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Virtual Coaching Groups--Their Power and Magic
by Ben Dean, Ph.D., Master Certified Coach
Founder & CEO, MentorCoach

Virtual coaching groups--groups of geographically separated clients united by a live, interactive phone teleconference--have a magic and power that more than compensates for the loss of visual information. Not only do they make excellent business sense for any clinician contemplating a coaching practice but virtual groups are the very heart of the MentorCoach Program. All our classes are all conducted utilizing this format and we know from many years experience, that the learning experience and connection our students experience is powerful. Let me walk you through what virtual groups are and how they can be applied.

Basic Terms

  • "Face-To-Face" Versus "Virtual" Communication. When you communicate with individuals or groups in your office, you are working "face-to-face." When you communicate with individuals or groups at a distance (for example, by telephone or phone teleconferences, FAX, E-mail, and, in time, videoconferencing), you are working "virtually."

  • "Virtual" Coaching. Virtual coaching is coaching delivered at a distance. Most virtual coaching relationships are not transacted on the Internet. They are transacted by telephone. Though there may be between-session communication by E-mail, fax, and surface mail, it is the live, interactive relationship of the telephone that is essential. In time, telephone coaching will be supplanted by low-cost videophones and videoconferencing.

  • "Virtual" Groups. For our purposes, a virtual group (or v-group) is a group of geographically dispersed people who are united as a "virtual" group via a live, interactive audio (or phone) teleconference. Each member of the group can hear and be heard by every other member. Groups can also be united in live, real-time (or near-real-time) interaction by videoconferencing or E-mail chat rooms.

  • Structure of a V-Group. An example. Imagine coaching a group of ten ice cream storeowners. (This v-group example could as easily be comprised of stockbrokers, writers, clinicians interested in forensic psychology, etc.) Imagine these ten individuals live in ten states and meet with you for an hour by telephone on the second and fourth Tuesday morning of the month at 10:00 a.m., Eastern Time. The group is open-ended, not time-limited. Members come and go over time; though, as in a therapy group, they bond with you and with each other and tend to stay in the group. Each is guaranteed there will be no local competitor in the group. The agenda could be coaching group members around all the issues of running their businesses. You are providing them with peer supervision, your own growing expertise, and a 24/7 between-session group list server. You are offering this to them with great efficiency-no travel, no dressing for success. They simply close their door, pick up the phone, and they're in your v-group.

  • Fee Structure. If you bill this v-group of ice cream storeowners at $150 per month, you generate $75 per hour per client. Ten clients generate $750 per hour. Fourteen clients generate more than $1000 per hour. Twenty generate $1500 per hour. And so on.

  • Group Size. Size varies with the v-group's purpose and with your own inclinations. I have conducted v-groups for doctoral candidates that I limited in size to three or four members because I wanted to give them individual attention in each session. I have a client who has successfully conducted 12-week training v-groups of 80 to 90 members (receiving high evaluations from the participants). For theme-oriented v-groups, a good size is often 15 to 25 members.

  • Types of V-Groups. V-Groups can be created around almost any coaching need. I know of coaching v-groups comprised of stock brokers, dentists, psychologists, parents of ADHD children, doctoral candidates, therapists, attorneys, academicians, small business owners by niche, midlife women making transitions, students seeking clinical internships, high school students attempting to get into Ivy League colleges, retirees, career changers, etc.

  • Audio Teleconferencing. Audio teleconferencing (teleconferencing transacted by telephone) can be distinguished from videoconferencing (teleconferencing transacted by videophone or with a video component). It is now available inexpensively (Dean, 1999e). For information on low-cost teleconference bridge suppliers, see the Resources section.

What Makes V-Groups Thrive

As I write this, we have just completed a v-group that has been meeting for 18 months. The v-group ended in order that we might form a new v-group at a new time by merging with two other v-groups. During our final call, we processed what it was like to be ending after so much time together. We had many feelings as we said "goodbye" to this small, very safe group of old friends. One member said that joining the larger group felt like moving from the safety of grade school to be with the new, strange kids in seventh grade. Others remembered the times we had shared the triumphs and stubbed toes. One member, sharing something personal, began to cry-the first tears in our group since we began. I felt enormously touched and close to her as, I believe, did others.

Concluding the v-group underlined for me what I know in my bones-v-groups can be powerful, engaging instruments of shared support and change. I believe a key element in creating effective v-groups-much like face-to-face groups-is creating a space of safety and closeness where real learning can take place.

A face-to-face group is almost always more powerful than a v-group using the telephone. But a face-to-face vs. v-group comparison is usually not a valid comparison. V-groups allow communication between members spread throughout the world. And they allow much, much more efficient communication because they don't require travel to a single location. Thus the true comparison is not virtual versus face-to-face. It's virtual versus nothing. If the group had to meet live and in person, it would not exist. Instead, a virtual community is created which can be extraordinarily productive and rewarding.

Further, v-group members often report additional benefits of their virtual experiences. Some members find a v-group experience to be a more intimate experience than in-person groups. Part of this may be that there is something deeply intimate about listening intently, perhaps with a cordless telephone headset with each speaker's voice perfectly audible, coming almost from inside your head. Part of this is the freedom-to stretch, to make tea, to walk in circles, to move from your couch to your deck-while remaining absorbed in the group's conversation. Part of this may be the I-can-be-in-my-jeans factor. Members experience less concern about superficialities of appearance. People are judged by their ideas rather than their physical attractiveness. Some report that there is something about the anonymity of the medium that helps them be more candid and, perhaps, more intimate. And, with the v-groups with which I'm involved, many of the participants are extremely bright, high-powered, successful people. Group members quickly realize this. While they do not get physically dressed up, they mentally treat each session as a special event…and are more excited about the meetings. Indeed, some participants say that the enthusiasm and energy levels of v-groups make face-to-face groups seem boring.

In short, v-groups have a power and magic of their own that can more than compensate for the loss of visual information.

An example. In a recent MentorCoach Program, we brought together 37 clinicians from throughout the US. To be precise, we had 30 psychologists and 7 clinicians, sociologists, and ABDs (social workers, marriage and family therapists, two clinical psychology ABDs, and one PhD consultant). Our live, virtual meetings by audio teleconference took place with members located in 32 cities and 17 states ranging from Albany, NY to Sausalito, CA and Excelsior, Minnesota to Sugarland, Texas. The virtual coaching gave them access to a nationwide network of like-minded professionals wanting to form a supportive learning community that would not be available just where they live.

I'm still new at this. But I've now led around two to three hundred hours of v-groups. Here are some of the observations I have so far on what works:

  • A Live, Real-time Experience is Key to Virtual Coaching. A national or international v-group would not work without regular, live, real-time communication among group members. Each Wednesday at either 11 a.m. or 1 p.m. Eastern Time, we come together in a virtual classroom. This is not done on the Internet. It's done by telephone. So whether class members are at home, at the office, on their sailboat (which has happened) or traveling, they can pick up the phone for an hour and join our group. If you would like to hear an example of how this is done, see the Resources section at the end of this article.

  • Audio Tape Backup Helps. We tape every class. When members have inevitable conflicts and miss class, they can still hear a tape and feel connected. While taping increases the risk of breaching confidentiality, v-group members take very seriously their pledge to keep all information shared on the class or on tape confidential, just as they would in a therapy group. Though we cannot guarantee confidentiality, any more than one can guarantee it in a therapy group, we have so far had no violations.

  • A Class List Server is a Lifeline. A key in building ongoing communication within a class is a 24/7 list server, quite similar to the Division 42 list server. Thus any E-mail sent to a common address is immediately sent to all class members. Members use this to ask questions, share resources, complain, share triumphs…all the usual forms of communication that exist in any vibrant community.

  • Private E-mail Helps. Needless to say, ongoing group members frequently carry on private E-mail conversations, which deepen connections as well.

  • Group Members Need Support. Developing a coaching practice is scary, out-of-your-comfort-zone work. Providing support is vital to many of the group members. While some students don't need this, many do. In each coaching program, I have two student-facilitated virtual support groups that meet by audio teleconference. Every support group has a core group of participants and reports that their virtual meetings have been enormously valuable.

  • Collaboration Gives the Group an Extra Benefit. Collaboration between members is always encouraged. All class members are encouraged to pair off with a virtual buddy. Many do. For example, psychologists Bill Benninger of Columbus, OH and Alan Graham of Des Plaines, IL are nationally recognized ADHD experts. They met in the larger v-group, did a virtual pilot program together, and have joined forces to provide virtual coaching for parents of children and teenagers with ADHD. To see their growing collaborative work, visit www.ADDvisor.com/.

  • A Private Web Site Fosters Connections. The class has its own confidential website with photographs of class members and their significant others and pets. When group members meet "live" at a conference, they often take group photographs and post them to the web site.

  • Bonus Meetings Help the Group Receive More Than Expected. Communities grow in part as a function of frequency of contact. In addition to our regularly scheduled classes, the class has bonus meetings in which guest experts are brought in. In August, sitting on a dock of a beautiful lake in upstate New York, I was part of a v-group in which one of the top virtual coaches in the world (one who will gross $700,000 this year) outlined the steps for building a successful coaching practice. It brought community, inspiration, and new ideas to our group.

  • Encourage Sharing of Drafts. One of the most common uses of the list server is to ask for margin comments on writing and to solicit advice in dealing with problems. The Division 42 list server is probably too large to do this. But with a class membership of a few dozen, it is not overwhelming to have members post entire drafts of promotional copy or proposed articles. Then the group, as a whole, works to help members asking for help. And, just as valuable, everyone gets to see the answers.

  • Create a One-For-All-and-All-For-One Atmosphere of Mutual Support. A key that any experienced group facilitator understands is building an atmosphere of safety and cooperation. This is especially critical on the list server and on the actual v-groups. Key elements of this are that no ad hominem criticism of fellow group members is allowed. (I will "fire" someone from the group before I will allow that to happen.) And everything possible is done to encourage support rather than competition or criticism. The ways to do this are no doubt familiar to you. This is particularly important in a group where potentially, people could develop competitive national coaching practices. One thing that helps is encouraging a norm on the list server of responding briefly to each other's posts. As in "Jack, your feedback on this is brilliant. Wow."

  • Meet Face-to-Face When Possible. Again, all things being equal, face-to-face meetings are richer and more nuanced than virtual meetings. Whenever possible we encourage group members to meet live. Six of us met for the first time in Boston at APA for dinner on Saturday night. Inevitably there is a brief shock when you put together the person's voice with their real-world body. But it deepens connections and can, in turn, be shared with others on the next v-group meeting.

  • Group Facilitation Skills Are Key. In a later article, I will focus on how to lead the v-group itself. This is, of course, a central piece in creating a powerful experience for v-group members. It includes how the one-hour call is structured; the importance of maximizing group participation on the calls; the deadly impact of teacher-to-student lecturing; ways to make the members themselves the teachers; ways to make individual members the "star" of a given call; how to make your points "from the inside out," that is, by eliciting the points from the shared life experience of group members so they feel empowered, not lectured to; the importance of "pace" and "dead air." This is the fun part of having a v-group practice. And it is one to which all your face-to-face skills will easily transfer.

Coming Changes in Virtual Coaching

"One-to-one, personal videoconferencing…is an area that… is going to explode pretty rapidly…We'll…start to see group videoconferencing in three or four years."

-Bill Gates (July/August, 1999)

I have been a Washington Redskins football fan for decades and have been with them through the high times and, more recently, through the low. And yet I have never attended a single football game. My relationship has been entirely virtual, primarily mediated by television. I believe that connection is a thousand times more intense than it would have been had I only had access to that virtual relationship through radio. So much more can be communicated when visual information is included.

While I know that v-group and individual coaching is surprisingly powerful in its current auditory form, I believe its power will be transformed with the advent of low cost video conferencing. Reasonably low cost one-to-one videoconferencing is already here. My colleague, psychologist Robert Shapiro regularly works virtually with geographically distant clients using one-to-one videoconferencing. How long until true low-cost group videoconferencing is available? Microsoft, for one, is working on it and Gates believes it is only three to four years away (Gates, 1999). When it arrives, it will dramatically change the way personal services can be delivered-on a global scale. Those of us who are developing and providing virtual audio groups not only are helping our clients now-we are also positioned to move quickly into the coming world of videoconferencing.

Resources

A V-Group Experience. If you would like to be a fly on the wall during a v-group (a tape recorded initial audio teleconference meeting of 12 clinicians discussing virtual coaching), call 212.990.6881 (24/7).

Low-Cost Audio Teleconference Suppliers. Audio teleconferencing is now low cost and takes place on "meet-me" teleconference bridges. The "bridge" is usually a piece of software in a telephone company switching office. You are given a phone number. When one person calls the bridge number, you hear the phone ringing. When two or more people call that same number, a "bridge" is created and they are connected. This type of audio teleconferencing-rather than operator assisted teleconferencing-is what I recommend you use for your v-groups. It is relatively inexpensive. For example, a weekly one-hour audio teleconference call for 150 people in 150 locations throughout the world can be had for $30 per hour or less on a 150-person teleconference bridge. By contrast, the same conference call supplied with operator assistance by AT&T might cost $6000 for each one-hour call. A 30-person teleconference bridge may be rented for as little as $10 per hour (or $900 unlimited use for a year). You pay for the teleconference bridge. Each caller pays for a normal long-distance call into the bridge. There are many suppliers offering teleconference bridge lines including Eagle Teleconferencing www.eagle.net; Hilton Johnson Productions www.mlmu.com or www.salesacademy.com; and Telebridge Teleconferencing www.telebridge.com.

References

Dean, B. (1998). The psychologist as virtual coach. The Independent Practitioner, 18 (4), 188-189.

Dean, B. (1999a). The All-But-Dissertation Survival Guide. A free, monthly E-mail newsletter available on the web at http://www.ecoach.com/.

Dean, B. (1999b). Building a coaching or consulting practice: Writing a reader-friendly E-mail newsletter. The Independent Practitioner, 19 (4), 195-199.

Dean, B. (1999c). Marketing a virtual coaching practice on a national scale. The Independent Practitioner. 19 (3), 112-115.

Dean, B. (1999d). Say goodbye to managed care: Personal and professional coaching by phone…different arena, same skills. The Independent Practitioner, 19 (2), 59-62.

Dean, B. (1999e). The Therapist as Coach. A free, monthly E-mail newsletter available on the web at http://www.mentorcoach.com/ or by calling 301.986.5688.

Gates, B. (July/August,1999). A view from the top: a Context interview. Context: Business Strategies for the Digital Age. pp. 38-42.

Ben Dean Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice, a Master Certified Coach, and Founder & CEO of MentorCoach, a virtual university that trains therapists to add virtual coaching as a practice specialty. He is publisher of The Therapist as Coach, a free E-mail newsletter, and may be reached at www.mentorcoach.com or 301.986.5688.

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