In coaching, we talk and listen. We interrupt sometimes and stay silent at other times. How do we know when we’ve got the balance right, when we’re not letting the client talk too much, not interrupting at the wrong times, and when we aren’t taking up too much airtime ourselves?
The basic elements of any conversation - listening, speaking, interrupting, and staying silent. We use them all in coaching and each one isn’t hard to do. The art is knowing when. When to listen and then listen some more? When to interrupt and insert something into the conversation? And what should you insert, a question or observation and how short or long should that take? When to allow for complete silence when neither you nor the client is speaking?
I wish there were some simple answers to this. I wish I could say that the coach should speak 25% of the time, or that the coach should always interrupt when the client has been talking for more than a minute. But, of course, coaching conversations are complex and unpredictable. More improv than script.
I think it’s helpful to go back to the basics and reground ourselves in the purpose of the coaching conversation and the role of the coach and client.
Here’s what I’ve come up with.
The purpose of the coaching conversation is for the client to make progress on the agenda they bring to the table, by creating new awareness or learning that allows them to move beyond their current thinking, and then commit to actions that will continue to move them forward after the coaching session is complete. This is done in the context of moving them towards the larger goals they set for themselves when they agreed to a coaching relationship.
The art of coaching is to partner with your client to create what she needs to make the progress she want to make.
The role of the client is to be very self-centered, to be thinking about herself, talking about herself, remembering her past, and imagining the future.
The role of the coach is to be present and respond to the client while create the pathways to help the client to explore beyond their current thinking. The coach is keeping the discussion on track, and following the structure of “beginning, middle and end” of the coaching conversation. The coach also weaves together the current agenda with the client’s larger goals.
There’s no formula or algorithm that can describe what this sounds like. It’s improv, remember.
But here are some ideas of when the coach should be interrupting:
When the client has gotten off track. She said she wanted to talk about her boss, now she’s talking about a colleague. Interrupt to negotiate which path she wants to be on. This is a quick trip back to Establishing the Coaching Agreement!
When you’ve heard the story before or she’s completed a cycle of logic that has her right where she started from. This is also a good time to interrupt and engage because your job is to help her find some new ways of thinking, not allow her to retrace the old paths.
When the client takes off talking before you’ve had a chance to set the agenda. Interrupt to create the structure that makes coaching a purposeful conversation - what’s the topic? what do you want from our conversation today? what’s important about that? what do you need to work on to make progress? where shall we begin?
And here are some times when you should refrain from speaking:
When you’ve asked a question and the client doesn’t answer right away. Don’t assume they didn’t understand and jump in to correct yourself. They’ll let you know if they’re confused. Silence usually means they are thinking, that they didn’t know the answer! This is a good thing. Give them as much silent time as they need to come up with an answer.
When you think of a great idea, that comes from your own experience, that you think the client “must know” or you believe will rock their world, and your tempted to share. Keep it to yourself for a little while. Reconnect with where your client is now, because being captured by your great idea has certainly taken you away from the present and your connection to the client. Ask another question or two. If your idea still has legs, share it with the client in no more than 2 sentences. Then ask them what they think about what you shared. Was it helpful? How can they use it to move them forward?
The best way to know how well you’re navigating a coaching conversation is to listen. Yes, that means to record a coaching conversation and listen. What should you listen for? Great question. I’ll talk about that in my next post.