What do you really mean?

| 10 November 2023

This article is written for you if you use a coaching approach in your leadership role and was first published in Coaching at Work magazine.

Can you remember back to your very first coach training programme?

What aspect of coaching did you find most challenging?

I remember – nearly 23 years ago now – my strong desire to ‘fix it’ (being overly attached to the outcome of the session); thinking about my next ‘good’ question and worrying that if I didn’t make lots of notes I wouldn’t ‘remember’ anything.

So listening and really hearing what was being said (and not said) went right out of the window.

I had no clue how to work with emotions back then, either (never having done any work on my own).

Of course, the more we practise, the more we take our practice to supervision and the more we do the ‘work on ourselves’ whatever that means for each of us, the more effective we become.

If you’re newly trained in coaching skills, you may recognise some of those same challenges as your own.

But I find even the most experienced coaches can fall into those traps particularly when we’re busy or in a rush.

Something I’ve noticed again and again with my own coaching clients and with the leaders on my Lead with Confidence programmes is the assumptions we make in the coaching space.

Maybe it’s our interpretation of words or phrases. (For example, when someone says ‘I’m a prolific people pleaser’ we ‘think’ we know what they mean, we ‘think’ they want to change it (do they?!) and we ‘think’ we know how to ‘help’ them with our coaching.

Let me give you another example.

My client Jake, head of a growing start-up, was concerned that one of his team had mentioned in three different conversations and emails that she was ‘overwhelmed’.

He was concerned but also frustrated as, in his mind, her productivity wasn’t great and on one occasion when he’d contacted her during the day she’d been catching up on Succession. (‘Well, it’s on in the background’ she said hurriedly when he questioned it!).

He came onto our coaching call wanting to ‘help’ her but also to raise his concerns about her output (or what he saw as lack of it).

But the thing is – he had not yet discovered what that word ‘overwhelm’ meant to her. How it looked, sounded, felt. When it showed up. How it showed up. The impact it had. What she did or didn’t do as a result. Whether it meant she felt a ‘bit busy’ or ‘had a lot on’ or was close to burnout or something else entirely.

‘First seek to understand……… what words or phrases mean to someone else’ is a useful aide-memoire.

We tend to ‘assume’ we understand words like ‘overwhelm’ but of course we are seeing the word from our own perspective and map of the world rather than exploring the other person’s perspective and meaning. So we’re interpreting and coming to conclusions rather than exploring further.

Another example – how often have you received feedback about something but you’re not actually sure what is meant? Or you’ve made an assumption about the meaning. (This happens frequently in 360-degree feedback reports, I find!).

One of my clients was frustrated that she was getting ‘bombarded’ by emails from her team members and she felt stuck in the operational detail as a result.

When we unpicked this, it transpired that my client had told her team that she likes to be ‘kept in the loop’ and the team members had assumed that to mean ‘tell her everything that’s going on.’

In this case, if my client had been crystal clear on what she meant by being ‘kept in the loop’ this situation would never have arisen. (What she actually meant, it transpired, was ‘give me a one paragraph heads-up of how your projects are going’ – who knew?!)

It’s supremely important I believe to also hear the assumptions explicit in someone’s language.

Jenna (not her real name) is on my current 90-day leadership programme and she’d described some challenges with one of her peer’s behaviours in meetings. She’d been able to shift this relationship quite significantly during our time together but last week she talked about another colleague who was not meeting deadlines and she wanted to ‘tackle it’. (note: isn’t it interesting when you see a situation playing out not once but twice…. What might we need to unpick, explore, discover about Jenna’s approach, beliefs, way of being with people at work?).

These were some of the words she used about this colleague:

‘If I don’t have it out with her, it will make things worse’.

‘She’ll lash out and be aggressive’.

‘I need to tackle the behaviour head on. But If I challenge the behaviour, it could mean things go really pear shaped’

‘It might be easier to say nothing and then just pick up the pieces’.

So much to go on right there!

What do you notice?

I noticed what I described as the language of the battleground. (We did quite a bit to unpick that.).

I noticed her thoughts/assumptions about the situation – disguised as facts.

Will it make things worse?

Will she lash out and be aggressive?

Will things go pear shaped?

Well, if we go into battle, it’s quite likely that all of those things might happen.

It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But if we don’t?

(One of the greatest gifts we can give the people we coach is to help them see their disguised as ‘the truth’).

Some useful questions to explore, here:

How are those thoughts helping them?

Where are they getting in the way? What other thoughts might serve this situation better?

As we unpicked those questions in the group, I noticed some of the group getting overly fixated on Jenna’s colleague.

Another hole to fall into!

We can only work with the person in the coaching conversation with us at that moment.

So, stick with Jenna!

Let’s see how Jenna’s assumptions are playing out and what might be going on – playful curiosity, space to think and explore and imagine.

With time to think and feel her way into all of this, , Jenna had a spark of insight. ‘I’ve just realised – she needs to be recognised’. (And guess what – it transpired that Jenna didn’t feel recognised, either.).

When our needs aren’t met it can play out in all sorts of ways.

So, my three encouragements for us today are:

Pay attention to language and don’t assume you know what it means.

Use the language of the person you’re coaching rather than interpreting what you think they’re saying.

Help the people you coach notice their ‘thoughts disguised as facts’. (And while we’re at it, notice your own!).

Words create worlds.