Are we really communicating with our coachees?

Do you think you’re communicating during coaching conversations? The obvious answer would be yes. After all, coaching certainly involves a lot of talking, hopefully the greater proportion of it by the coachee. But does the mere fact that two people are talking to each other (one of whom is a coach) mean we’re actually communicating?

 2 Silhouettes with thought bubblesPut that way, the answer might not be so obvious after all. I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of listening and effective questioning in coaching. There’s no doubt that without high-level listening and questioning skills, a coach isn’t going to get very far. But is there more to communication than even that?

Here I’m going to take a closer look at the attitudes and assumptions that drive the use of those skills. What do we mean by communication? And how can we make our communication better?

What is communication in coaching?

If we’re going to call our discussions ‘communication’ there should be some kind of mutual exchange between the participants. That goes for general conversations as well as those we indulge in as coaches. There’s the shared dance of listening and speaking, the to-ing and fro-ing of information, the expression and exploration of points of view and opinions. What’s the intention behind our attempt to talk with someone? What are we hoping to achieve? Are we really listening to what they have to say? Are we really listening to the silences?

These questions are particularly significant. The answers may reveal whether our conversations amount to communication or they don’t. After all, if we’re not really listening to what the other party has to say, through words or the absence of words, our aims in the conversation must be something other than taking in that information.

From the point of view of coaching, we need to be honest with ourselves. Are we deep down seeking to ‘tell’ our coachees something, to listen in order to justify our own ‘solutions’? Or are we genuinely trying to put ourselves in their shoes, listening in order to learn and modify how we’re thinking and feeling in reaction to what we find out?

Making our communication better

Cardboard figure plus mirror If we conclude that we’re not actually listening to our coachees, we need to take a pause. It’s important we’re in a place mentally and physically to absorb all the verbal and non-verbal cues our coachees are presenting, because only then can we reflect back exactly what we’re hearing, seeing and experiencing. Part of our role is to act as a mirror via which our coachees can ‘see’ perspectives on themselves which are beyond their capacity to perceive. When we’re distracted, or convinced for no good reason that we need to ‘tell’ rather than experience and reflect back, we may ultimately be depriving our coachees of valuable information only we are in a position to provide.

After all, as coaches we’re privileged, whilst simultaneously carrying significant responsibilities. Yes, we’re trusted empathetic confidantes providing a safe confidential space within which our coachees can explore and experiment. At the same time, we need to maintain the professional detachment necessary to providing the kind of detailed observation and challenge which goes towards facilitating profound personal change and development in those with whom we work. Coachees rely on us to gather and feed back information on aspects of their ‘selves’ which are normally beyond their reach. And our openness to real communication is key to our success.

We need to be keenly aware of what our intentions are in our interactions with our coachees. This awareness in itself will go far towards making our communication better. Are we listening to understand, or to support our own argument and point of view? Are we questioning for the enlightenment of ourselves and our coachees, or merely to catch them out? Honest answers to these questions in the moment and during periods of reflection after our coaching sessions will help us keep track of whether our interactions are exchanges of hot air, or the transformative communication our coachees deserve.

I hope these thoughts will have helped us think through the nature of our coaching conversations if we haven’t thought about the subject before. Being more aware can help us achieve real communication, which enriches the coaching experience for everyone concerned. 

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