Surprise! What Coaching Taught me About Communication
April 8, 2013 April 8, 2013
by Sue Johnston
For over 30 years, I've been a communication professional. Educated, mentored, accredited and experienced in every form of communication, I looked like the real deal. Yet it wasn't until I trained as a coach that I truly learned to communicate.
I was working in corporate communication when I had the disturbing realization that how people talk to each other at work has more impact than the formal programs to which I was devoting my career. Fortunately, I met a coach. Being coached gave me an appreciation for deliberate and conscious conversation. Coach training gave me the tools. It forever changed the way I talk with everyone.
I learned to look beyond the story.
In earlier days, when I talked to people, I looked for the story. For daily news, it had to inform or entertain. For organizations, it had to line up with some corporate objective. Today, whether or not I am coaching, my focus is on the person behind the story. The more I focus on the person, the more interesting our conversation becomes. My attention builds the trust that helps people feel comfortable sharing their stories.
In coaching, I learned that the story someone brings me – the "presenting problem" – is not always the real issue. Probing for clarification has been just as useful in revealing what's really going on with colleagues, family members and acquaintances as it has for clients.
I learned to listen.
Coaching demands more than listening to what is said. We must hear what's not said. We notice the unfinished sentence, the intake of breath, the hesitation, the change in pace or volume. These may be clues to something important, something our clients may not even be aware of. When we share our observations, they have to think about them. That leads to insight about themselves or their situations.
We don't have to be coaching someone to notice these things or to ask about them. Insight is good in any context. For example, the coach's requirement to look beyond the words has changed the way I operate in meetings. Whether I'm facilitating or a team member, I'll ask about the unsaid. Saying something like, "I wish you could see your face when you talk about that. It's clear that you really care," can invite someone to bring something significant into the discussion that might, otherwise, surface too late.
I learned to ask new questions.
"Who are you?" "What do you want?" "What are you going to do about it?" Those three questions are the staples of news reporting. Asked at a deeper level, they are also the staples of coaching. They address identity, desire and action.
A reporter asking, "Who are you?" wants your name and the correct spelling. A coach asking, "Who are you?" leads people to identify their values. When a coach asks, "What do you want?" we touch on aspiration, expanded potential and intentions. Inject those elements into any conversation and both the stakes and the payout increase. "What's your next step?" – the more coach-like version of, "What are you going to do about it?" – also comes with, "When?" and, "Will you let me know when you've done it?" It's been helpful in many non-coaching contexts.
Coaching questions have served me well in team meetings. They bring issues to the surface. They cut through nonsense to the truth. "How do we know that?" asked with genuine curiosity, can help people distinguish between fact and opinion. "Can you walk us through your thinking on this?" can help someone recognize the gaps in their logic. One of my favourite coaching questions, "What will it mean and why will it matter?" helps a group understand the impact of the work it's undertaking.
I learned when to be silent.
This lesson has been the most valuable for me – and the most difficult. People drawn to the communication professions are not quiet people. We're uncomfortable with silence.
A mentor coach suggested, "When you ask a question, wait till it's uncomfortable, then count to 10." A decade later, that advice is as useful to me in normal conversation as in coaching. People can't think if I'm talking. No thinking, no insight, no action, no good.
What do you think? [Imagine a long silence here.]
Sue Johnston, MBA, ABC, MMC helps you talk so people listen and listen so people talk. After a career in journalism and organizational communication, she established It's Understood Communication [http://itsunderstood.com] to focus on face-to-face communication. She loves helping her clients find and share their voices through public speaking. She's the author of "Talk To Me: Workplace Conversations That Work."
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