Coaching client non-verbal information

As coaches, there are many things to be listening for as a client speaks, more than their words alone. This article explores some of the non-verbal communication to pay attention to, often also called client “somatic” information.

Non-verbal information can be as informative to the client to receive observations about as the words they say. There is often more “full being” depth of meaning contained in the combination of client verbal and non-verbal information.

Often what is less effective is when a coach introduces somatic techniques that have no connection to what is happening with the client in the moment, and represent a leading versus Partnering mindset.


ICF Core Competency Context

ICF Core Competency #6 Listens Actively, definition is;

“Focuses on what the client is and is not saying to fully understand what is being communicated in the context of the client systems and to support client self-expression.”

As well as this definition, these three sub-points for the same core competency further clarify:

Competency #6.3: “Recognizes and inquires when there is more to what the client is communicating.”

Competency #6.4: “Notices, acknowledges and explores the client’s emotions, energy shifts, non-verbal cues or other behaviors.”

Competency #6.5: “Integrates the client’s words, tone of voice and body language to determine the full meaning of what is being communicated.”

Taking the information from these core competency and sub-points, you have a good starting place for self-inquiry; how well are you able to listen for and “hear” beyond the words the client speaks?

“The most important thing in communication is to hear what is not said.” Peter Drucker


Listen for entry points “in” to client non-verbal and somatic information

Here are some typical examples of what to observe and listen for that might be entry points into client somatic information;

  • Client may say specific words and begin to emphasize the word with a stronger tone or change in their speaking pattern.
  • Client may use sounds and words such as sigh, a bigger sigh, say aaaaah, or uuuuugh that the coach can inquire about.
  • Client may use hand or body gesturing while speaking.


Example using “Balance”

As the coach is listening to their client, coach becomes aware of how many times the client says “balance.” Coach also observes different hand gestures and use of face and body as client says “balance.”

Some example observations coach might offer:

  • As you were talking about balance you were hitting the table with your hand in a strong way. What does that mean to you?
  • As you were talking about balance you were hitting the table in a strong way, what emotion is your hand expressing?
  • As you were speaking about balance, you made a gesture with your hands in circular motions. What meaning do you make of that?


Examples of observing and inquiring about client non-verbal information

  • As you spoke about your new team, you had a big smile and also some tears. What’s happening inside you?
  • There’s a way when you’re speaking that you use your hands to emphasize a word. You were talking about trust, and your hands then stopped moving and your body too. What do you sense in that?
  • There was a shift in your tone of voice and your energy when you said you were being held back.
  • You’re swaying your body from side to side as you talk about resistance to someone telling you what to do. What else might your body be telling you?
  • You have a big smile right now. What’s the smile?
  • The energy in your voice just went down. What came up for you?
  • Client says, “My hands are shaking.” Coach can then ask, “What are your hands shaking wanting you to know right now?
  • I can see you rubbing your hands together. What are your hands telling you?
  • When you breathe in deeply like that, what emotions are you aware of in your body?


Follow the client “in” to their world

Following the client “in” through their ways of self-expression supports building of trust and confidence within the client, as the client experiences being honored and valued for their unique ways of expressing themself.

All of the examples so far in this article demonstrate a partnered approach to exploring client somatic information.

In coaching mindset, we follow the client “in” to their somatic information, rather than lead, direct or teach the client.

A non-partnered approach is where coach shifts from coaching mindset to directive, leading or teaching mindset.

Examples might include telling the client to stand up and do something, sit in a certain way, shut their eyes and visualize something, and so on. There is no connection to what the client is expressing – it’s more a series of techniques the coach is applying.

Partnering mindset requires more skill, as you have to be patient, be observant and wait until the client says or does something that indicates the client is connected to their somatic information in some way.

The client might not be aware of using their face, hands, body or gestures in different ways and that is where non-judgmental, neutral observations by coach can be awareness-building for the client.


Listen for client self-expression style

Some clients express themselves through visual language including metaphor, which could also be a way to access their emotional/somatic information. If a client uses metaphoric language such as “riding the wave” then it’s likely there’s movement and sensory information that accompanies that metaphor. Coach follow up questions can e connected through the client metaphor as entry point.

For example;

  • When you say you’re riding the wave, what kind of waves are they?
  • How do you sense the wave affecting your body?
  • What are you aware of happening in your body as you are riding the wave?

By following the client “in” to their way of expressing themselves, might naturally have the client begin to describe the texture, color or shape of their wave, versus coach just asking about texture, color or shape without any connection to the client way of expressing themselves.


In Closing…

There’s so much more for the client to become aware of when coach expands their listening beyond words alone, to also observing client non-verbal information. As mentioned earlier, following the client “in” through their ways of self-expression supports building of trust and confidence within the client, as the client experiences being honored and valued for their unique ways of expressing themself.

Written by Carly Anderson, MCC


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