Are your coaching clients trapped by their own language?
Successful executive coaching means listening for the language that keeps clients stuck in the same old place. When someone endlessly recycles a thinking pattern, it shows. There’s a frustrating sense of ‘going round the houses’ and ‘getting stuck in the mud’. One way to help a client change these annoying patterns is just to flag them up, bringing the blockage to light so you can explore it together. It’s all part of the fine art of listening.
It’s your job to listen carefully to the words that trap your clients into unhelpful patterns. Then you can work together to identify and experiment with different language, designed to shift the blockage. Doing so acts as a catalyst for different thinking, releasing new energy and moving the client forwards.
Our words really do count
Our life is framed by the way we talk about it. The language we use can benefit or hamper us, influencing how we see ourselves and how others interact with us. Our words usually flow automatically from deep-seated underlying assumptions. While life moves too fast for us to regulate our language all the time, coaching sessions are the perfect time to slow right down and watch what’s going on.
Coaches offer insight, sometimes triggering significant breakthrough moments. Clients’ words can create a greater vision, conveying commitment and passion. Their language can be empowering, creating new futures. The language of possibility, hope and agency is powerful stuff.
Coaching gives clients the chance to reflect on their communication style, accessing more of the language that drives positive solutions and improves resilience, framing what they say more efficiently and driving positive change.
Common language traps to listen for
- The language of good and bad, right and wrong
This kind of language indicates black and white thinking. Your client is evaluating and judging the situation from a limited mindset, missing those essential shades of grey. Broadening their reference points can be enormously helpful, extending the lens through which they see cases. You can introduce new perspectives and perceptions that help people change how they frame their experiences.
- The language of duty and obligation
Shoulds, the oughts and musts are sure signs your client is driven by a strong sense of duty, perhaps even suffering from a ‘hardening of their noughties!’ They’re compelled by feelings of obligation, fueled by responsibility, reluctant to let others down. This can turn into over-accountability, taking on too much work. Because they take accountability so seriously, they’re usually heavily relied upon, which means that they can become overwhelmed or even burned out.
Coaching can help these people become more discerning about what they take on. Releasing them from the trap of obligation lets them say ‘no’ more frequently and more efficiently, strengthen their resiliency and become better at asking for help.
- The language of cause and effect
This is where a client becomes obsessed with interpreting colleagues’ behaviour, trying to read their minds. They have no real data but still, have a definite view that ‘x’ means ‘y’. They are convinced that the cause they have identified has produced the effect, without considering the context, mitigating circumstances or wider landscape.
Coaching helps people like this challenge their thinking by asking for concrete evidence and widening the search for alternative viewpoints, the interventions that can break down direct cause and effect thinking.
- The language of either-or
Either–or language limits someone’s options to just two alternatives. The only time it has a positive impact is when the decision being made is value-based, something that by no means applies to all decisions. It creates a false dilemma because there are rarely just two possible outcomes. As a coach, you can help your client push themselves to think creatively to find more and better solutions.
- The language of non-ownership
Plenty of people use language that distances them. It’s particularly common in politics to use pronouns that de-personalise issues, making statements like: “It is felt that…” rather than “I feel that…”, And often using the royal ‘we’. People like this also use other people’s opinions to express their own.
You can make great strides forward by suggesting that your client uses the pronoun “I”, and stands their ground about what they think, taking active, personal ownership of their thoughts and feelings.
- The language of blaming – either yourself and others
Plenty of people habitually blame themselves or deflect blame to someone or something else. Some even flip-flop between the two.
Blaming yourself – beating yourself up – is harmful. It drives people to spend too much time and energy ruminating about the past, creating lengthy, unhelpful postmortems about what they did or didn’t do. Coaching sessions can become frustrating because they’re not learning but reinforcing the pattern of blame, finding endless new arguments that confirm they messed up.
As a coach, you may experience a subtle, mysterious need to agree with them, and it can be unusually powerful. You can at this point become stuck in the mud of blame too. Being mindful that this is a possibility helps not to become confluent and lost in your client’s story.
Coaching can help self-blamers be kinder themselves and develop greater self-compassion when things go wrong. You can raise the client’s awareness of the way they use language and share the impact it has on you. You can highlight and challenge blaming language patterns to help your client un-stick themselves. And once that happens you can explore the reasons behind it.
Projecting blame outwards to protect yourself is equally detrimental. The conversation will be fueled with self-justification, and at its worst, it can make colleagues feel bullied. In this case, coaching helps people to own their responsibility for what’s happened.
In both cases, a more balanced approach and way of speaking about difficult issues involve entirely removing the notion of finding fault, so your client can’t fall into either extreme. Coaching gives them the opportunity for greater reflection, knowing that there’s valuable learning to be gleaned from every mistake.
- The language of victim-hood
This is the language of powerlessness, the idea that life happens and there’s very little you can do about it, resulting in the ‘poor me’ syndrome. Clients like this often discount their capabilities. They find it hard to say no, hard to stick up for themselves. They can become anxious and can fast become overwhelmed, reluctant to take risks or try new ideas without a lot of support.
Effective coaching helps your client appreciate their strengths, build more confidence and be more assertive. It encourages them to get in touch with their values and understand how they support them professionally, trust themselves and stand up for what they believe.
- The language of time – stuck in an unrealistic past or future
This pattern reveals your client is trapped in the language of the past or future. If it’s the past, they will constantly hark back to the ‘good’ old days, giving them a dreamlike quality. If it’s the future, they constantly project forwards, often creatively but usually unrealistically or fearfully.
Your first step is to help your client recognise what they’re doing. Your second step is to identify new agency in the present, finding practical options for focusing on ‘now’, committing to meaningful actions that enrich their lives in the present.
- The language of continuous problem solving
Problem-solving is a useful skill, but not when it’s taken too far. People start to see everything as a problem, an endless personal battle where all they do is focus on things that don’t work. Even if progress is made people like this just raise the bar, attracted by the adrenaline rush they get from rising to a challenge.
Coaching can challenge your client’s mindsets, creating room for enquiry skills, helping them identify strengths and acknowledge what’s working. It can also be a key to showing them how using solutions focused language improves their communication skills and working relationships.
Transforming lives with language pattern identification skills
Noting language patterns, listening for stuck themes and re-framing ways of communicating brings about a transformation. It changes the way clients think and feel, directly influencing how they behave and interact with others. As an executive coach, if you’d like to understand more about how to work with the keys that unlock these vital doors, get in touch. In the meantime, you might like to explore our post about listening to clients and giving them space to think