My executive coaching model 4/5: communicating with the whole self.
Executive coaching is about asking questions and helping the client find their own resources. That said, there are as many coaching models as there are coaches and I owe my clients full transparency on my approach.
My executive coaching model is built around 4 principles:
- understanding behaviours systemically;
- coaching with strategic empathy;
- communicating with the whole self;
- helping my clients see the world through a different frame.
Communicating with the whole self helps my coachees build a bridge between what they know and what they feel. A powerful way to gain alignement and confidence.
We cannot not behave, nor can we not communicate.
“All behavior, not only speech, is communication, and all communication – even the communicational clues in an impersonal context – affects behavior.”[i].
Consequently, relationships can be accurately described as communicational feedback loops. It is interesting to see that this representation of communicational patterns is circular, i.e. it has no beginning and no end, whereas, in the coachees’ minds, their behaviour is always triggered by an external cause and follows linear causality. This circular representation frames relational problems in a non-pathological and empowering way: nobody’s a culprit, and everybody can take part in making change happen. I find this framing[ii] much more constructive than “nobody’s innocent”[iii].
The Systemic and Strategic Approach, Transactional Analysis and Gestalt share a common interest for the incongruences between content and intent, digital and analogical communication, information and relation, using different images to help make meaning of what is being communicated and how.
I use all three to raise my clients’ awareness about communication axioms such as: the receiver, not the sender, chooses what meaning to make of a message; how things are said matters often more than what is being said; actions speak louder than words. I particularly appreciate using Transactional Analysis to help decipher conflictual games, symmetrical escalations, crossed transactions. In the later stage of emotional experiment-creation I take my coachees through, Transactional Analysis combined with Gestalt provides an amazing range of experiments I’m only starting to discover, to help them trade a critical parent or a submissive child communication style for an adult one or to review one’s stamp collection[iv].
Discovering the scope and the power of non-verbal language
In 2013, I was asked to give a lecture to help seventy nurses from around the world improve their relationships with patients through non-verbal communication. I remember delving with delight into research about facial expressions, body postures, involuntary gestures, eye contact, proxemics, dress and make-up codes to build an interactive learning experience[v]. I still use many of these learnings in my coaching, especially Amy Cuddy’s experiments according to which taking a power posture for a couple of minutes helps raise one’s level of testosterone, hence authority; or taking a relaxed posture for the same amount of time reduces the level of cortisol, i.e. stress. I practice physical exercises to help myself and my coachees build confidence, credibility and presence before high-stake events. Having tried ideas and experiments for myself increases the level of authenticity of my coaching discussions[vi].
Discovering Gestalt has taken my coaching skills to an entirely new level, “using the body as a vehicle for addressing and extending awareness and emotional intelligence”[vii].
Throughout the my Advanced Coaching studies, I have started reflecting body language and asking questions about incongruent communication. It proved immediately more powerful than noticing them silently. I then discovered in-session embodied experiments such as chair work, walking along my coachee on a continuum, changing places or perspective to see things from a different angle or distance, inviting my client to stay with a sensation, a movement, an emotion[viii]. I have experienced the power of these techniques with my peers and some of my coachees with success and I relish having this vast field of new coaching skills ahead of me.
The very first active listening skill I learnt almost thirty years ago still plays a major role in my signature presence.
Paraphrasing, using the client’s words as much as possible; covering all the ideas, not just those I select; not adding any comment or rhetorical ornament of my own; and adopting a neutral tone, to avoid any underlying judgements, is an art. In my early working years, I would use this technique as a trainer to show the participants I was listening without judging and to encourage them to say more. As I took on coaching, I kept practicing paraphrasing to demonstrate empathetic understanding.
I also pay great attention in mirroring the level of language used by my coachee to match my client’s affective expression with the same intensity[ix].
When a client tells me (s)he is furious, I paraphrase with the same level of speech to show my level of understanding and acceptance of their emotion. If I paraphrase it with un understatement like “I notice you’re cross”, I stand a good chance of receiving a metaphoric boomerang in the face sooner or later. Therefore, unless I make a deliberate choice of making my coachee stay with their furor and push it to its extreme, paraphrasing their affective expression with the same intensity helps building the relationship.
Another Gestalt treasure is self-disclosure, which I found to my utmost surprise an enjoyable way of putting my excessive sensitivity to work.
At first, I felt daunted to bring my internal world into the relationship for I was afraid it would sound narcissistic and draw the focus onto me rather than the coachee. But I reckon that with process instructions, precautions for use[x] and supportive supervision made my apprehension melt like snow in the sun. Now, I truly enjoy asking candidly: “I feel lost here: how about you?” instead of enduring endless technocratic talk I am incapable of making meaning of. The beauty of it is that so far, my coachees have answered things like: “My team give me that feedback too. Maybe I should work on concision, can you help me with that? »
To wrap up this section on self-disclosure, I’d like to mention a personal characteristic I am proud to have made an asset of: my frenchness.
Being a non-native English speaker has long felt like a liability and I have worked hard to improve my English skills until several of my fellow learners gave me enthusiastic feedback after I’d said “We’ve got ten big minutes left” instead of the much more British “We’ve got just over ten minutes left for this session”. On reflection, I realised that using the language slightly inappropriately – yet understandably – creates impactful communication through candid clarification questions and exotically phrased expressions I use like metaphors. It reminds me of one of my favourite teenage readings[xi] based on the hilarious principle of translating idiomatic expressions word for word from French to English and vice versa. I hold this French touch as a precious resource to bring some eccentricity and humour into my signature presence[xii] when coaching in English.
Reconciling your rational and your emotive sides is one of the most valuable things you can expect from coaching.
To read more
[i] Watzlawick, P. Beavin Bavelas, J. Jackson, D. (1967) Pragmatics of human communication: a study of interactional patterns
[ii] Peltier, B. (2010) The psychology of executive coaching, 2nd edn. ; Boutan, E. Aubry, K. (2017) Essaye encore! Déjouer les pièges relationnels au travail
[iii] O’Neill, M.B. (2007) Executive coaching with backbone and heart: a systems approach to engaging leaders with their challenges, 2nd edn.
[iv] James, M., Jongeward, D. (1978) Born to Win: Transactional Analysis with Gestalt Experiments, New York, NY: Signet.
[v] Gevrey-Guinnebault, C. (2014) Et si je faisais bonne impression ! – communication non-verbale mode d’emploi, Paris: Eyrolles.
[vi] Coppock, D. Gillie, M. (2012) ‘Getting personal’, Coaching today, (January 2012), pp. 18-21.
[vii] Leary-Joyce, J. (2014) The fertile void: Gestalt coaching at work, St Albans: AoEC Press.
[viii] Shackleton, M. Gillie, M. (2010) ‘Use of self and self-disclosure in coaching’, AoEC conference 2010.
[ix] Rogers C. R. (1961) On becoming a person: a therapist’s view of psychotherapy
[x] Leary Joyce, op.cit, Shackleton & Gillie, op.cit.
[xi] Chiflet, J. L. (1985), Sky, my husband! The dictionary of the running English, Paris: Seuil.
[xii] O’Neil, op.cit.