The Quiet Coach – 6

February 14, 2023

Paying attention to a client’s body language

“I notice you smiled as you said that”. Ever heard a coach say something like that when you’ve been at the receiving end of a coaching conversation?

Paying attention to the body language is a key part of being a coach. The ICF competency of “Active Listening” calls this out clearly in the definition itself “Focuses on what the client is and is not saying to fully understand what is being communicated….” (the important part helpfully underlined and bolded for you).

One of the behaviours under this competency is even clearer “Notices, acknowledges and explores the client’s emotions, energy shifts, non-verbal cues or other behaviors”.

Why is this important? Because for each of us, there’s a lot of processing happening beneath our conscious level of awareness. These thoughts/beliefs/feelings could float up to the surface and get manifested in how we’re using our bodies. I remember my therapist pointing out how my throat gets dry and I start drinking water every time I’m talking about something painful. Clear manifestation of my difficulty with being vulnerable.
When we notice and inquire into a client’s non-verbal language, it achieves two things – we’re letting the client know that we’re paying attention to their entire being, without judgement. It also gives them an opportunity to explore what they have difficulty articulating or perhaps what they are not even aware of.
Yet this is a skill that you build in a slow, careful manner as you progress because if not handled well, it has the capacity to confuse or alienate the client. Several things could go wrong

  1.      The coach’s observation is wrong: leads to the client being puzzled and spending time trying to clarify things with the coach
  2.      They present it with absolute certainty: could lead to the client feeling judged
  3.      The coach is playing too close attention: I’m reminded of the ancient stalker anthem “every breath you take, every move you make…I’ll be watching you” (if you haven’t heard that classic, pause right now and go listen)

So let’s break it down – there are two skills involved. One, honing your ability to notice energy shifts and non-verbal cues. And two, the ability to bring it to the awareness of the client.
No matter what your level of coaching expertise, you can certainly practise the first skill. In your next coaching conversation, make notes of any of these behaviours on the client’s part

  • – Change in eye contact (or persistent refusal to make eye contact with you)
  • – Speeding up or slowing down their rate of speech
  • – Change in the tone of voice
  • – Shifts in facial expression
  • – Sighs and pauses
  • – Looking visibly more energized or more tired
  • – Shifts in the way they are sitting
  • – An incongruency in the words they’re using and how they’re saying them

This isn’t by any means a comprehensive list so please do write back with other interesting behaviours you’ve observed and we’ll add it to this list.

So a good practise to develop this first skills is that for the next few conversations, immediately post the conversation, make notes of any such observations you’ve had of the client. Then ask yourself if these could be indicative of any unconscious process going on for the client (for example, if you notice a lot of sighing every time you talk about moving into action, what could that mean?) As an aside, here’s another good reason why it’s important everyone who’s training to be a coach has at least one long-term client (defined as five sessions or more) – it becomes much easier to test these hypotheses you’re forming.

The second skill is being able to bring this shift/incongruency to the client’s attention and inquire into it. The process is reasonably simple – describe what you’re noticing in simple, tentative and non-judgemental language and ask the client how they feel about it.

Some examples

  • – I notice you started to speak more softly when talking about X; I’m curious about what’s going on for you
  • – Please ignore this observation if it’s not relevant or helpful for you – I notice you smiled as you were describing your sadness, I’m wondering where that might be coming from
  • – Your mood seemed to shift as you started talking about Y….did something change internally for you?

You can practise putting down how you would share these observations with the client and either get some feedback on it or reflect on how the client might react. Think about how you could strengthen the articulation to minimise any chance that the client could feel judged.

One example I’ve seen of a coach doing this really well is from the practise lab in our PCC training a few years ago. The conversation went really well; the client had an insight about a relationship with a stakeholder and outlined what action she would like to take with that insight.

All hunky dory and the rest of the class was starting to stretch and look wistfully at the coffee machine when the coach said “I’m wondering about something – to me it seemed like your energy levels dipped when you were talking about the action plan. Is there something more we should talk about?”

To which the client reflected and responded that she was unwilling to commit to the plan because she was still upset with the stakeholder. So the action changed to her committing to pay closer attention to her anger and bring that into processing in the next session.

If the coach hadn’t done that, the client may not have got in touch with the remnants of her anger and the relationship may not have healed the way it subsequently did.

Any examples of your own where you paid attention to non-verbal cues or shifts in body language – do share what worked and what didn’t.

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