kind of resources do you like?”

6. Prayer and Relying on the Holy Spirit

The final and most important ‘skill’ of a coach is prayer. As a coach you will learn to pray before, during, and after conversations with leaders. You pray for God to make it clear what to ask, what to say, what to give them. You depend on God to make the conversation everything he wants it to be. Ask God to lead the leader, ask God to lead you.

Continue Learning

This is post 4 in a  series on coaching and leading leaders.

The goal is that leaders from a diversity of contexts will be able to start coaching with confidence and awareness. Continue reading or subscribe to the blog to be updated with each new installment.


Brad A. Watson serves as a pastor of Soma Culver City in Los Angeles, California where he develops, coaches, and trains leaders to form communities that love God and serve the city. Brad is passionate about helping people live lives that reflect their belief and hope in Jesus. He lives in the west side of Los Angeles with his wife and their three kids.