How context influences our language
Language is a powerful tool in coaching – and perhaps one of the most challenging to master. It is through our communication and choice of words that we can create the conversational framework necessary for a smooth and fruitful process. Language is where everything comes together. Our ability to listen, generate clear and succinct statements, construct a simple question, or simply share an acknowledgment with the coachee, all comes down to how well we can craft our language.
It is through language that we build trust. It is through language that we connect. It is through language that we can open doors, widen horizons, challenge the coachee, and support them into action. It is through language that we build partnerships. And while there are some best practices a coach needs to master, one of the hardest concepts to understand is how it all depends on context.
Coachees come from different environments, backgrounds, and perspectives. They all have different ways of thinking, levels of resilience, and acceptance. And therefore, what works for one person, will not necessarily work for another. What is an absolute “no” to one, will perhaps be an absolute “yes” to another.
Take for example the concept of open-ended questions. Of course, we all know the power behind a question that gives the coachee complete freedom to go deeper and invites them into a wider exploration of their situation. A coach must have complete ease in their ability to ask open-ended questions. However, as important as this skill is to a coach, there are moments in coaching where a close-ended question is the most powerful question to ask.
Sometimes we rebuff “why” questions and talk about it almost to the point of demonizing it. But in fact, it may come a time when a simple “why” is all the coachee needs in the moment.
Presently, especially here in North America, we are experiencing a moment when we are becoming more aware of how certain terms and language usage can negatively affect people. This is a breakthrough in so many areas of acceptance, inclusion, and respect for one another. It is a welcome awakening to our cultural and collective consciousness.
Words have power...
Words have power and it is important that we are mindful of what we say and to whom we say it. However, in coaching, we need to be cautious of drawing hard lines around particular actions or terms we use, forgetting that context may change everything.
Take, for example, the word “need”. This is a word that can put the client into survival mode, almost pushing them into a corner and adding stress, rather than a wider sense of possibility. Yes, to this awareness. And, yes also to the idea that perhaps, at times, using the word “need” can be a powerful way to bring the coachee a sense of ownership and determination.
That’s why in coaching we must be careful with black-and-white thinking, where dogmas start to cripple us of our authentic and spontaneous presence. In coaching, it all depends.
This level of flexibility in our language and attitudes towards our coachees is no excuse for sloppy technique. Intentionality is paramount. A Masterful Coach wants to have their tools always sharpened and ready. But I am weary of the practice of over-identifying specifics and singling out certain outcast words that cannot be used. It seems a bit too dogmatic and fundamentalist to me.
Coaching is about the human experience which can be messy, unpredictable, and often surprising. I doubt one rule will always be right. More than behavior 1, 2, or 3, the evidence of mastery is in the preparedness, the intentionality, and the mindset we bring when we dare to stand in front of our coachees. That is the art we strive for including in our use of language.
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As a mentor coach, I am always giving feedback to my students and mentees helping them develop their coaching skills and prepare for their certification with the ICF. ForCoaches is a place where I can publicly share some of my insights and experiences. What does it mean to be a truly effective coach?