One of the competencies of successful coaches is to be able to assist the coached ‘decode’ his or her words, thoughts and emotions. But in doing that, the coach needs to avoid the trap of drawing meanings of the coached person’s words based on his or her own frame of reference. It is important to remember a word may have different connotations for different people.
What a coach needs to do here is to help the coached move beyond generalities and be precise with words, thoughts and emotions. More often than not, I’ve heard the coached using generalised and absolute statements like “I never have enough time” or “Nobody ever listens to me” or “They always reject my ideas.”
I have also heard sentences sprinkled with comparative phrases like ‘more than’, ‘better than’ and ‘less than’. And I have heard people use collective nouns and pronouns that are sweeping rather than specific – “they,” ‘we,” “the stakeholders” and “senior management.” It is also interesting to hear them say “I need to communicate well” or “I need to be healthy” and speak of self-imposed constraints.
Coaches may use a series of clarifying questions to facilitate the process of sharpening the focus. Take for example a time when the coached comes up with a generalised statement like: “My leader always rejects my ideas.” A coach may then ask: “Is it true? How many times in the last six months have your ideas been rejected?” That will help the coached get more clarity.
Similarly, when the coached uses comparative terms like ‘better than’ or ‘more than’, it is imperative that the coach ask “Better than who?” or “More than what?” Or, when collective nouns like “the stakeholders” and “senior management” are used, it may help to ask “Who specifically do you mean?” or “Who in the senior management?”
A good coach will always ask the coached “What do you mean by communicate well? Do you mean you want to articulate ideas well or be brief or listen more and talk less?” And when the coach hears of self-imposed constraints, the attempt should be to discover what exactly the constraints are. Some of my favourite questions which often encourage the coached to challenge their thinking and test these constraints are – According to who? What measure are you using? What is the worst that could happen if you didn’t do this?
Indeed, the clarifying questions often act as a mirror and may help the coached test his or her own beliefs and even re-evaluate his/her thinking. The time spent in ‘digging’ to understand the coached person’s perspective and helping him or her articulate thoughts and ideas with clarity is a useful exercise and may help in saving time and energy in the long run.