Coaching as a professional conversation differs from other conversations because the mindset of the coach and client is one of Partnership; keeping the client “in the spotlight” as it’s the client-desired outcome that the coach is there to serve.
A coach might use their verbal and non-verbal behaviors to influence the client in ways that lessen partnership and instead communicate in a way that puts the coach in the spotlight and in a “power position.” We are always influencing our clients, yet may not be aware of the impact of coach behaviors on the client.
Serving client-desired focus and outcomes
The client is a full partner with their coach in the design and focus of the conversation. The purpose of each coaching session is to support the client to gain clarity around their chosen topic or area of focus in order to know how to move forward.
While partnering and shared ownership is the mindset of a Professional Coach, clients do perceive their coach as an expert. What Professional Coaches need to educate their clients they are expert in is the professional application of coaching skills around human development, which includes self-talk (internal communication), and (external) people communication.
A coach masterfully using coaching skills, can coach almost any person on any topic. If the coach is expected to be a Subject Matter Expert on anything other than the application of coaching skills, the client may be wanting a mentor, consultant or benefit from training/courses. This may be so if someone wants to increase their technical knowledge or expertise.
Clients often think they want someone who knows their industry, or has expertise in something they want to learn, and I understand there’s a level of comfort with that mindset. From personal experience of having coached at least 1000 clients in technology, finance and project management professions where I have no experience, I can attest that clients often tell me they find that not being an “insider” gives them comfort with confidentiality. And also because I ask them questions or offer observations which are often outside of how most people in their profession/industry think.
Anytime we have the mindset of expert, mentor or trainer, we are in the power position in the relationship. And our behaviors may demonstrate that through the words we say, the tone of voice and way we use our body/facial expressions to communicate “I’m an expert.”
Why it’s important for a coach to be aware of their influence
Clients know more about themselves, and their situations, than they most often initially realize. This is because in everyday life, people are doing, doing, doing their personal and professional “work,” and schedule little to no time to simply reflect, explore, or ask themselves questions. And reflection time, asking oneself questions one might know the answer to, is harder “work” than doing, doing, doing. 😊
This is where there is great benefit of having a Professional Coach who can provide a listening, self-expression, reflection and integration space. Where the client can say something out loud they may not have realized until their coach asked them a question. Or coach provides an observation about the way their client is communicating (verbally and/or non-verbally).
In nearly every coaching session, my client says they now have clarity and know how to move forward. Awareness of what the client now knows (and didn’t know they knew) comes from the coach providing space and silence for the client to verbalize and reflect in response to coach discovery oriented questions and observations.
An empowered coaching client is one who has discovered things for themselves, that gives them confidence and ownership for their “work” in the coaching process. Insights and discoveries usually translate quickly into clarity about what to do next. Empowerment comes from the client ‘doing the work’ and taking ownership for their discoveries. The behaviors of a coach enable this process to occur, or not.
If you are interested in hearing 16 consecutive sessions with a coaching client, I was fortunate enough to be able to record one client, and it ended up being 16 sessions. Then we agreed it would be offered for learning purposes. It’s called the Butterfly on the Wall Coaching Series. In each session, I worked with the client to understand their focus for this session, not my expertise, mentoring, or personal knowledge.
Ways a coach influences their client
Professional Coaches are in the professional communication business. We are always demonstrating and modeling good (or not so good) communication in the way we interact with our client. We are role models to our client, whether we realize it or not. The more we become aware of our behavior and influence, the more conscious we can be of how we work with clients to support them become more confident, empowered people. And perhaps what mindset and behaviors we can work on to become an even more effective professional coach.
Ways a coach influences their client includes;
- Beliefs of the coach
- Verbal behaviors of the coach
- Non-verbal behaviors of the coach
Beliefs of the coach
If a coach believes their value lies in their knowledge and expertise, the coach will likely be leading the conversation from their knowledge, beliefs, expertise and experience. A fundamental coaching philosophy is that clients are resourceful and hold a lot of self-knowledge about themselves. Yet in practice, coaches may not speak in a way that is congruent with that philosophy.
If a client asks for tips or advice (let’s say on how to move from being an individual contributor to leading their first team of people). The first thing a professional coach does is ask the client clarifying questions to understand their context, including what they know, what they are seeking to understand now, as well as their envisioned trajectory over next few weeks, months, year, or longer.
Examples of clarifying questions;
- What development resources does your company provide? (such as an intranet, courses, programs that are available internally in the company)
- What leadership information have you explored already? (such as researching leadership on the internet, reading books, podcasts, self-learning programs)
From here, coach and client can discuss possible objectives and milestones that form the basis of a coaching development plan. Here’s a previous article I’ve written on this topic.
Verbal behaviors of the coach
Verbal behaviors are whatever the coach says, as well as how the coach speaks. This includes coach choice of words and tone of voice the coach uses. Or perhaps the coach interrupts the client to interject their thoughts, words, beliefs or knowledge/expertise/experience.
Another common verbal behavior is the use of small words and sounds while the client is speaking such as, “Hmmm” “Yeah” “Okay” “Uh-huh” “Aaaahhh” “Sure.” While perhaps well intended, to let the client know the coach is listening, the words and energy with which the coach responds will let the client know the coach was listening or not. The more customized using client words, concepts and/or metaphors, the more the coach is demonstrating they are listening to their client.
Small words and sounds can be spoken, yet sparingly (rather than a “soundtrack” as the client is speaking). When on a non-visual call with clients (such as telephone only or without video turned on), then perhaps some small words and sounds every so often can be good, without large tonal changes. Yet for some clients, small words and sounds can interfere with the client ability to hear themselves and trust what they are intuiting or becoming aware of as they speak.
Some coaches add “right” to the end of their comments, which puts the coach in the “right” position about their client. Or implies that coach is “right” and client is to agree, right? 😊. Consider eliminating or significantly reducing the use of “right” as a coaching behavior.
Even more to pay attention to is when the coach has tonal shifts in their small words and sounds, which can communicate surprise, agreement, disagreement, disbelief. For example, if coach says loudly “Aaaaahhhh!” or “Oooooohhhhh!” with energy that indicates the coach just had an awareness, that can take attention away from the client and place the spotlight on the coach.
Non-verbal behaviors of the coach
What we do with our faces and body while the client is speaking, can have an big impact on the client. For example, if the client is speaking and the coach raises their eyebrows in what might communicate disbelief or surprise, that reaction by the coach might influence what the client says next. Or coach smiles broadly, frowns, changes their head position in a way that implies something that could be interpreted by the client as coach “judging” in a positive or not so positive way.
Some coaches use their hands a lot to express themselves, me included. Or they move their body in ways that communicate something to the client about what the coach thinks, or coach reaction, to what the client is saying. I continuously and consciously work on minimizing my hand movements in particular with clients who don’t use their hand or body while speaking, as it can mismatch the client and lessen trust for some clients.
Sometimes a client will say to their coach, “It doesn’t seem you agree with what I said” (or something similar to that). This is an indication coach is giving verbal and/or non-verbal information to the client that the client is now paying more attention to than to what they are saying, sensing, feeling or experiencing.
How to become aware of our verbal and non-verbal behaviors
The mindset of a Professional Coach is to continually learn and develop self-awareness, in order to be the best coach they can be to their clients.
ICF Core Competency #2, Embodies a Coaching Mindset, is defined as, “Develops and maintains a mindset that is open, curious, flexible and client-centered.”
Sub-points in this competency that address coach presence including;
#2.2. Engages in ongoing learning and development as a coach
#2.3. Develops an ongoing reflective practice to enhance one’s coaching
#2.4. Uses awareness of self and one’s intuition to benefit clients
#2.5. Develops and maintains the ability to regulate one’s emotions
Record coaching sessions and review
One of the most impactful ways of learning about oneself as a coach, is to regularly record yourself coaching, preferably audio-visual. If not possible in your work environment, then offer pro-bono coaching sessions to a client for 3-4 sessions, in exchange for being able to record for your learning and development purposes.
Watching the recording of yourself coaching will be very informative, as we often are unaware of the way we say something, the use of our facial or body movements. Even better, is to obtain a transcription of your coaching session, and read through the transcript as you are watching yourself coach. This is a practice all of my mentor coaching clients, no matter for ACC, PCC or MCC preparation) engage with. And without exception, report a lot of self-awareness is gained by doing so, and therefore they can make choices about what to experiment with in changing some of their behaviors.
As a Professional Coach, we are in a position of authority because the client expects results. The way the coach goes about engaging with the client at every stage of the coaching engagement, is modeling what the coach believes about their role, themselves, and their client abilities.
The more aware we are of our influence on our clients, the more we can determine what to adjust so we demonstrate more trust in the client, and more trust in the coaching process. There’s nothing more satisfying for me than a client being wowed by what they discover and feeling empowered and confident in taking their discoveries forward.
Written by Carly Anderson, MCC
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