Language Selection and the Language of Coaching

by Thomas Doukas (UK)

The use of language (in coaching and beyond) has important implications of the message one conversational partner tries to convey to another and how this message is perceived and acted upon by the listener. Exploring research in psycholinguistics, cognitive science, neuroscience and positive psychology, I present evidence of how language use influences our thinking, behaviours and ultimately, decision making in everyday life. I suggest that, equally, the language selected and used by coaches during their sessions has great impact on the behaviour, overall outlook and direction of the coachee’s agenda, leading to possible change. I believe that such evidence from research outside the coaching field, are valuable for coaches and the application of those findings and principles will benefit one’s coaching practice.

There are several theories on how cognition relates to language and vice versa; from Vygotsky’s interdependence theory (McLeod, 2018a1) to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language determines cognition (Comrie, 20192); and from Piaget’s concept that cognitive development determines language development (McLeod, 2018b3) to Chomsky’s position that these two are independent faculties (Rieber, 19834).

It has been argued, primarily by Chomsky (19655, 19866, 19957), and other proponents of his theory (Smith and Wilson, 19798;  Wexler and Manzini, 19879; Rizzi, 199010); ) that thought is possible without language e.g. many animals can trouble-solve without the use of language; children think and interact before they develop language, although by general admission we normally think in terms of our language, in the sense that our thoughts are pre-packed into words and grammar. Founded on the Safir-Whorf hypothesis, there is a range of scientific evidence in cognitive linguistics suggesting that language can have an indirect effect on cognition (Lakoff, 198711; Jackendoff, 199612; Tomasello, 200313). For example, a study of the language of the Piraha tribe in the Amazon forest (Gordon, 200414) revealed that they only have numerical terms for ‘one’ and ‘two’ and for anything greater than three they use the word ‘many’. Gordon suggested that the lack of precise quantity numbering posed a limitation to their cognitive abilities in this area.

Source: iCN Issue 30  (Group & Team Coaching); pages 53-57