Good morning, good afternoon or good evening, wherever you are. Welcome to 2022’s second edition of The Coach’s Coach.
Last month we talked about what coaches need to listen for in their sessions with their clients and concluded that we listen for understanding and interference (Click here if you missed last month’s newsletter). This month I would like to discuss what I think we need to do with what we listened for – and in the process will raise ideas from four of my (five) favourite international coaches, each of whom are very well worth following, by the way.
First on my list is Myles Downey’s “Coaching Communication Cycle”. He calls the first part of the cycle, initiation: this is where the coach asks a question or shares something with their client. Then we have our client’s response, an answer that needs to be congruent with the initiation. As Downey says, though, the cycle is not complete at this point – it’s only complete when the client knows that they have been understood. Downey calls this acknowledgement and says that, in the beginning of the session, “particularly with a new client, the acknowledgement will take the form of a full summary or paraphrasing of what has been said”. As the session progresses and trust develops in the relationship the need to summarise or paraphrase diminishes, and the coach might say “I understand” or nod or ask a further question that is congruent with the response. (More of this latter notion later.) So, diagrammatically, Downey depicts this model in this way:
Downey’s model, like most of his work, is very useful. However, I have noticed several coaches, not all of them inexperienced, reflecting what the client has said back to them (by way of summary or paraphrasing) and then either asking a closed question to see if they, the coach, have understood correctly or, alternatively, reflected and then initiated a different line of questioning. To the client, this often feels like merely having their words mirrored to them. From a coaching perspective, little is gained from this repetitive acknowledgement or reflection. Don’t get me wrong, reflection, when done well, can be powerful. It is powerful when it takes the client beyond their current narrative, that is when it provides the client with new insights and awareness. Pure reflection as I have painted it above is often for the coach’s benefit or clarity and the client remains stuck in their current narrative.
So, how do we use the communication cycle in a way that helps our client move beyond their current narrative? Well, the first tip is to follow Michael Bungay Stanier’s advice and “be curious one more time”! Remember we have been listening for understanding and interference in client’s response to our initial question – so how do we use this to take the cycle further? It is a cycle, after all, and as a cycle it needs to go round! Here are a couple of ways.
Marcia Reynolds, in her book “Coach the Person”, talks of reflective enquiry – which is her coach response to the client’s response (at the stage Downey called ‘acknowledgement’). This is a way to make reflection powerful. We reflect and then we ask a concise, open question based on this reflection that takes the client beyond their narrative – makes them think, broadens their perspective etc. (We’ll be dealing with powerful questions in a few months’ time.) Personally, I prefer the term “reflective exploration” to “reflective enquiry” purely because, for me, “enquiry” suggests a one-off question whilst “exploration” could, where appropriate, require a series of questions, thereby continuing the communication cycle and deepening or expanding the client’s learning by taking the client beyond their current narrative.
Essentially, when reflecting in this way, we are pouring fuel and tugging on, respectively, the “little fires and loose threads” we listened for last month. Michael Neill, in a recent podcast, referred to the little fires as small insights that clients experience as they move beyond their narrative – the fuel ignites or develops these insights further. He also encouraged coaches to tug on the loose threads that clients give us. For me these are pivotal areas that the client refers to as they tell their narrative and that we could re-initiate or explore by asking questions such as “Tell me more about the stress you felt” or “You used the word “stress” – what does ‘stress’ mean for you in the context of our conversation?”
I always find that the iceberg metaphor helps me to listen for these little fires and loose threads. What sticks out above the waterline are external stuff such as client’s behaviours and actions. Below the waterline are those internal things that go on inside the client and which manifest in their external behaviours and actions. Whilst these may consist of their thoughts, beliefs, values etc, I find it easier to focus on their way of thinking or their way of being as these will normally tell me what I need to know about what is interfering with whatever they are trying to perform and often how they are getting in their own way. Often too, their way of thinking will divulge their world views which in themselves provide us with loose threads in the form of assumptions that we can tug on in a way that helps them check the veracity of their assumptions.
Accordingly, my adaptation of Downey’s communication cycle looks like this:
Play around in your coaching sessions with whichever cycle you prefer. I have attached a practice sheet providing you with a pre-session preparation form and a post-session reflection form to help you experiment with these communications cycles in your coaching sessions over the next month. As this becomes second nature for you (i.e. your new habit), you will find that your coaching sessions flow almost effortlessly as you master your communication cycle. Have fun!
Until next month