Language can be a blunt instrument at times. I was in Germany struggling to hold a conversation with a social worker. I have limited German and she has limited English. After a few minutes, she looked thoughtful and said something along the lines of: ‘Isn’t it strange that language, which is meant to facilitate communication, can be such a barrier to communication?’ It’s as if we were so focusing so hard on finding the right words, understanding each others’ words, that we lost sight of each other as people and failed to notice what our intuition was telling us.
Again in Germany, I was invited to sit in and observe a counselling session between another social worker and a client. I could only understand around 30% of what was spoken so tried to focus, instead, on what was happening behind the words. After half an hour or so, the social worker turned and invited me to speak to the client – to share anything I noticed that may be important and valuable for her, no matter how tentative. I said what I had sensed and wondered, intuitively. They fed back afterwards: they were astonished by how much I had discerned.
Such experiences have had a profound impact on my coaching practice. I sometimes encourage trainee coaches to imagine that, while the client is speaking, the sound is turned off completely like muting the volume on a TV set. ‘Now – what do you notice as the client speaks?’ ‘If you were an independent third party observing this interaction between you and the client, what would you notice?’ ‘What are you sensing now as the client speaks?’ This helps the coach to stay in the here-and-now moment, with the client, and to avoid getting lost in the client’s story.
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.