The importance of understanding in coaching
Misunderstandings are a normal part of most conversations and relationships. We’ve found that most people are forgiving of the occasional misunderstanding if they sense that the other person is really trying or that on balance they understand more often than they get it wrong. However, misunderstanding someone too much, over too long a period, creates mistrust and uncertainty – people will simply give up trying to make themselves understood if they don’t see the point. As soon as this happens the coach has lost the relationship.
The good news is that coaches have multiple tools to help them make sure they understand.
First of all, we can listen. What is the situation? Who is involved? What is the real problem/ point of frustration/ desired outcome? Is the language used by the coachee positive or negative? How do they sound when they are speaking – excited, clear or confident? Or is there hesitation, repetition or vagueness?
Secondly, we can observe. How animated is the coachee when they are talking? Does that change depending on what they are saying? What gestures are they using and does this change when they are speaking about different things?
The third tool is our intuition. We can sense things, often beyond rational understanding. Sometimes we might pick up a sense or feeling that may be at odds with what someone is saying, or we may feel energised or deflated, sad or happy as someone is speaking.
For the first three tools, we find the following approach works well: “When you were speaking I noticed/sensed that your tone/ body language changed … you seemed much more excited by ‘x’ than by ‘y’ – is that right?” And if they say “Yes” you can follow up with “Do you know why that might be?” Sometimes just sharing this observation can be enough to help a coachee make positive progress. And if they say “No”, or hesitate for a long period of time, the coach may have picked things up incorrectly and can follow up with “Have I misunderstood something?”
Asking clarifying questions
The fourth tool is asking clarifying questions. “Can I check I have understood you correctly?”. Repeat back a summary of what you think you have understood and ask: “Have I got that right?” and see what their reaction is. Hesitancy doesn’t always mean you have got it wrong. Or “It sounds like…” and then summarise what you think you have picked up on. “Is that right”, “Have I got that wrong?” or as we have previously mentioned, “is there anything else?”.
Drawing on past experiences
Another approach you may find helpful is drawing on past experiences. In previous conversations with your coachee, you may have noticed recurring events, patterns or similar situations. Over time you can start to see patterns emerge or see other conversations/ observations in a different light after hearing new information. This is where keeping notes can be valuable – the coach can reference previous conversations, which may give the coachee a degree of awareness they previously didn’t have. A coach may also have their own experience to draw from that helps them understand – although be wary, as this can easily lead to misunderstandings if a coach gets the approach wrong and jumps in too early with their experience.
You can usually sense in a person’s body language or tone whether they feel understood or not. If they do, they tend to brighten up, become more energised or maybe even say “Wow, you’ve understood me really well.” And the converse, if not, is that they may seem withdrawn, de-energised and struggle to articulate themselves. Rarely do people have the confidence to articulate that someone has misunderstood them so the coach has to be vigilant and tune in to the signals.
One big ‘no-no’ is the phrase “I can totally understand how you feel.” This is because we can never know how anyone else really feels and this phrase can be extremely aggravating. Instead, we prefer to use the phrase “I don’t know how you feel/are feeling but…it sounds like you are [insert relevant words – happy, excited, sad, uncertain, disappointed, in a difficult situation, needing to make a big decision etc]”.
It is inevitable that the coach will misunderstand something the coachee says at some point! The key to recovering from such a moment is to be aware, admit you’ve misunderstood and recommit to understanding. Be honest and open and most misunderstandings can be forgiven.
“Understand” is a crucial aspect of the CAUSE coaching model and is helpful for any individual looking to develop their coaching skills.
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