Curiosity and Interrupting the client are like oil and water

I’m often asked by my mentor coaching clients, how to stop clients who speak a lot, including if, how and when to interrupt a client.

That’s a great inquiry!

Here are some of my thoughts and different ideas, which have evolved over my years of coaching. This article is from listening to recordings of my mentoring clients, as well as being a long term and active ICF Assessor for MCC, PCC and ACC credentials. And over 21 years as a coach, a better understanding of the importance of the skill of empathy, in deepening a trusting relationship with clients.

#1 Trait of the Coach: Bring a Curious Mindset

As professionally trained coaches, we are taught to be curious about our clients. Why then would we interrupt our client? Where’s the curiosity in interrupting?

To me, it’s like oil and water; they don’t mix well!

Sometimes coaches have a mindset that if the client speaks for too long, the client is in their story and that doesn’t serve them. This mindset is a barrier to really observing the client and learning about them.

Especially in a first and second coaching session, we want to curiously notice how our client speaks, their use of language including visual and metaphorical language. We curiously notice how they speak about themselves, about others, about their circumstances, their situations, and dreams. We notice their emotional content through emotions expressed, stated verbally, tonally, facially, or body language.

What curious creatures we human beings are!

We all have our unique ways of viewing ourselves in ‘our world.’ And then viewing our life and circumstances through our unique interpretation. I remember a study of twins that reported that even though brought up in the same environment, by the same parents, and treated the same, that each twin interpreted their world very differently. They had the same ‘facts’ of their life, yet spoke about them in vastly different ways. To the point where it seemed they didn’t live in the same household!

You only need to consider your own life experience. Perhaps you grew up in a family where your experience was completely different than your siblings. Sifting through what is factually true, from what is our unique interpretation of those facts, is one key. The other is that we are unique in our temperaments, and that filters our experiences differently from one another.

#2 Trait of a Coach: Stay in Curious Mindset

The ongoing challenge for a coach is wanting to ‘sort and file’ a client into something they already know or have experienced. Different assessment tools used in coaching add to this desire to categorize a person.

Let’s say your client says they are overwhelmed with work and want to have a better way of prioritizing. The coach hears that and shortcuts into their expertise for what they know about overwhelm. Or what they’ve read, learned, or the assessment says you do.

All may be relevant as data points. However, in that moment, the coach may be more present to what the coach believes the client needs, and the coaches solution.

And what happens? The coach is ahead of the client, thinking of how to fix or resolve the client, or the client’s issues as the coach perceives them.

Then what happens next? The coach is connected and present to their own thoughts, and no longer curious about this unique human being. They have collapsed their expertise and knowing about overwhelm into believing they know what the client needs. Oh yes, prioritize! I have a great tool for that!

Okay, and what happens next? The coach is so present to their own ideas and expert knowledge that they interrupt the client to give their thoughts, or to direct the client toward a solution they think will help them. All good intentions, yet not the most effective for the client to sort through their thoughts, feelings and find their own solution.

I heard a great saying this week,

“We do not learn from experience; we learn by reflecting on our experience.”

When we give the client our answer, or the answer from a tool or other expert, we’re short-changing our client from learning for themselves.

How to Interrupt a Client?

Okay, back to interrupting the client. This is going to go against the grain for what many coach training programs teach; I recommend you rarely, if ever interrupt the client, except as follows. ICF PCC Marker 6 for Direct Communication says, “Coach allows the client to complete speaking without interrupting unless there is a stated coaching purpose for doing so.”

This means that there is explicit and conscious contracting with your coaching client on how, if and when to interrupt.

What is a coaching purpose? For me, it’s when the client is going around in a loop, either talking about someone else instead of themselves, or speaking about themselves in negative ways. Yet even with explicit contracting, I recommend the coach continues to use their coaching skills first instead of defaulting to interrupting.

Observe your client, observe your reactions

In a coaching session, I observe my client, and notice over a number of sessions first, their patterns of behavior. Only then, might I partner with my client around interrupting them.

Some of the most fun I have as a coach now is being really attentive to how the client speaks about themselves in their circumstances, and customizing my questions and observations. To be genuinely curious and fascinated by this client, including:

  • What words are they using to describe themselves?
  • Where is their primary focus; on themselves, or speaking about others?
  • What emotions am I noticing as they speak?
  • How are they experiencing their world: through thinking (I think…), visual or metaphorical (It’s like I’m at a trailhead and don’t know which hiking trail to take…), emotions (I feel somewhere between sad and frustrated…)
  • What is my intuition saying could be behind the volume of words, and how might I offer that?

I’m really doing my best to observe this person, without judgment. Of course, my mind is having a bunch of thoughts, which is normal for us humans. It’s a matter of noticing those thoughts, and then choosing what to do with them. And if we’re triggered emotionally by something the client is saying, to notice that to ourselves – and a note to self to look at that at another time.

The ongoing work of a coach is to be conscious of our Presence and do the ongoing work to absence ourselves of judgment about our client (and any need we have to bring an expert mindset to our client).

Some consequences of interrupting the client

When you interrupt a coaching client, here are the possible consequences:

  • Lowered trust in you as their confidante.
  • Modeling to the client that interrupting is a good coaching skill (which it isn’t)
  • Lowered safety to speak freely, because the coach is determining what the client can and can’t say, and how much speaking is too much. This places us in a hierarchical relationship with our client, and even parental. How many of you were told to stop speaking as a child and be quiet? I was! And it was for no reason other than parents who didn’t want to listen to me.

I’ve previously written about ways to interrupt a client and you search for ‘interrupt’ on the top right search area of the blog page. Or read this article on How to Interrupt Your Coaching Client by Michael Stratford, MCC.

How to stop a client from speaking a lot

I’m not sure it’s possible with some clients to stop them from speaking a lot! That’s not my agenda. It’s more about the depth of my question, and my observations.

For example, I might offer an observation such as; “As you speak, there were a lot of words you said, yet I didn’t get a sense of what you’re feeling about this challenging situation you’re facing. I’m wondering what emotions might be underneath those words?”

If the client replies with a lot more words, I might make a further observation to them such as; “It’s interesting that when I asked you about what emotions might be beneath your words, you gave me more words, yet no emotions.”

If client then asks me, I might say, “I’m sensing perhaps frustration, some sadness about the loss of opportunity, and maybe even some anger. What resonates with you?”

Empathy as a coaching skill

A powerful coaching skill is empathy. To be empathetic and first acknowledge the emotional state you’re hearing (the Who of the client), rather than trying to understand all their words through reflecting back staying at the What (solving the words). This might sound like, “As you spoke, it felt to me that you’re not feeling seen and valued for the amazing contribution you’ve made, for putting your heart into the business, and not being acknowledged for your passion and desire to contribute.”

Then be quiet and breathe; be silent and notice how the client responds.

Deepen questions, and observations

Rather than interrupting, it’s the quality of my question, or what I’m paying attention to, that is likely to stop the free flow of words and stories. Often, not always, a lot of words is a way to be seen as competent, or to not feel what’s really going on. There may be more reasons for why a client speaks a lot.

In Closing…

Be really curious about this human being.

Observe your client, curiously.

Speak to emotional (Who) rather than solving the words (What).

Explicitly partner with your client on if and when to interrupt them. Ensure you discuss possible impact of interrupting them.

Still be really discerning with when you interrupt, even with explicit partnering.

Practice instead asking a question that goes deeper into their thinking, or feeling, or imagery.

Practice instead offing an observation, which is different than reflecting back what client said.

Observe your emotional triggers when a client speaks for too long, and do your own work to handle them, so you can be more fully with your coaching client.

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6 thoughts on “Curiosity and Interrupting the client are like oil and water

  1. Very helpful article. Thanks for the many examples and the informative way in which you write.

    1. Thank you Vicky. I appreciate you, always, for your learning mindset. Warmly, Carly

  2. I echo Vicky’s comment. What a very helpful article, Carly! I find so much value in your monthly writing and appreciate that it’s all available on your website to reference again. I even hear your voice in my head as I’m reading them. 🙂 Thank you for being so generous to coaches with your knowledge. You are a gift!

    1. Thank you for your kind words Brigitta. I’m so happy you find the articles helpful. That is my intention for writing. And my voice in your head…. Warmly, Carly

  3. Ah…., thank you, what a wonderful reminder of allowing ourselves to settle into being with the person we serve. I love the call for us as coaches to be aware of what is going on for us when we feel the need to interrupt for “ their own good”
    A welcomed reminder of our role as well as with tools we can engage to navigate those moments within ourselves and how we connect with the client.
    I appreciate you sharing these articles, they help bring me back to center.
    Again ah…
    Love Dolly

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