by Peter Zoeftig (UK)
1st Part of the article appears in the 27th edition magazine “Using NLP in Coaching” on pages
This article lays out how using ‘embodied’ coaching techniques can be used to lead and pace clients, advocating a ‘natural approach’ and conversational style that accelerates the acquisition of new habits and leads to better attentive listening, developing good processing and later, better performance in real life situations. I make reference to language techniques as an understanding of how language operates in affecting change – in conversational therapy and NLP and also general life coaching – is crucial to getting good outcomes, be it for health, relationship, work or other reasons.
The art of listening
In a coaching model, we need to have access to what is going on in the clients’ heads in order to lead them further towards their goals – as opposed to just telling them where to go next. I call this approach ‘outcomes-based’ because it places the coachee’s own desired outcomes at the centre, whatever the ultimate goal might be. Listening to how the inner dialogue is changing (and thus seeing the mental map that the client is acquiring) is key to helping this process, and at the centre of this is the coach’s ability to listen appreciatively and attentively, which can also dramatically alter how the clients then listen to themselves and others.
Listening is an art, and one that is integral to the success of any programme. When we listen actively, we show our client that they are being listened to with an appreciative ear and that we are noticing what is emerging from their own thought processes. In other words, when we listen actively we are aware not only of the message being communicated, but also of the thinking behind it. The simple ‘mechanics’ of active listening are: eye contact, asking supportive questions and listening to the end of what the person is attempting to say, and then summarising, perhaps using the formula ‘If I understand correctly, …’. Added to this is an awareness of body language, noticing facial expressions, nodding, matching posture, etc. Many coaches will be familiar with these ideas. However, there is more to it than just the mechanics. As Carl Rogers(2) has pointed out, listening is a growth experience for both parties, because, when people are listened to sensitively, they tend to listen to themselves with more care and to make clear exactly what they are feeling and thinking: ‘Not the least important result of listening is the change that takes place within the listener himself … listening tends to alter constructively the attitudes of the listener.’ My point here is that the changes take place in the learner by dint of the approach used by the skilled coach, and that while evaluation must be made of the learner’s performance, the listening approach should enhance the acquisition process, rather than create a negative feeling.
Types of listening
Carl Rogers and Richard Farson distinguish between different types of listening. The first is internal listening, where we listen to the words of the other person, but our attention is on what this means to us personally. In a formal context, the coach is often merely receiving information from within him/herself, not really listening to the content but consciously or subconsciously correcting something. The question of how to transfer the change to the client so that they learn from it and are able to grow, rather than simply feeling that they were wrong in a way that they don’t understand, is critical here.
A second type is focused listening, where we give all our attention to the other person. When we do this, as coaches or ordinary listeners, we realise that we have a reduced awareness of the outside world since we are focusing on receiving information. Often, this is because we are noting down points we wish to return to later. However, this leaves open to us a more valuable insight, that of how the client’s mind is working – if we pay attention to the right things.
A third kind of listening is global listening, where we also receive information from the context and environment in which a conversation is taking place. If we, as coaches, are good listeners, we can help our clients to be good listeners, too. We believe this is important because it will help them with the acquisition of new understanding and self-composition. However, if we are not good listeners ourselves, it will be difficult for us to tell whether our clients are listening well or not.
Is asking them a question to obtain confirmation of their comprehension of a new level of processing, enough to know if they have really acquired it? In coaching terms, the answer is no. We must be able to pay attention to the deeper processes at work. This will help us to anchor those ‘eureka’ moments when the coachee gets the right feeling for what they need.
From listening to learning
It is crucial to know how a person is listening – by somehow getting inside their minds. Otto Scharmer’s work(3) tells us more about shifting the structure of our attention and how various types of listening can affect deeper understanding, better processing and, ultimately, more successful self-composing and performing. Scharmer also talks in terms of different types or levels of listening.
Firstly, there is a process of listening that he calls ‘downloading’, rather like parrot-fashion repetition of new language, in which habitual judgments about what we ‘already know to be true’ are reconfirmed. For the client, as for the coach, this path is loaded with all kinds of false knowledge and potential pitfalls, from the ‘What did I tell you yesterday?’ syndrome, to the coachees’ own view that they ‘have seen it all before’. However, from this listening standpoint, the coach can evaluate the problem, in practice, this means that the coach can see if an idea is being repeated parrot-fashion (and therefore probably without really knowing how or when to use it) and so help the client better.
Scharmer’s second level of listening is empathetic listening, or the capacity to connect directly to another person, which implies a shift beyond the boundaries of our mental-cognitive organisation. It enables us to begin to see how the world unfolds through someone else’s eyes.
At a third level, he mentions generative listening, which requires us to access our capacity to connect openly to future possibilities that are trying to emerge.
All these styles are fundamental to what I am advocating here, and reinforce what has been written about generative learning. Both client and coach are getting their ‘old’ self out of the way, in order to open a space that allows for a different sense of ‘presence’ to manifest. So, if we have noted what is changing, where, when and how this is happening (ie in what contexts, in what ways the right and wrong forms of language – linguistically and culturally speaking – appear) we can reiterate and repeat these, drawing attention to the models we want to encourage and, just as importantly, the ones that the client needs to improve. By referencing the client’s growing awareness of goals and the targets that they want to emulate, we are in effect listening to our clients and joining them along their journey.
Techniques for listening
The author and coach, Nancy Kline(4) provides a good list of what not to do when listening, which is useful in helping us eliminate bad habits. These include:
- Don’t finish the clients’ sentences.
- Don’t interrupt them in mid-sentence.
- Don’t look overly critical.
- Don’t fill in the pauses with your own stories and anecdotes.
- Don’t add information and ‘rules to follow’ during these listening phases.
- Don’t distract the client (e.g. by – perhaps unintentionally – looking at the clock, sighing, frowning, etc.).
One of the worst things we do when listening is to give advice. It is important that we don’t put our own belief systems in the way of the authentic and valid experience that the other person is going through. Often, giving advice merely goes over the head of the coachee, or conflicts with what they feel they know or what is self-evident. Telling or advising someone to do something is not the same as enabling them to understand and do it.
Many find it helpful to reformulate what a client has said: ‘From what you’ve just said, I understand that you wish to… If I have understood you correctly, you are saying that….’ We may also encourage them to use rephrasing in order to re-frame ideas and state them clearly. In addition, they use and teach bridging expressions, such as in order to be clear and so that there is no misunderstanding, and these expressions are conducive to good listening. When used with questions, such as ‘When you say that you are demotivated, what are you referring to exactly?’, they bring about a deeper thinking and listening process. They need, however, to be used in a listening environment that has been sensitively set up.
From process to performance
As Laura Whitworth and her colleagues (5) assert in their book on co-active coaching, ‘the story being told belongs to the speaker, and not the listener’. Rectifying the lapses and ‘mistakes’ made by a client, when these are the fruit of painstaking processing and faulty composition, means reinforcing a problem by repeating the ‘correct’ forms ad infinitum. Clients who are made to do this (or who are given handouts of the ‘advisable behaviour’ or of ‘new/better’ ideas to ‘learn’) often cannot assimilate this information at all, as we see so often. It is known that people have difficulty taking in and retaining more than seven items of information at a time. This means that we should try to address how our clients acquire new skills, rather than overloading them with huge quantities of material to absorb. In other words, we should aid the process of acquisition and understanding in a way that will lead to skilful performance, but not by pushing parrot-like behavioural change.
What I am advocating is listening to the evolving process to the clients (as it emerges in speech and action) and drawing attention to new aspects of this carefully and in the rhythm most suited to them, thereby leading gracefully from the ‘listening together’ phase to a clearer understanding. The coach should not move on to new material too quickly or until the client have grasped what is being practised and is starting to use it more skilfully. This can be achieved by having them adapt and convert the points to express their own content. Helping clients to listen to themselves and to others who are perceived as good models, can result in improved performance.
The key is to provide time for more examples, and in different contexts, rather than moving on to new and unconnected ones and piling on masses of new work. The more time given to one point, promoting a widening awareness of that point through the careful selection of associated models, the better: just as a laptop works better when it has had all the extraneous programs running in parallel temporarily switched off, allowing energy and space to be given to the one program that needs it. Conscious ‘planning’ or rapid shifts may not leave time and space to the processing needs of the client.
By spending more time listening to our clients (and not rushing them through the next hoop), we will lead them better to where they need to be. Clients in turn should be encouraged, using this attentive and appreciative approach, to listen to themselves and to pay attention to their personal inner dialogue to learn how the processing of new inner dialogue is being integrated into active use.
I use these techniques with success in leadership and management skills where the degree of use of different processing channels is very different according to the person. Managers tend to focus down and inwardly onto a constructed problem; leaders tend to focus up and externally onto a visualised solution. Listening to how this is done in each case and experimenting with switching channels can lead to interesting new perspectives for both.
People with different kinds of phobias, such as fear of speaking to assembled groups in closed spaces, for example, can show the same physical symptoms (sweating, broken voice, short-term memory loss, allergic response, etc.) simply by thinking about the situation or talking about it, as when they are actually in it. I work successfully with people in overcoming this. One way is to elicit (typical Ericksonian method!) what other situations they enjoy and feel resourceful in and then anchor these images, sounds and feelings in indirect ways. I did this with an otherwise highly successful business leader, who I discovered was very happy when fishing at weekends with his friends, and had very powerful associations with the images of the fish being barbecued and the gentle swaying of the boat on the lake. By obtaining a reaction of gentle swaying, the smell of the barbecue on the camp fire, and the idea that his listeners were fish-headed, he completely forgot his problem; it was the time taken to access this deeply and listen to him telling me about it, that was the key.
I have worked with a person suffering from an immunological abreaction (PANS) to Strep infection, causing tics and OCD, alongside medical and nutritional approaches to treatment. By attentive listening, I uncovered that the lack of friendship and associated feelings of loneliness and dark fears and imaginings, was associated with an inner dialogue and anchored feelings, which mirrored in many ways the behaviour of the T-cells. Whilst this kind of work is exploratory, reflecting what Robert Dilts has done in treating allergies(6) and employing the protocols of Reimprinting, Reframing, Beliefs, Change Personal History, and the Allergy Process, seem to be producing good results, and the client is looking and feeling happier and healthier and has realised the positive intention of her ailment as a protective force going forward. This has changed her feelings and her reactions.
I work regularly with managers and leaders who need to overcome problems of miscommunication – frequent where English is the lingua franca for business dealings between people of many different language backgrounds. Listening to what the other person’s sacred ground is, without judgment, finding ground for exploration and working up from stable common ground agreements, is a practicable skill that – however – can be lost in the emotional ‘heat of the moment’. Being able not only to step back from a problem in one’s mind, but having the firmly-anchored physical resources for doing so, are actually very different indeed. In all cases, I advocate attentive listening and the transferring of positive emerging feelings and thoughts into a physical response.
Any kind of disruption – destabilisation – causes difficulty. So much today is premised on the idea of ‘positive change’ and this conceals a number of secret agendas, some within the mind or the body of the client, manifesting as ‘inner terrorists’ and others in the outside world as camouflaged attempts to gain the upper hand or derail another person, either consciously or unconsciously in the rather sociopathic organisations that are set up to create our current ‘reality’. Understanding – by attentive listening – what this has created mentally and physically for the coachee, allows us to look for physical answers. As has been said, dancing, painting, walking, playing music, other physical skills – or growing African Violets to give to others – can resolve the lack of meaning so many experience. Which activity is ‘right’ will depend on how closely you have been listening.
To return to a question that we asked at the beginning, namely, the methodology for how to make a total physical response method apply to complex situations, whilst retaining the elements of good fun, veracity, and intellectual challenge, ensuring that good usage is anchored within the coachee’s deep process, and overcome some of his/her conscious and unconscious objections. Since the ability to ask questions enables communication, and, since this is in itself satisfying, and also, given that there are different levels of questioning, it’s important to know what these levels are so that we can approach each client by listening attentively to where they are going in their own processing of the new language and experience then connect in in a deeper physical response that engages sight, sound, smell, and movement. The benefit and sense of wellbeing comes from doing it.
As Robert Dilts has explained(7) people begin by accessing the questions or time and space relating to when we do things and where we do them. Most people have a common perception of this, although it is coloured by cultural distinctions and expectations. At a higher neurological level, we talk and think about what we’re doing, and explain how we’re doing that. In all these cases, we have the use of basic syntax, involving, verbs, subjects, predicates, objects and complements. However, the key area where people and peoples differ is in how they do something, according to their own belief system, and this refers to language in particular, since how we use language depends entirely on which language we are using! The question of ‘how?’ is therefore a more complex question; and, by extension, the question of why we do that is more complex and still depends entirely on who we are, our identity, our sense of self, our cultural persona. Understanding this in a sensitive way and listening to the gradually changing processes of language in each of our clients (as they access the experience), we get to know who we are dealing with, and why they make the mistakes that they do. If we wish to anchor a new belief – with all its personal feelings and cultural overtones, and specific notions – it’s important that every coachee gets the chance to experience that in a physical way and get a real feel for it on every level. The more enjoyable and deep this experience, the better the outcome.
The writers I have mentioned in this article are renowned for the impact their ideas have been having in the world of health, business and relationships. These ideas have created tangible improvements in communications which have led to fundamental changes in thinking and performing, resulting in massive benefits in levels of satisfaction. This is part of the rapidly-changing view that we as coaches, can make a life-changing contribution to our clients and their current and future relationships with themselves, their family, friends, employers, colleagues and customers.
(1) Asher: 1969, p. 5 Asher, J.J. (1969). ‘The Total Physical Response Approach to Second Language Learning’.
(2) Rogers, C and Farson, R ‘Active listening’ In Newman, R G, Danzinger, M A and Cohen, M (Eds) Communicating in Business Today Heath and Company 1987
(3) Scharmer, O Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges Berrett-Koehler Publishers 2009
(4) Kline, N Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind Hachette 1999
(5) Whitworth, L, Kimsey-House, K, Kimsey-House, H and Sandahl, P Co-Active Coaching Davies-Black Publishing 2007