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A Challenge for Coaching Clients: Who is Speaking Here?
by Aileen Gibb
One of our main roles as coaches is to support people in finding, claiming and using their authentic voice. To do so requires that we listen deeply to the client’s language and choice of words. We may often reflect back whether the client’s words support or contradict their actual intentions. Sometimes the smallest, seemingly insignificant word is the most powerful and it benefits our clients when this can be identified in the coaching conversation.
Ernest Hemmingway once said “all our words from loose using have lost their edge”. Our words are our voice. Our voice is our power. If our words our used loosely, our voice, and consequently our power, is weaker. You may have noticed that in our society—and perhaps specifically in our work environments—we have become very “loose” with many of our words.
I believe we are particularly loose or ineffective at using the “I” word. Many clients find it difficult to use their “I” voice, for fear of being thought selfish, arrogant or dominating. Not using the “I” voice can leave clients feeling unassertive, ineffectual and powerless.
In failing to use their “I” voice, clients will often substitute other voices such as “they,” “we” and “you” (in the sense of one). This weakens the client’s ownership and resolve of their situation and suggests lower commitment to action. For example:
“You often feel tired at the end of the day," may be heard from a client who has difficulty admitting she feels tired or vulnerable and that she needs to take better care of herself
“We need to be spending more time on getting this project completed by Friday,” may be a secret plea from a client who is struggling with the pressure to meet a deadline
“They should realize that the budget is too tight for us to do this job properly,” may indicate a client who could be coached to step up and take ownership—instead of feeling they are the victim of a budget which someone else controls.
Some of the most impactful results I’ve seen from coaching come when the client learns to use their “I” voice more confidently. If we insert the “I” voice into each of the above statements, even reading it here on paper we can feel the shift in energy, focus and personal power that is created:
“I often feel tired at the end of the day,” opens the way for the coach to ask questions which guide the client to take action to feel better.
“I need to spend more time on completing this project by Friday,” leads immediately to very focused action on the client’s timetable and priorities for the week.
“I realize the budget is too tight for this job,” begs to be followed with the opportunity for the client to complete an empowering statement such as “so what I can do is…”
When coaching, I often draw a circle and put a large "I" in the centre of it. Sometimes, I might draw a heart with a large "I" inside it to emphasise that this “I” voice comes from inside my client, and needs to be heard. As I listen further to the client, I might add words to the space around this circle, representing the words they use in place of their authentic “I” voice.
It is my experience that clients often do not realize they are avoiding the "I" voice, or how much their energy, enthusiasm and commitment can shift as soon as they start using it. Revealing this pattern can create one of those precious light bulb moments. Once the client is more aware of this language choice, you can lighten things up every time you hear “you,” “we” or “they,” by challenging them with the simple:
“Who is speaking here?”
I suspect that Mr. Hemmingway's original intention with his quote was to encourage more attentive and responsible use of words in their true meaning. It also signifies a triumph in the coaching process; when a client takes more responsibility by using their “I” voice, this “loosens” them up from fears or attachments and gives them freedom from what has been holding them back.
Aileen Gibb, www.inspiredfuture.org, connects people to their inspired future by using pure coaching in life and leadership. As Faculty Lead at the Dream Organisation, she is the world’s first Licensed Practitioner of The Archegyre, a powerful new diagnostic tool that makes sense of what drives human endeavor and success.