What is more effective for learning transfer: face-to-face or phone coaching?

Emma Weber

At its heart, our learning transfer methodology has a phone coaching base. We are driven by the results and efficiency. All too often phone coaching seems to be the poor relative to face-to-face coaching, yet I see it as the superior beast.

Training Zone  published an article about the differences in coaching around the world and they considered face to face vs. phone. They quoted research from Acuity Coaching that suggested there is a 100% preference amongst coachees for face-to-face over telephone coaching sessions, where they are given a genuine choice. Let’s be open here that it’s one thing to have a preference – but does it get better results?

In the US, where executive coaching has been prolific for many years, coaches spend a large proportion of their time telephone coaching. The 2012 ICF Global Coaching Study showed that only 44% of coaching assignments are delivered in person in North America, compared to all other regions, where face-to-face contact is mainly used by over 80% of coaches.

My experience is that people often prefer face-to-face coaching until they have experienced really effective coaching over the phone. Of course with face-to-face it’s lovely to have that connection human to human, but is coaching about connection or about creating results? It’s the results that are important, not the warm and fluffy feelings!

Understandably, with face-to-face coaching the relationship could be stronger or quicker to achieve, but I believe that for effective learning transfer, coaching isn’t about having a relationship with your coach, but about developing a better conversation with yourself.

When it comes down to it, learning transfer is effectively changing your behaviours from new learning or a change process in place.

Behaviours are controlled by our thoughts, feelings, values, beliefs, needs and fears, which often manifest as that voice we all have in our head. This inner dialogue controls what we do, or don’t do.

Typical internal dialogue responses of people attempting to execute new processes or behaviours might include: “I’m not sure if I’m doing it right”, “I’m too busy to try anything new in my day to day”, “It just doesn’t work with my people”, “How could I have been so stupid to get that wrong – that’s the last time I’ll try that!” or “I’ve done as much as I can and it just isn’t working’

Not surprisingly this kind of self-talk often becomes self-defeating. We give up practising or implementing what we have learnt, blaming either the learning or ourselves and go back to old habits.

To change our workplace behaviours post learning, it is necessary to change the internal dialogue that governs those behaviours.

Some managers attempt to ensure learning transfer through regular conversations with their staff. These face-to-face discussions, however, are extremely difficult for most people. Success requires a degree of self-reflection and honesty (on both sides) that most of us can’t muster, especially when entering into the reflection process with the person who governs our future career prospects or pay packet.

In order to pinpoint our challenges and get clarity on the things that we could do better to execute the learning fully, it helps to speak to someone with a degree of anonymity. This enables the level of vulnerability often necessary to have the deep honest conversation with ourselves.

I believe the best solution is to tap into a person’s inner dialogue with a direct phone conversation.

The phone really facilitates the depth required for behavioural change. I consider the telephone the secret weapon for productive and cost effective learning transfer rollout, irrespective of the numbers of people involved. Our experience is  that telephone-based coaching is highly effective in the process of change, plus infinitely more time efficient.

Change comes about through a process of self-reflection and personal contemplation. It is initiated from within and is facilitated by encouraging the individual to listen to their internal dialogue; effectively having a conversation with themselves. This process is made far easier on the phone because the questions and conversation goes straight into the individual’s ear, accessing the internal dialogue directly.

Using the telephone for TLA follow up means the individual can’t see the coach and that way they feel less self-conscious, therefore more likely to be open, honest and vulnerable. It can feel as though the person is actually having a conversation with themselves and the coach is simply shepherding the conversation and supporting them toward behavioural change.

Who would have thought it – the humble old telephone?!

I love people, and am at heart a people person, but results wise for my clients we can often achieve in 30 minutes over the phone what it may take 90 minutes to create in a face to face. That’s a win-win for the time poor individual and the organisation’s investment.

Consider this – a Workforce 2020 survey found that 83% of executives worldwide plan to increase their use of virtual employees over the next three years.

As we navigate the ever-changing landscape of a working world that is becoming increasingly virtual, effective phone coaching and conversations are going to become an inevitable necessity.

Would you like to experience a phone coaching session?

Request a TLA Demo here.


Emma Weber

Emma Weber is a recognized authority on the transfer of learning. As CEO of Lever – Transfer of Learning, she has helped companies such as Telstra, Oracle and BMW deliver and measure tangible business results from learning. Emma has also been a guest speaker at learning effectiveness conferences worldwide and authored the hugely successful book Turning Learning into Action. Much more detail around the issues and solutions examined in this article are available in the book – please feel free to download a free chapter.