Effective use of visual language

Imagine you are walking down a path with beautiful trees on either side. The sun is shining through the trees, creating a soft glow of light on the path ahead. There’s a puddle and you easily jump over it. As you continue walking at a comfortable pace, you hear a sound nearby. Then you see a bird fly up from the ground. Ah, it was only a bird!

As you read the above, I imagine you could see yourself walking among the trees. You may have started to fill in more of the details of location, smell, sound, your feeling/emotional response, and further visual imagery.

In the ICF Core Competencies, Direct Communication is defined as the “ability to communicate effectively during coaching sessions, and to use language that has the greatest positive impact on the client.” Point 5 under Direct Communication says, “Uses metaphor and analogy to help to illustrate a point or paint a verbal picture.”

Learning Preferences

You may know of learning style preferences of visual, auditory, feeling and kinesthetic (tactile). Visual is the most common and easiest for the vast majority of people to access.

Almost every person on the planet can relate to visual images, because we live in a visual world. And for many people, visual or metaphor is the quickest way for them to access their emotions/feelings, which often gets to the underlying issue they need to address.

I assess for ICF MCC, PCC and ACC credential applications and listen to coaching recordings submitted in many different cultures and languages. I mentor clients in Europe, Asia and South America where their first language is not English. I’ve come to realize that many cultures relate first through metaphor and visual language, not through logic and strategy.

Listening only from logic is limiting

Sometimes we don’t hear visual words because we are not attuned to listening for them because we relate to being more logical (at least that is what we tell ourselves). Yet visual language can cut through a lot of words and conjure a vivid inner picture as we create our own connections.

Some of my mentoring clients work with visually impaired and blind people, and say their clients often use visual references when they speak. That is quite amazing to know!

Blind or fully sighted, we all live in some structure (e.g. a house, a boat, a tent 😊). We wear different styles of clothing. We drive in a car, or are transported by bicycle, bus, train, or plane. There are roads, bridges, lakes, ocean, grass, flowers, and so on.

Steps are not necessarily logical

If you listen to your coaching client, you’ll likely hear visual language early on in the session. It could be as simple as, “I want to have some steps I can take.” Steps is visual language that we could craft great questions around that move into metaphor and engage more of our client knowledge.

For example:

Speaking metaphorically, what are you stepping toward?

What are the steps constructed of?

How do you best navigate steps that lead to an unknown destination?

Another example of common language often used by a client is feeling ‘stuck.’ Ah, there it is again; visual language! You could ask the client, “What substance are you stuck in?” This might get the party started, metaphorically speaking, and create some levity and playfulness to approaching their presenting issue.

Engage first in client metaphor

The best metaphors or analogies are born from the client world first and foremost. Sometimes the coach offers a metaphor, yet this is secondary in importance to listening deeply to client use of language.

What’s most amazing to me as a coach, is to hear the range of metaphor clients come up with when asked a version of, “If you were thinking of yourself in this situation in metaphor, what might that metaphor be?” Be patient and silent and allow your client to search their memory banks for references.

Here’s one example, a client might say: How do I shine light on this challenging work environment I’m facing. Which leads to them thinking about the sun. And then perhaps they think of what can be used to protect from the sun. It could be sunblock, which can be applied to protect from the sun. This could become different strengths of sunblock for different situations.

Once the client expands their metaphor, then they often begin to relate to the situation more easily and with different possibilities. They can then think, what would represent strong sunblock? How do I maintain my ‘sunny’ attitude when others are gloomy? How do I connect to the sunny part of myself, when it may be hidden by clouds?

Not only does the client feel lighter when engaging in metaphor, but their creativity usually helps them engage with their problem in a way that feels more doable.

Engage curiously in client world of language

Customizing questions and comments using client language is especially important for MCC or mastery coaching skill level. I’ve experienced clients with the most challenging and complex situations cut through to clarity by thinking first through the lens of metaphor.

In the Mentor Coaching Group program I lead, my mentoring clients engage with a case study, where a two paragraph description gives personal and professional information about an imaginary client. My mentoring clients craft 10-20 questions customized using that information. From this one case study, I have hundreds of different questions! It’s very expansive and informative to my mentoring clients, as they see the range of questions others think of, that they never would have.

In closing…

Our first priority as coaches is to ask the best questions we can, that allow our client to go deeper into their self-knowledge. Crafting great questions and engaging in the client world of language is a most gratifying experience. The more we are curious about client use of language, the more fun coaching becomes for the client, and the coach!


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