I am going to out myself here. But first, a little context. I’ve been a coach for 14 years. I teach coaching. I teach advanced coaching. I write about coaching. I analyze the neuroscience of coaching. I can demo any coaching process or skill in front of a room with practically anyone and have it work. Usually masterfully. And I still have the occasional client where, to be honest, no matter what I do, they just need someone to listen to them, and it doesn’t really feel like coaching.
I have turned myself inside out over this. I have berated myself, gotten coaching and advice from my peers and mentors, tried everything short of tap dancing with a trained elephant, and still, it comes back to, they just need someone to listen to them.
And so I do that. I end up mostly just listening. And as I talk with experienced coaches from around the world, I find that many of my colleagues often confess to the same. There are some clients who need, more than anything, a non-judgmental ear and place to verbally process.
Often these are clients who, for whatever reason, have nowhere in their lives where they can say everything they are thinking or feeling without filters. It may be because they are in the public eye, at a high position in a company, or simply because they aren’t surrounded by any curious and open people. Or they are intensely verbal processors who have to speak–a lot–in order to know what they think and how they feel.
For the brain, just the process of speaking to an open ear is highly valuable. In the book Supercoach, Michael Neill gives the example of being coached by a lamp post. Imagine, he advises, that someone heads home from work every evening and stops to talk to a lamp post on his way, unburdening himself from the day’s issues and problems, and speaking out loud possibilities and options for tomorrow. The lamp post doesn’t talk back, give advice, or do anything. It’s just there. And the person, by developing the habit of talking to the lamp post, begins to find his life improving. He feels less burdened and a bit more in touch with what is possible. The process of speaking his ideas out loud even triggers new thoughts and insights.
Now add to that the fact that we as coaches, even at the most basic level, do so much more than the average lamp post. We listen with both our hearts and our minds. attuning to what they are saying (in a sense, feeling it with them), and responding thoughtfully and non-judgmentally. This sort of listening tends to elicit what neuroscientists refer to as a “towards” state in the brain, where it is open and receptive. This is in sharp contrast to an “away” state, where your brain basically says, let’s get the heck out of here. We can easily activate an away state in others by being critical, giving unsolicited advice (especially in a judgmental and/or superior manner), or being actively distracted while another is speaking.
When the brain is in a “towards” state, it is more receptive and creative, learning and remembering much more. Insight can happen, where disparate neural networks find each other and connect, causing “aha” moments. The person is emotionally open and actually sees more of what is going on–literally–because the visual processing centers are activated.
And again, even with those clients who just need to be listened to, the truth of the matter is we are usually actually doing much more. It may not feel like coaching at its best, but we are probably also at least:
- Asking powerful questions designed to have them reflect more deeply;
- Helping them focus and organize their thoughts;
- Underlining and highlighting key things that they are saying so that the client is more aware;
- Bringing it to a “so what” so that they have a new way of moving forward;
So let’s all give ourselves a bit of a break when this happens, and stop the little voice that says “why am I taking your money?” It happens. Sometimes because the coach needs more skill, and sometimes because maybe, just maybe, this is what the client needs.
Although I do need to add, as I often tell my coaching students, that of course these are not the clients I would want to submit for my ICF credential assessment. It’s not best practice in coaching, it’s not the full potential of what coaching can be and do, it’s not what we are capable of as coaches. But sometimes, it’s what happens, and it’s ok.