Coaching Tips

Unconscious Communication as a Basis for Coaching

Have you ever watched a leader walk into a room and see the interpersonal dynamics change around them?  The flow of the chatter changes.  The topics change.  And people start to look to the leader for approval.  The conversation may even shift to the point that the leader becomes responsible for determining turn taking and who gets to talk next.  The charismatic behaviors of the leader subtly influence their surroundings.  It’s not something the leader tries to do; it just happens.  There is an unconscious shift in the communication patterns.

Alex Pentland from MIT refers to these patterns as honest signals in his book, Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World. They are the nonverbal cues that are so deeply embedded that we have extreme difficulty faking them.  He and his associates spent years studying these signals and developed the technology to measure them.  As coaches, an awareness of our client’s unconscious communication can be fruitful coaching territority.

First, as coaches, we can pay more attention to honest signals.  We can’t really cheat with our nonverbal signals.  In fact, Pentland conducted a number of experiments where people tried to change and they were generally failures.  Think of it this way.  You are walking with a friend and having a very interesting conversation.  Suddenly, your friend starts skipping while talking.  It looks like fun to you so you try skipping and talking, too.  Doesn’t work.  You are thinking so hard about skipping that that you can’t talk straight.  As coaches, we have the opportunity to become conscious of the honest signals from our clients.  Start noticing when there is an extra-long pause or maybe a sigh just before they say, “It’s been an adventurous week.”

Second, we can support our clients as they improve their self-monitoring.  Much of my coaching with executives centers on their awareness of how they appear to others.  I ask them to think about the honest signals that they are providing to others.  As that awareness grows, the clients also grow in their ability to adapt their activities.

Third, we can support our clients as they learn new honest signals.  Have you ever noticed how sales people always are nodding?  It’s an honest signal.  And it’s learned.  Alex Pentland says that we can learn new honest signals by role playing.  In one sense, we do that a lot as coaches.  We ask our clients to try on new behaviors and do different things.  I use the DiSC profile with most of my clients.  Imagine the conversation where I am coaching a “D” style who likes to address issues quickly, directly, and decisively and I ask him how he might approach the situation as an “S” who wants everyone comfortable with their surroundings and changing policies.  Once we understand the role, we can honestly play it.

If you have an opportunity to read Pentland’s book, I recommend it.  Most treatments of nonverbal communication treat it as something that can be easily dissected and manipulated.  David Pentland recognizes the subtleties of our unconscious behaviors and the resultant honesty in our communication.  As coaches, we also have an opportunity to work on our honest signals.

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Group Coaches Are Group Facilitators

At Ultimate Coach University, we teach some courses in group coaching.  Most beginning coaches are concerned about doing too much telling, training or directing.  The perspective we try to develop is one in which group facilitation is a key part of group coaching.  Here’s why:

Coaches are always facilitators.   A facilitator is defined as “one that helps to bring about an outcome (as learning, productivity, or communication) by providing indirect or unobtrusive assistance, guidance, or supervision.”  That’s what coaches do.  Whether it’s one-to-one or with a group, coaches create an environment within which learning, self-discovery, curious invention and the like occurs.

The focus is the individual in the group setting.  Groups are not teams. Teams have a goal that requires a specialized participation from everyone.  Groups do not. Groups exist because the group members see an individual benefit from being there.  As a coach facilitator, the goal is to maximize the benefits for all of the individuals in the group.  The only goal of the group is to maximize the individual’s achievements.

Group dynamics are more complex. The coach always has part of themselves in the coaching and part of themselves monitoring the coaching.  The coach is responsible for time management, focus, productivity and accountability.  Those occur when the coach is monitoring (facilitating) the interactions.  In one sense, the coach is both mental in and mentally out of the coaching space.  When group coaching, the mentally out part is more complex.  Here are a couple of examples:

  • Instead of overall time, the coach has to manage the portion of time available for each person to talk.
  • When each person talks, it changes the communication expectations for everyone else.  Imagine a group of sales leaders and one says, “This month sucks. My top people have taken the month off, nobody wants to promote, and our ability to attract new people is terrible.”  The group can easily spiral down from there.  Somebody who is having a good month may hesitate to talk because they don’t want make other participants feel bad.

In short, the coach has to manage the group in order to produce an environment that will maximize things for each individual.  The coach may have to interrupt clients, add topics to the agenda, or cut some topics short for the purpose of getting the most for everyone.

Peer coaching opportunities arise.  I’ve been working with groups for nearly five years. In that time, one of the benefits for everyone is what they get from the other participants.  They get a diversity of opinions, questions from the group, and suggestions to move things forward.  In addition, the group members get to hear others being coached in real-time and strong role modeling in communication skills.

Ginger Cockerham defines group coaching in her book, Group Coaching, as “a facilitated group process led by a skilled professional coach and created with the intention of maximizing the combined energy, experience, and wisdom of individuals who choose to join in order to achieve organizational objectives or individual goals.” In other words, coaching and facilitation are conjoined.  When we start with the assumption that the two go together, the resulting coaching is stronger.

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Coaching the What and Why and the $75,000 Question

Life evaluation and emotional wellbeingMy guess is that it would be a rare life or personal coach that does not have their client try to dig into personal motivations. As coaches, we call them goals, mission, values, passion, why’s, etc. Our assumption as coaches is that as our clients grow in self-knowledge, their path to the future becomes clearer. It also puts a tool in our coaching hands. When a client seems to stall out, we make some mental leaps to their passion and try to get them moving forward on their program.

One place we often have difficulty is separating the material reasons from the mental ones. New coaches often go to the material corner. Talking about things is less threatening or invasive than talking about values and passions. Experienced coaches often go the other way; we ignore the material wants because they aren’t as personally exciting as digging into a client’s mental pathways.

Recent research points to the need to make sure that people are meeting both their material and their emotional needs.  Angus Deaton, Ph.D., a renowned economist, and Daniel Kahneman, Ph.D., a Nobel prize-winning psychologist put their heads and work together on an amazing research project.  They wanted to discover the numbers behind happiness. They analyzed nearly a half million responses to the Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index (GHWBI), a battery of survey questions about happiness.

The two concepts that we refer to as the “material what” and the “emotional why” are called “life evaluation” and “emotional wellbeing.” While the two dimensions overlap, they have distinct measures.

  • Life evaluation is based on a view of our achievements. We look at things like goal accomplishment, financial security, education, marriage, and job satisfaction.
  • Emotional wellbeing is social and reflects our day-to-day emotional quality and satisfaction.

Without getting into too many more details, there are two research findings that I found interesting from a coaching perspective.

First, achieving your goals is important for both dimensions. We evaluate our lives poorly when we fail (the “I just suck” syndrome) and it negatively affects our emotional wellbeing.  As Dr. Kahneman explains, “Having goals that you can meet is essential to life satisfaction. Setting goals that you’re not going to meet sets you up for failure.”

Second, there is a dollar figure for happiness. In the United States, $75,000 is the threshold for happiness.  In other words, when you earn $75,000, you’ve hit the magic number.  More money doesn’t make you happier.  People who earn more may have more a higher life evaluation (“I love my life!”) but they are any happier about it.  Their emotional wellbeing has hit the top.

As a coach, I am intrigued by what these research results mean to my profession.  Besides making sure my clients are aware of and working on both pieces, I have some cultural insights into where they might want to go.

Honestly, I can’t make this stuff up. I encourage you to read more of the research results as The Gallup Management Journal reports them.

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