Coaching is fast becoming more popular both in and out of work. You may recall that in the early noughties that the former UK Prime Minister’s wife, Cheri Blair, made headlines when it was revealed she had a ‘lifestyle coach’. At the time, this was seen as an indulgence only available to the elite middle class almost akin to admitting you have a ‘shrink’, the outdated term used to describe a therapist.
Things have moved on a lot. As a society we are just waking up to the potential of coaching and the transformative nature it can have in both our professional and personal lives.
Before I go further, I’d like to point out briefly what I think are the differences between coaching and counselling. Often these professions are confused as arguably they have much in common – the ability to actively listen; the ‘contractual agreement’ between client and coach/counsellor; and the ability to delve into the subconscious. However, where counselling is often based on looking at your childhood and past experience including trauma, coaching is more rooted in the here and now and where you want to go in the future.
Gill Graves is an experienced and highly regarded executive coach, supervisor and facilitator who founded her own company, Iridium, in 2000 and has since then boasted a number of big clients. Her book Coaching with Impact at Work is filled to the brim with models, tools, resources and the latest thinking about coaching in the workplace. Anyone either working as a coach or a leader will get something out of this book, as it will allow them to reflect on how to improve their professional practice.
Here is a summary of what I think are some of the highlights of this enjoyable read:
The importance of ‘connection’
It may sound really obvious, but when you enter into a new coach-coachee relationship it is important to feel that ‘connection’. It’s not just about a superficial ability to get on, it’s more about having a deeper connection and an ability to trust the person who is coaching you.
Some years ago, I had a life coach who helped me through some challenges I was going through in the workplace. Having never met the person before, I was apprehensive about our first meeting. All that was laid to rest however after a half-hour ‘chemistry test’ – this is the term that some in the coaching profession use to describe the initial meeting that takes place between coach and coachee before they agree to go ahead with the coaching.
It is not always plain sailing, however, as described in this comment from a client of the author: ‘I did actually start off with another coach and I would not have been able to work with her. Through circumstances, she moved on and Derek came along. But I knew I didn’t have a connection with her. You do need to have a connection. A sense that they understand you.’
Having a connection with the person coaching you is therefore critical to a successful coaching experience.
It’s often tempting to fall into the trap of thinking you are a ‘good listener’ particularly if you are the kind of person whose friends come to talk to them about their issues and problems.
However, real and genuine ‘active listening’ skills can only be acquired through time, practice and experience.
Effective listening in a coaching context does not only involve listening to the words that are being said by a client but also paying attention to their meaning. This is partly about reading between the lines and judging non-verbal communication as well.
Body language is key here. Gill refers to the work of American Professor Albert Mehrabian who has pioneered our understanding of communications throughout his career. His seminal work on non-verbal communications from the 1960s still resonates today. His studies revealed that:
- Only 7% of ‘meaning’ in a conversation is directly taken from the words that are spoken
- 38% of meaning is ‘paralinguistic’ (the way that words are presented including tone, rhythm, speed, pitch and clarity)
- 55% of meaning is derived from facial expression (eye contact, skin colour change, expressions)
This is known as the ‘7-38-55 rule of personal communication’ and while some question how this can be generalised, it does illustrate an interesting point for the coaching profession – that relying solely on words alone can be dangerous and prevent you arriving at a deeper understanding of where your client is coming from.
And this is where the power of effective coaching comes into its own. Coaches have the skills to listen at a ‘meta-level’ – meta being the Greek word for ‘beyond’. Listening at a meta-level means listening beyond words.
Skilled coaches have the ability to simultaneously absorb the words they are listening to, with the way they are delivered. This allows them to arrive at a deeper understanding of how their clients experience the world.
Clearly, lockdown due to coronavirus poses challenges for coaches as they have to adjust to the restrictions of meeting their clients on Zoom, where the entirety of someone’s body language won’t necessarily come across.
True active listening is hard. It’s so easy for us all to get distracted with our own thoughts or social media, for example. For more on how to conquer your own temptations with this (You can read my review of Nir Eyal’s Indistractable.
Space and time
Another key aspect of effective coaching communication, and the ability to connect, is the allowing of silence. Culturally, particularly in the western world, we are not that used to silence. Phases such as ‘awkward silence’ sum this up neatly. But to be effective as a coach – either in the workplace or privately – you must be able to embrace the silence as often this is when your client will have the chance to process what they are thinking and experience their ‘eureka’ moment.
‘Highly effective coaches have the ability to ask a question and give the coachee time and space to think about their answer and respond in their own time. They have to overcome their discomfort with silence.’
Gill also refers to the work of Nancy Kline, author of Time to Think, who argues that silence is at the centre of a thinking environment and it can encourage more profound listening.
We are all guilty of trying to break the silence, but coaches must preserve and protect the space and time that their client needs to think things through.
Questions and language
Use of open questions are essential in coaching conversations e.g. What are you going to do next? What options are available to you? Who could help you with this?
Gill argues that conversely ‘why’ questions are not that helpful as they can come across as accusatory – Why did you do that?’.
‘Clean questions’ are often used in non-directive coaching, which means as the listener, you need to keep your own views and experiences out of the questions. It may be tempting to jump in, particularly if you have a similar experience to the coachee, but to get a more genuine sense as to where they are at, you should avoid doing this.
Arguably one of the original models used for coaching, which emerged in the 1980s and was developed by business coach Graham Alexander, is GROW. This model allows a focus for the coaching relationship centred on the following questions:
- What is the Goal?
- What is the current Reality?
- What are your Options?
- What Will you do and when?
Although the coaching profession has moved on since the ‘invention’ of this model, it still provides a strong basis for many coaching conversations that take place today.
Gill Graves book is packed with insights and tips for how to create the right environment for coaching, how to structure your sessions, and tools and techniques to enable you to flourish as a coach. Well worth a read.
Mike Findlay is book review editor at Psychreg. He is a Glasgow-based writer and communications professional. Connect with him @MikeFindMedia.