Coaching Blog – Language That Passes All Understanding

Martin Hill, Senior Tutor, BSC
Martin Hill, Senior Tutor, BSC

A recent trip to deliver a presentation at the launch of the British School of Coaching’s UAE Network proved to be an interesting source of learning on several levels, but perhaps the most interesting reflection that it prompted was the use of language in coaching.

What started this thought process of was my arrival at the airport – the choice of “terminal” is hardly a confidence – building descriptive to use; and why when I am arriving have I got to go to departures? Despite there being a myriad of languages and cultures represented amongst the airport customers, it was surprising to observe how quickly everyone adapted and conformed – and also the various “coping strategies” that were being used. People watching led me to observe the following styles:

  • The Organiser- everything planned to the last iota – focused, determined, sometimes to the point of being oblivious to anyone else’s needs. Usually armed with a checklist or itinerary that is frequently consulted. Sometimes thrown by unexpected changes or events (unless a true organiser, in which case even if these unexpected events were anticipated and planned for).
  • The Follower- usually, but not exclusively, seen in association with The Organiser above. Interesting to reflect on whether they are a willing or “press ganged” follower. Works best when there is a clear and well communicated joint strategy between organiser and follower – often not there with family groups (main disparity often being between husband and wife).
  • The Worrier- determined to see everything from the “worst case” scenario. Worrying about possible “what if’s” from a negative perspective means that they have little chance to engage and enjoy in the “here and now”- for example, are given a flight upgrade, but are still worrying about whether will land safely etc, etc.
  • The Optimist- calm, adaptive and flexible approach. Usually they have a general plan in mind, but are not fazed by unexpected changes, simply accepting them and quickly adapting to the new parameters.

All of the above made me reflect on how similar the airport scenario described above was with a coaching session. Both have a common goal (or destination) and the clients undertaking that journey often display some of the same behaviour types as those outlined above. That made me think about what gets in the way, and realise that sometimes what causes the issue is the language – assumptions are made by both coach and client as to the meaning of a particular word or phrase, but this is often not checked out. This is further exacerbated when we bring in the tour operator (or manager/supervisor) and discover that they have a different understanding of the same word.

Does this strike you as an artificial scenario? Well, it is probably not that uncommon. Just think back on a coaching intervention involving a 3- way contracting scenario (coach, client and sponsor). If you can, think of a successful and an unsuccessful coaching session – what was the difference? I would venture an informed guess that the unsuccessful session featured a difference in understanding of goal/destination and/or some other misunderstanding caused by communication. Sometimes this may have been between coach and client – often it is clear between coach and client, but differs from what the sponsor thought that they had agreed with coach and/or client. For example, in a recent group supervision session I simply put one word as the topic for discussion –“Endings”. A simple word , that everyone understands? It was interesting to note that this one word generated 6-8 different meanings from the coaches present- what made some of the difference was the perspective for each person’s definition; the client-context which they were relating it to and also the experience of each.

What can you do as a coach to ensure that the destination is safely reached and a successful and enjoyable journey for all? Even the most simple of language can have different meanings for the people involved – always check out understanding – not just of the client in the room, but also for the sponsor and anyone else potentially impacted by that particular coaching relationship. The greater clarity that there is in describing the goal/destination; the greater the chance of success. Remember what Oscar Wilde said about assumption: “When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me”.

Martin Hill LL.B (Hons), FInstLM, FISQC, MAC, EMCC Member, Coach &Coach Supervisor

Faculty Member

Programme Director for ILM Level 7 Executive Coaching & Mentoring Programmes

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