Archives for April 2011

No.9 – “The Fine Art of Coaching”

This month I would like to offer some thoughts on a topic which is probably one of the most written about and “fashionable” subjects of the moment – Coaching. There are umpteen books, courses and qualifications on offer – many offering excellent advice and producing first-class coaches, and others less so.

So, over some 20 years of meeting coaches in all walks of life, and operating as a coach myself, it seems to me there are one or two important (and fundamental) areas of coaching skills which can be easily overlooked or forgotten. No matter how many coaching sessions I undertake, I find it really useful to remind myself of some of these core skills from time to time…


We all know that the ability to establish and maintain rapport with a coachee is vital in building an effective coaching relationship, and we are familiar with the fact that rapport can be established through one or more of the following channels…

  • Matching or mirroring the coachee’s body language, gestures, posture etc.
  • Paying attention to the structure of their language and using similar phrases and expressions
  • Matching the characteristics of their voice in terms of tonality, volume, speed, rhythm etc.

…all the while listening intently to what they are saying, formulating the desired outcome(s) for the session and constructing the most appropriate questioning strategies to get you there!!

That’s a lot to pay attention to and keep track of, so here are a few tips to make it a little easier on yourself as the coach…

  • When you first meet the coachee, invite them to sit down first. That way you can make a quick assessment of their overall posture and position in the chair and ensure you adopt a similar body position from the start.
  • Instead of listening only to the actual words they are using in order to get an understanding of their thinking style, begin to watch and listen for some of the non-verbal clues they may be giving, for example:
    • The pitch and rate of their speech will indicate whether they are processing information visually (higher pitch, fast rate), auditorally (medium pitch, medium rate) or kinaesthetically (lower pitch, slower rate).
    • Similarly, the position of their gestures can also be a useful marker for these areas
  • High level, rapid hand movements (visual)
  • Mid-chest, even paced gestures (auditory)
  • Low down, often towards the abdomen (kinaesthetic)
  • By following the overall rhythm of their speech you will automatically be matching their breathing rate (one of the strongest indicators of deep rapport) – we take a breath at the end of sentence or train of thought, creating a pause in the flow of words. We only speak when breathing out.

Matching, Pacing, Leading

The ideas above focus on the skills of matching and pacing (following) what your coachee is doing in order to establish rapport at a deeper (or faster) level than may otherwise have happened.

“Leading” may initially feel counter-intuitive in terms of so-called non-directive coaching. However, there are two very important reasons for developing skill in this area…

  • In the most sensitive (often values-based) coaching sessions it is vital to know that sufficient rapport exists between you and the coachee before you ask the more contentious or potentially “difficult” questions. In these situations Leading is a useful strategy to test the level of rapport…
    • Instead of continuing to follow what the coachee is doing, try making some small change in your body language (e.g. hand gesture, angle of the head, sitting position) or in your voice (talk faster or slower, change the volume or pitch), and notice if your coachee makes a similar adjustment within 45 seconds. If they do, this indicates that you have established a sufficient level of rapport and trust to make it most likely that the coachee will be willing to answer your questions. If there is no matching response, merely go back to pacing them for while and then try it again.
  • Leading can also be used to elicit a state change in your coachee. For example…
    • Suppose you meet someone in the corridor who has just come out of a difficult meeting with their boss, which has left them angry and frustrated. They stop to talk to you and “have a moan” about what has just happened. You know they are on their way to another meeting, for which they need to arrive in a calm and relaxed state. So you only have 2 or 3 minutes to conduct a mini coaching session to help them achieve that. The temptation is to immediately adopt the desired calm and relaxed state (soft voice, low volume, slow rate), in the belief that this will influence them to do the same. In fact the opposite is likely to be the case. Even if you are using calming words, if the rest of your behaviour is not initially matching their state (lots of energy in the voice, rapid speech, staccato rhythm) they will unconsciously sense “you’re not listening to me, you don’t understand”. Instead begin by matching their level of energy, rate of speech etc., (but not the content of what they are saying), pace it for a sentence or two, and then begin to lead them to a more relaxed state by lowering your voice, speaking more calmly and quietening your body language. You can still use the same “I understand” words, but now your whole communication is also saying the same thing, and you will notice how in just a couple of minutes (or even less) you can lead them into a much more resourceful state for their next meeting.
Getting to the “Real” Issue

As we’ve discussed in previous top tips, one of the most effective ways to lasting and sustainable change is through an understanding of the values which are driving behaviour. Therefore the more quickly you as a coach can understand the values which are driving your coachee to do (or not do) something, the more effective the coaching session is likely to be.

So, rather than spending a lot of time establishing a detailed background – who did what to who, where and why, etc. – listen to what your coachee is saying with the question “what has to be true for that to be true?” in your mind – in other words “what are the unspoken values that would have to be in place for that behaviour to make sense?”.

Answering that question for yourself will provide valuable information on what is truly important to your coachee, and which values need to be met in order for them to be willing to change.