When the Best Coaching Tool Isn’t a Question

by Mattison Grey, MCC (IAC)

What is your favorite “go to” coaching tool? Coaches really shouldn’t have favorite tools, but, let’s face it, we do. My favorite is acknowledgement; I have been using and experimenting with acknowledgement since I started coaching in 1997. Since that time I have seen this simple tool produce amazing results, and I believe that regardless of how great a coach you are, putting acknowledgment into your coaching tool box will make you a better coach.

When I first present this idea to people they say things like “I know what acknowledgment is. I acknowledge people all the time.” You may even be thinking that right now. I would like to invite you to stay curious, because whatever you are currently doing, I can almost guarantee that it is not acknowledgement—not true, pure acknowledgement. Most people, even coaches, have not deeply contemplated the distinction between acknowledgment and other communication tools such as appreciation, compliments, praise and validation.

Often people assume acknowledgement exists within something else, like compliments, appreciation, validation, affirmation, thanking, recognition, praise or championing. These are well-used coaching tools. However, none of them are truly acknowledgment and more importantly they all have one big limiting factor—none of them are actually about the person to whom they are directed. They are about you.

Acknowledgement is a very different kind of communication tool that very few people, even coaches, are taking advantage of.

Acknowledgment is saying what a person did, or results they achieved, delivered with a tone of appreciation, curiosity or surprise, and without judgment.

Let’s look at the distinctions in this example:

A project manager has completed her project on time and on budget.

In this scenario, here is what our other communication tools would sound like.

Compliment: The project turned out great. You are so smart and capable.
Appreciation: I really appreciate you completing this project on time.
Validation: I see that you have given this project a lot of effort and thought.
Affirmation: I think you deserve all the credit for this successful project.
Thanking: Thank you for getting the project done on time and for all your effort on this project.
Recognition: It is clear you are a very talented project manager.
Praise: Awesome job.
Championing: I told your supervisor that you were the right person for this project.
Cheerleading: I told you, you could do it!

Most of us have used these with clients at some point; they are useful in a lot of situations. But, as I mentioned, they all have a limitation. Not one of these statements is actually about the project manager or what she actually accomplished. All of these statements are either opinion or judgment of the speaker about something the receiver did. Hang in there; this is the point where it gets hard. It doesn’t seem possible, but really take a look. None of the above statements are a statement of fact. They are an opinion and/or judgment about the fact, and therefore really about the person delivering them, not the person receiving them.

Here is what acknowledgement sounds like:

Acknowledgement: You completed the project on time and on budget!

{Tone is important here. Use a tone of appreciation, curiosity or surprise, whichever is most appropriate in the moment.}

Of all these communication tools, the only one that is factual and that puts all of the attention and focus on the other person is acknowledgement. Acknowledgment is the only one that is not about you as the giver. When people get true acknowledgment it is like jet fuel. It gives them energy, lights them up and spurs them on. It also gives them an opportunity to learn about themselves and own their accomplishments. I can’t count how many times I have observed a simple, well-timed acknowledgment literally change the way a client viewed themselves and their situation in an instant.

Sometimes the best coaching is not a question at all. But don’t take my word for it, go out and try it. A word of warning: Acknowledgment is an incredibly simple idea, but not easy to implement. Getting yourself and your opinion out of the conversation can be quite challenging, even for the best of us. Finally, stay curious and tolerate your learning curve. This may be a brand new tool for you, and if so, it will be a little clumsy at first. Hang in there and practice, practice, practice ~ your clients will thank you for it.


Mattison Grey  

Mattison Grey M. Ed., MCC (IAC) is a business and leadership coach, professional speaker and author. Mattison’s book The Motivation Myth is a powerful and provocative look at acknowledgment and explores how our current language of motivation actually limits peoples’ performance. http://greystoneguides.com/blog/

5 thoughts on “When the Best Coaching Tool Isn’t a Question”

  1. Very helpful distinctions about the differences between acknowledgement, compliments, recognition, etc. I’m sure this will help coaches understand one of the aspects of Mastery #2!

  2. Kristi and Julia,
    Thanks for the acknowledgment. You both know first hand how simple, powerful and tricky this tool is. I hope that the coaches reading this stay curious and go out and try it. As you know, acknowledgement is not something you get with your head ~

  3. Mattison – You’ve clarified the essence of acknowledgement as a tool for masterful coaching. Thanks for helping us all to use this coaching tool to increase value for our clients.

  4. Such an important tool! Acknowledgement allows the client to observe themselves within the situation, without judgment, and take a powerful look at who they are, where they are, what they’ve accomplished and why this is important to them. This is what the IAC Coaching Masteries emphasize: the “being” of the client as well as the “doing”.

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