Near the beginning of a coaching session, the coach will ask the client something like, “What would you like to focus on today in this session?” The coach then listens and engages with the client to clarify what they say, then partner with the client to confirm the client-desired session outcome.
The client will most often give information about their situation and themselves; what they are thinking or feeling. The client sharing might mean the client speaks for 5-15 minutes or more. This is normal for most clients to want to explain their situation, thoughts and feelings and to illustrate with stories or examples.
Most clients don’t initially speak in neat, short sound bites; the coach has to engage their listening skills to really hear information being shared by the client.
In my mentoring of coaches preparing for their MCC, PCC and even ACC credential applications, I commonly hear coaches say to me a version of this;
“The longer the client speaks, the more I start to tune out, or even stop listening.”
A default behavior by many coaches becomes to interrupt their client, which represents a lost opportunity for the client to have a neutral pair of ears and eyes, to really listen to how the client is communicating. There may be patterns of client speaking that if coach heard and then observed to the client, could provide valuable insight for the client they might not ever otherwise have. How the client communicates in a coaching session might indicate how they communicate in their work and life contexts and represent effective or less effective behavior and communication.
Deepen listening by collecting jigsaw pieces
It can be easy for a coach to tune out and stop listening to a client who is verbally expressive. Yet it’s most often lack of depth of curiosity and depth of developed listening skills by the coach that is causing the coach to tune out.
We can develop the capacity to hear more and lean into listening. Consider it is your job to listen for and collect the different jigsaw pieces the client is giving you. When the client stops speaking you have a collection of pieces, and you can choose which ones you respond to.
As coaches, we collect client jigsaw pieces, yet we don’t solve their jigsaw puzzle; that is for the client to do. It’s also for the client to determine what their jigsaw puzzle looks like, and which jigsaw pieces mean something to them.
Continually upgrade listening skills
A mistake coaches often make is because they have been listening all their lives, they believe they are already a good listener. When a person then becomes professionally trained in the coaching skill of Listening, they are often surprised at how poor their listening skills are, or how many more things they can be listening for. Listening takes presence, patience and practice.
Just like any professional developing their expertise, it’s the job of the coach to continually uplevel their professional ability to listen and hear more than they ever thought possible. With more jigsaw pieces being collected, the coach has more options for what to respond to with a depth of customized questions, comments, and observations.
The key is to lean into listening with curiosity rather than lean back and tune out.
What to Listen For
The ICF Updated Core Competency Model, Competency #6: Listens Actively definition is;
“Coach 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.”
If you read the sub-points for #6 Listens Actively, there are clues about some of the things to listen for. There are so many things we can be paying attention to as we listen, here are a few:
- Client choice of words, use of visual language, metaphors or analogy.
- Repeat words, patterns or themes in the way the client speaks.
- Energy shifts such as voice tone changes, or cadence in speaking changes (voice shifts higher or lower in pitch, faster or slower in pace of speaking)
- Non-verbal behavior through facial expressions or body language changes.
- Emotional content the client might be expressing by naming emotions they are feeling, or non-verbally where you can feel an emotion is present.
- Values being honored, or not being honored.
- Ethical conflicts the client is experiencing.
- Beliefs about themselves, other people, or their world views.
- Personal needs not being met, or are in conflict within the client, or with other people.
- Client hopes, dreams and wants.
Listen for these key phrases or similar;
“How do I….”
“I don’t know how to….”
“That’s why I’d like to be able to…”
Lean in to really hearing what the client says after those phrases, as they often indicate a thinking, feeling or doing gap the client has between where they are now, and where they want to be.
Customizing responses and which jigsaw pieces to respond to
As coaches we have an opportunity to increase our listening competence, so we hear more of what the client is saying. This allows us to customize responses through our questions, observations and comments to the client that are customized by what we are hearing in the client.
If a client shares about themselves and their situation, and the coach responds with a generic/general question such as, “What do you feel is important about what you shared?” that may be a responsive question yet gives no indication the coach heard what this unique person just shared and could be asked of a million people and you wouldn’t know the coach had heard this particular person.
After collecting jigsaw pieces, consider which pieces are about how the client is speaking about themselves, as insights gained about themselves often have the most opportunity for impactful thoughts and action about their situation.
Below is an example from a transcript where I’ve highlighted in blue one theme of repeat words the client said. Consider as you read what other information the client is revealing about themselves (mindset, values, beliefs) that could also be jigsaw pieces.
Coach asks: “What do you want to focus on today in our coaching session?”
Client response: “I was in a class last night and the instructor talked about the idea of seeing ourselves as salespeople, even though we’re not. I’ve always been an operations-type guy, a manager but more in operations. And not being a salesman to try to change careers but enhancing your job by understanding sales.
So, I found this book called – you probably heard of it – called The Joshua Principle: Leadership Secrets of RSVP Selling. And so, as of last night, I’ve been thinking about how would better understanding selling help enhance my growth, to continue my growth. Because a lot of times when reading leadership books, it begins to get a little repetitive. It’s kind of the same principles, the principles don’t change.
I’ve always spent most of my life running away from being a salesman, every time I found myself needing to look for a job I would never even consider a job where I had to do any front line. And I don’t want to do any of that now, but just the idea of adding those types of skills to help me grow in that area. Again, not me changing careers to be a salesman, but see if some of those skills that a salesman has can help me grow as a manager.”
Besides what I bolded above, what you can’t hear from just the written word is tone, pace, energy and emotions being expressed, which are other important jigsaw pieces to collect.
Here are a few customized responses based on the jigsaw pieces about wanting to grow, as the client says “grow” or “growth” as well as “enhance.”
“You said you wanted to grow or have growth a number of times, what’s important about your own growth?”
“What’s different for you between enhancing your job and growing yourself as a manager?”
These customized questions represent a depth of listening that provide opportunities for depth of reflection by the client. Most often, the client will slow down as there are often not easy answers to these types of customized questions, comments or observations.
It can be fun to collect jigsaw pieces, and a great way to remain actively engaged in hearing more of what your client is communicating! And provide deeper value through your coaching skills to the client.
Written by Carly Anderson
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