A lot of coaching is about evoking new awareness, helping clients get unstuck if they are and move forward towards the goals they desire. While learning has a more pompous air to it – some people, like myself, do not respond well to it – the word is widely used in coaching circles, so it will do.
However important new awareness is for your client’s success, it is merely not enough. You can let the client go and figure out what to do with that awareness on their own. It is an okay choice.After all, we keep saying, for a good reason, that a lot of coaching happens between the sessions. If the awareness you helped the client gain was important, they will keep coming back to it. And with a pinch of luck, they will choose to do something useful with it.
While that is a fine choice, it is not the best one available to a masterful coach who trusts the process more than themselves and their clients. Coaches still do believe that clients are not broken and are capable of achieving their own goals, however it’s the heart of the coaching craft to invoke the helping process. The process that helps solidify the newly gained awareness. Think of a new green shot of awareness that sprung from a seed prodded, cajoled, and otherwise encouraged by the coaching process. Without care this shot has a chance to grow, albeit slower and sicklier. Fertilize it, and water it after its emergence, and its chance of growing into something bigger increases dramatically.
The parts of the coaching process that serve this fertilizer and nurturing liquid are, what I call, learning loops or learning knots. They allow strengthening the newly acquired learning and plan next steps that would potentially help move the client forward.
There are three main learning loops in the coaching process. I will use the names given to the level of listening here to name those loops – local, focused, and global.
Focused loops are easiest to perform and come by since they are a part of the taught coaching process. They are explicit and in many cases are a part of the coaching arc taught by many schools. Hence, they are easy to spot in many sessions, performed with a varying degree of mastery. These are the loops and knots that are tied around the learnings of the session’s topic.
Coaches know how important the session agreement is for the success of the session. One of the benefits of a strong coaching agreement is its enabling focused learning knots anywhere in the session.
Focused learning knots are usually tied tightly around the verbalized and clearly understood goals of the session – what the client wants to take away from the conversation. The usual questions coaches use to tie those knots are around what the client is realizing about their situation and about themselves.
While a lot of these knots are tied closer towards the end of the session, it is not the only place where they do or must occur. They can be tied anywhere in the session where appropriate, where the client seems to be getting new awareness that might help them move forward, solve their problem, design a new action, or tie out a section of a conversation.
Global loops and knots are similar to focused ones, however done on a bigger scale learning and awareness gained across multiple sessions within a coaching engagement. A properly set up coaching engagement has its goals. Questions about learnings, realizations, and new awareness that help clients move towards those goals help slow down the pace and reflect on the path already walked. They are also great opportunities to contemplate the path ahead and its direction.
Interestingly enough, local loops can be as powerful and awareness evoking as focused and global ones, which somewhat breaks the analogy with the levels of listening. We come to frown upon local listening (in many cases undeservingly so – local listening can be fun in the right context). We should never ever treat local learning loops with the same contempt. They are tiny precious moments of learning that masterful coaching can tease out from the client’s consciousness. Interestingly enough, a lot of these loops or knots are borne by listening at the focused or global listening.
In many cases, they are born not by words clients say, but by smaller verbal cues and behaviors. Focused and global listening are not only about listening to what is said, but also what is not said and otherwise communicated. We can hear only 45% of the communication, of which only a tiny 7% are actual words. That leaves huge 38% of the communication to the way those words are said and humongous 55% to everything that is not said or otherwise vocalized, but communicated in other ways. Listening for silence, noticing and integrating verbal cues other than words, as well as non-verbal behaviors, such as gestures, posture, facial expressions amongst others are the foundation for these frequently tiny and fleeting and so precious pieces of awareness.
Noticing, “that was a lot of thinking,” and inquiring, “what was going through your mind” is a great way to help your client gain awareness about their thinking process. One thing that separates Homo sapiens from other mammals is the ability to think about their thinking, thus evolving the thinking process. Helping clients solve their problems is one thing a coaching process can do. Helping them understand themselves better, explore and adjust their thinking process while building this indispensable skill is a total game changer.
Getting comfortable with deep and long silence is the key here. Let the client sit there, contemplate. Open your mouth too early, and you will be a biologist cutting up a chrysalis of a thought only to find the ugliness of incomplete metamorphosis inside. Keep it shut, and you will witness a marvelous process of a beautiful butterfly being born.
However, none of the questions I mentioned above in all three distinct situations makes a full learning loop, tying that learning knot completely. Asking the client about their new awareness is all cool and dandy – at the end of the day that is what the coaching process is about. However, they all leave the end dangling loosely and needlessly so. While understanding the boldness and edginess of the following statement, I will still make it. Awareness is next to useless without understanding of its application and forward actions using it. That is where the bulk of the coaching value resides. Asking the client about their realization is great and leaving them without pondering the implications of the new awareness borderlines coaching malpractice. Well, not that bad – no one will drag a coach to the court to seek damages for not forwarding new awareness, but you hopefully get my point here.
Some of the great questions that coaches invite further contemplation from the clients are,
What does that new awareness give you (that you did not have before)?
Knowing this, how do you want to move forward?
What does this enable you to do now?
What will be different when you do this?
Letting the client go from a session with some loose ends or some knots tied tightly around their new awareness is a process choice coaches make. Make the right one.