It was towards the end of a year working with a coaching client when we met for drinks. As we sat and talked, it became clear that he was in a reflective mood and I asked him what he was thinking about. He smiled and said, “Over the last year, I have gotten to know and trust you and that has been very helpful. Our work together has given me a lot of confidence in your judgment and recommendations. However, I have recently come to realize that I know somebody else much better as a result. I know myself better and that has been one of the greatest gains. Thank you for that.”
We talked about what his experience meant to him. The cumulative results of our work together had helped him to a new level of self-awareness. I have always seen the process of personal growth as central to every coaching engagement. Self-reflection is one of the most important results of good coaching. For my part, it is always one of the greatest sources of satisfaction. However, he was telling me what it felt like from his side. He was able to reflect more meaningfully on his life and professional experience. Things were coming into balance and he was telling me that our coaching work was one of the primary reasons.
I knew that my own approach to challenges and self-knowledge was a big part of that process. I also realized that the time I had spent listening to him had played a big role. Many coaches make the mistake of pontificating. They feel that they have to be in control of the engagement – set the agenda and pace. However, I believe that an essential part of being an effective coach is listening. My listening tends to be active and involved. Active listening is the basis of good coaching and can facilitate meaningful reflection on the part of the client. Reflection benefits the client far more than any thesis that I might offer about the way things should be.
One of my roles in an engagement is to reflect back to the executive how they are acting, thinking, communicating and managing. I help them see what they are communicating and what effect that communication is having. This gives them the benefit of a clearer and more accurate self-knowledge. I believe that self-knowledge is one of the keys to being an effective leader.
That is why I spend a majority of my time during coaching sessions listening rather then speaking. I try to keep my talking to roughly 40% of the time we spend together. During my listening times, the client can talk through challenges. As a coach, I can get a better understanding of the personal style and approach to communication that he reflexively adopts. I can then reflect that back in a way that helps him know how he is coming across to others. I can also make better suggestions of the changes that might improve results.
There is another benefit to these ‘listening’ times. Often the client has the solution – the idea of a better way – already in mind. By helping them develop and implement this ‘better way’, I facilitate the journey. The client does most of the work. Their ownership in the new way forward is greater and the positive results serve to increase their self-confidence.
Communication – both verbal and non-verbal – is such an important part of good leadership that improvements tend to magnified positive results in other areas.
There is yet another benefit from this approach. The client sees the way I communicate – and the time I spend listening. Most of them quickly notice the power of this approach. They realize, since I was willing to let them talk through a challenge – and how good it felt to do so – that listening should be a bigger part of their approach to communication and leadership.
Coaching is all about helping a client make improvements that allow clients to be more effective leaders – better managers – and better-balanced human beings. An executive who better understands the content, impact and clarity of their communication style is going to be more effective and likely to be more successful in both their role and career. Through our work together, the understanding and honing of this crucial skill can give the executive to power to succeed beyond their wildest dreams.
© Dr. Earl R. Smith II