Individual Differences Make a Difference

I am sure you have heard the expression “One size fits all.”  Not so in coaching. A coach needs to acknowledge individual differences if he or she is to be effective. This is one reason why it is helpful to have assessment information prior to engaging the coachee.  Assessments reveal valuable information, allowing the coach to tailor coaching to the needs of the coachee. Understanding individual differences and how they determine certain behaviors can help a coach approach the coachee in a much more meaningful way.  For example, if the coachee’s personal style is very direct, the coach’s approach can be more direct, identifying the tasks needed for change.  On the other hand, if the coachee has a highly inspirational, persuasive style, the approach may be more conversational, allowing the coachee to explore multiple alternatives.  This in turn, will help the coachee to understand how to use his or her style more effectively to obtain better results as a leader. 

Sometimes the personal style of the coach clashes with that of the coachee.  I have sometimes been challenged with coachees who are very concrete, highly analytical thinkers.  These individuals need a lot of information before making a decision. They also view the world in black and white terms, not gray.  They struggle to understand broad concepts that are more abstract than concrete.   One of my coachees had great difficulty understanding the concept of a vision. No matter how many examples I presented, he just didn’t get it.  We settled on a goal with a step-by-step plan, abandoning the “loftier” concept of a vision.  In situations like this, I look for ways to be as concrete as possible. This can be difficult, given my own style, which embraces more general, abstract thinking.  Coaches need to be flexible, adapting to the coachee’s style of thinking.

Coachees also vary in how they learn.  Research suggests that people learn in three different modes: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic.  Visual learners represent a significant percentage of all people and respond best to visual cues.  In a coaching session, reflections can serve as visual cues because the situation can be recalled and the coachee can visualize what happened. Auditory learners respond well to dialogue; they are able to learn by listening.  Again, reflections produce auditory cues as well as visual ones, providing a rich medium for learning.  The third style is kinesthetic, or “hands on” learning.  Those with a preference for kinesthetic learning need to actually do things in order to understand them.  They need to apply what they have learned and experience the verification that occurs through action. Recalling and reflecting about past experiences have a built-in action component.  I believe we all can benefit from kinesthetic learning. John Dewey, a pioneer in the field of education, demonstrated the power of kinesthetic learning by challenging his students to tie a simple knot with a rope.  He repeated this demonstration several times until his students agreed that they could perform the knot-tying themselves. When given rope and asked to tie the knot, most failed.  When allowed to practice while they were given verbal instructions, most succeeded.  The message was clear:  doing enhances learning. Ironically, the dominant teaching style in college classrooms is the lecture.  If auditory learning is not your dominant style, you will be challenged to understand and process what you heard in that lecture. Perhaps college professors who want their students to learn and retain more subject matter can vary their approach to include visual, auditory, and kinesthetic pedagogy.

Body language can make the coachee more comfortable in what can be a stressful situation.  If a coachee is leaning forward, the coach may also do the same–not to mimic the coachee but to respond to him or her in a similar fashion.  Reflecting the body language of the coachee may have a subliminal impact in making him or her more responsive.  This use of reflective body language is similar to verbal paraphrasing, only with body movement rather than dialogue.  The impression and value it provides supports the coach as responsive and fully engaged with the coachee.

It is important for a coach to be aware of how personal style, learning style, and body language can affect the coaching process. Tailoring the coach’s approach to the coachee’s uniqueness will enhance the coaching engagement and establish a much stronger rapport between coach and coachee.




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