We speak the same language…don’t we?


As a coach, have you ever had a client look at you strangely or ask you to repeat a question? As a mentor, I listen to many coaching session recordings. Often in these situations, I notice that the ‘language’ the two people are using is not necessarily in synch. Let's take a look at the way we use language as coaches and where the ‘language of coaching’ may trip us up as we work with our clients.

Language, in both its written and spoken form, is used for many different reasons. Its primary use is to be informative, expressive, and often directive in nature (and rarely directive by coaches). We use language to reason, to express ideas, to argue a point, to provide directions, and so much more.

The unique and diverse methods which human beings use to communicate are a large part of what allow us to harness our innate ability to form lasting bonds with one another. In coaching terms, it is often that which helps us ‘cultivate trust and safety’ in our relationships.

Think about it—when we first learn to coach, we learn a set of models to give structure to our coaching conversations. At the beginning, and in the days of our unconscious and conscious incompetence, we use the models as a safety blanket. Over time, as we move up the scale to conscious competence and then reach unconscious competence, we can remove the blanket and we no longer ‘hear’ the model being used in our coaching conversations.

What I have been noticing when working with coaches who are taking their coaching to the next level is that the models aren’t necessarily there, but often the ‘language’ of coaching still is. I’ve been wondering, what may be behind this?

I sense that one cause may be the language of the PCC markers. In order to move the coaching forward and develop ourselves, the markers are a wonderful tool which provide the ‘language’ for us to understand and evidence our behaviours and competencies as a coach. However, the PCC markers were never designed to be a model to create a coaching conversation or to be the verbatim questions we should be asking our clients/coachees.

Just as in the early days of a coach’s development, where models may be used too rigidly, coaches are also tending to use the language of the markers too rigidly. A common example is in the following current competency and associated PCC marker:

9.4 – Coach assists the client to design the best methods of accountability for her/himself.

Or in the updated Core Competency model:

8.2 – Partners with the clients to design goals, actions and accountability measures that integrate and expand new learning.

Too often, I hear this being said as ‘How will you hold yourself accountable for that action’? My question then is: in normal conversation would we really say that, and say it that way? Clearly it depends on context, however, there are many other ways that you can ask that question. It could simply be ‘How will you ensure you do that?’ This would then lead nicely on to look at barriers and resources: 'What might get in the way?’, ‘who else needs to be involved?’ or ‘what other support might you need?’ etc.

Another area I notice the language of the markers /competencies creeping in is in the area of Establishes and Maintains Agreements. For example, in the current PCC markers:

2.3 - Coach explores what is important or meaningful to the client about what they want to accomplish in the session.

Often the question is simply asked: ‘What is important about that outcome?’, which in itself is okay as a question, however it doesn’t truly address the word explores in the competency marker and many times it is also asked too soon. Using more everyday language for these questions such as: ‘What has brought this to our coaching conversation today?’; ‘What will you be able to do with the answers you come up with?‘ or ‘How will exploring this help you?’, would more likely evoke greater insights and depth. Indeed, the word exploration is encouraging more than one question to be asked.

To avoid what I call 'coach speak,' I recommend looking at the PCC markers and thinking of a question, comment or observation for each one that you could ask in plain and simple language. It’s not that you should only ask that question, comment or observation, but demonstrate that you can use everyday language that evidences the associated marker in a more natural and conversational way.

Using everyday language is more likely to get beneath the surface of the topic and the possible outcome the client is wanting to achieve. This can help you coach the person, not the problem—a much deeper level of coaching.

The language and way our clients speak is a gift that we, as coaches, often don’t unwrap. Our clients’ use of language can be a doorway to new insight for them. As human beings, we speak a lot in metaphor. Using the client’s language, including their metaphorical speech patterns and terms, will enable a closer coach-client alignment and greater trust and safety (CC4) will be achieved.

If we are more creative and connected to our client’s language, our questions, observations and comments can be simplified, and they may land more easily. They may not require justification, pre-amble or repetition. I would offer that a great approach is simply to pause, work out what’s going on in your own head silently and formulate a simple and single question, comment or observation. The pre-amble may simply be a coach’s way of working through what the question should be. Use the valuable mnemonic of W.A.I.T (Why Am I Talking?).

In essence, if we continue to speak ‘the language of coaches’ to our clients they may not really understand what it is we are saying or asking. Let’s truly partner with our clients in their language and honour their identity (CC1.2) and use the language that is appropriate and respectful to our clients (CC1.3). Let’s make sure our Coaching Mindset (CC2) is one that is open, curious, flexible and client-centred. Let’s be creative and find the language that means we can have interesting, diverse and stimulating conversations with our clients to support them to achieve even greater potential, deeper insights and greater outcomes.

Hilary Oliver is a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) with the International Coaching Federation (ICF). She is also a trained Coaching Supervisor and Mentor Coach. Hilary trains coaches and works with managers and leaders to develop their coaching capability. She works as an international Corporate Executive and Board Level Coach, a leadership development designer and facilitator working with a wide range of organisations. Hilary also specialises in working with organisations to support them develop coaching culture. She has been the President of the UK ICF and is a Past Chair of the ICF Global Board.

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