Communication needs to be addressed both for its content and its context. The major content issues in coaching relate to creating gaps and tension through information acquired from assessments and coaching sessions and then asking probing questions that help the coach to create enough tension to motivate the coachee to action that will reduce the tension. These have been discussed in previous blogs. The context of communication is more complex. I will discuss four context dimensions that are critical to a coach’s communication with the coachee. They are: rapport, being in the moment, active listening, and reflective learning.
Rapport involves establishing trust, confidentiality, perceived respect for the coach by the coachee, and sensitivity by the coach to a very personal situation involving major consequences for the coachee. Transparency is very important. When I meet with a coachee for the first time, I make the goals and my approach to the coaching engagement very clear. I talk about the importance of confidentiality. I pay particular attention to aligning the interests of the coachee with my interests as a coach.
Being in the moment is one of the most difficult skills to learn as a coach. Being in the moment can sometimes feel like being unprepared. It seems natural to want to prepare questions for the coachee in advance and to anticipate areas to explore in coaching sessions. Preparing questions, however, defeats the process needed for coaching to be successful. Coaches need to be active listeners and observers, identifying clues that signal tension and areas for deeper probing. They must rely on what they hear and see in order to know what questions to ask. Scripting questions in advance will be counterproductive. Remember, the coachee is the subject, not the coach. Coaches need to concentrate on what is going on emotionally and cognitively with the coachee and less on themselves.
Much has been written about active listening. The main lesson for coaching is that active listening is a process, beginning with readiness to paraphrase what the coachee is saying. Active listening will signal to the coachee that the coach is spontaneous and in the moment. Rephrasing what the coachee says will provide an opportunity to verify and obtain feedback on the coach’s understanding of what was said, adding to the clarity of communication. Active listening will aid the coach in identifying tensions and gaps that otherwise might go unnoticed.
Reflective learning uses past experiences as a method of learning. By analyzing past experience, the coachee can assess successes and failures, using the coachee’s experience as a personal case study. Learning takes place not as an added lesson but as a reflective insight from the analysis. The coachee can explore what could have been if a different approach to a past experience had been taken. This is a good time to use the coachee’s balance sheet to explore what assets could have been used and what liabilities needed to be managed. What is gained from reflective learning can then be applied to new experiences. Having the coachee apply reflective insights to new situations will reinforce learning and allow for practice and feedback to the coach, further solidifying positive changes in behavior. Coaches should encourage coachees to talk about their experiences. These experiences are live cases, relevant and ripe for analysis and fertile ground to try out new, more effective behaviors.
Most discussions about communication address the process of creating clarity and mutual understanding. These are important. In coaching, communication must also serve the purpose of creating change. The goal of this discussion is to identify important contextual factors that influence the communication between coach and coachee, ultimately leading to positive change.