Are we paying the right kind of attention, as coaches, to the language that passes between us and our clients? I suspect not!
In one sense, of course, it’s axiomatic that experienced coaches pay close attention to language – for example, to noticing particularly ‘loaded’ words and phrases the client uses, and playing them back or enquiring directly in to their significance; or giving preference to open questions and avoiding the use of multiple or loaded questions; to noticing recurring patterns, themes or metaphors that come up as the client speaks; even, for some colleagues who have studied Neuro-Linquistic Programming (Bandler and Grinder, 1990), to using embedded commands and other forms of ‘hypnotic’ language. Important and effective though these approaches might be sometimes, they nevertheless treat language and speech as ‘cognitive abstractions’ that can be applied instrumentally, irrespective of the coach and client who are uniquely in relationship.
However, we don’t often consider language as an embodied action. Yet the body is always intimately implicated in the moment of utterance – most markedly in the process of breathing. Our breath carries our language, and is inseparable from it. From the speaker’s perspective, the bodily rhythms of breathing and the physicality of bodily shifts between listening, thinking, concentrating, relaxing and talking are intricately intertwined. From the listener’s perspective, letting another’s words resonate within us and impact us is the essence of a caring relationship, yet even as we listen, our bodies respond to the other’s language – in our facial expression, our posture, our gesturing and our breathing. As we listen, we hold our breath when anxious, we exhale to release tension, we deepen our breathing when we open to feelings, we stop our breathing when we want to block emotion…
In a client conversation, instead of listening to the coachee’s words and formulating our next question, what if we pay more attention to our own embodied responses to our clients – and allow our sense of the client’s body – to call forth an utterly different kind of language?
A while back, I was coaching a CEO – a partner of a thriving Anglo-Chinese business – who had been struggling with developing a European business strategy. He and his director team had no shortage of ideas. However, it seemed impossible for him to decide on any way forward.
I noticed that he kept gazing blankly at an empty chair beside him, and as I allowed myself to become interested in this, while listening to him, I recalled that the other 50% shareholder in the business was his Chinese partner, based in Shanghai. Rather than talk further, I asked if we could have a moment’s silence to ‘feel’ (emotion is always an embodied response) the weight of this issue. Fleetingly, I felt lonely, and from this clue, intuitively I asked my client if he believed he had his partner’s ‘blessing’ to expand into Europe? He paused, put down his pen, fixed me in his gaze, and went quiet for some time. We then continued talking – but at our next meeting a month later, he began by telling me that straight after our last session he had booked a flight to China and asked his partner for his ‘blessing’ on the European strategy, after which he found more confidence in the company’s intended direction. He shared that my rather poetic word, ‘blessing,’ was so appropriate that he decided to use it. The word not only seemed to him to be culturally sensitive, but also expressed something important and unspoken about the systemic relationship – the act of asking for his business partner’s blessing also respectfully acknowledged a subtle but unspoken hierarchy between them – although they were equal partners in shareholding, the business had originally been founded by the Chinese partner.
The phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1962) noted that words are like new senses, opening up new worlds to us. He described a sentence as ‘an organism of words, establishing in the writer or the reader as a new sense organ, opening a new field or a new dimension to our experience.’ When I asked my CEO client if he believed he had his partner’s ‘blessing’ to develop a new European business plan, this word opened a new and previously unconsidered dimension of the systemic relationship between him, his partner and their business. At the moment of utterance, my client’s body registered a change – he exhaled, he sat upright, stopped moving, made more direct eye-contact with me… and I think it is significant that he went to China to convey the word in person to his business partner. The language itself created new action-possibilities, which were embedded and embodied in our coach-client and their client-partner relationships.
Corporate life asks much of us. Executives and Directors are frequently asked to explore issues of purpose, of passion, of belonging and betrayal, of stability and uncertainty and of many other intensely personal and deeply-felt dilemmas. Yet business language is so inadequate when it comes to articulating the intimacy of human experience that often underlies so many client issues.
Consequently, I often draw on a more poetic vocabulary that does justice to the depth of our experience as people. I might talk about love, or grace, or hate, or other terms from a lexicon that has more majesty or elegance to it than corporate-speak, so that the possibility for new forms of thought and action are possible. The coach’s ability to shift between, or to synthesise poetic and scientific registers, can be transformational of the client’s experience – and I believe the source of this ability is not in asking slicker questions, but rather in ‘ getting out of our minds and coming to our senses’ as Fritz Perls once said. How might your coaching be affected, if you allowed yourself to see language as an embodied action that arises in the quiet moments of your client relationship?