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 the word “learning” has a more sophisticated air to it – some people, like myself, do not respond well to it when asked, “What have you learned during our conversation?” or something similar. The word is widely used in coaching circles however, so it will do.
However as important as new awareness is for your client’s success, simply getting awareness is not enough. That awareness needs to be taken a step farther. You could let the client go and figure out what to do with that awareness on their own. That 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 forwarding process. This process helps solidify the newly gained awareness. Think of a newly sprouted shoot of awareness that sprung from a thought seed prodded, cajoled, and otherwise encouraged by the coaching process. Without care, this shoot has some chance to grow, albeit slower and sicklier. Fertilize it and water it after its emergence, and its chances of growing into something bigger increases dramatically.
The parts of the coaching process that serve as this fertilizing and nurturing liquid are what I call learning loops or learning knots. They allow a strengthening of the newly acquired learning and planning of next steps that will potentially help move the client forward.
There are three main learning loops in the coaching process. I will call these loops by the same names I also use for the three levels of listening – local, focused, and global.
Focused loops are easiest to perform and come by and I teach them as a natural part of the 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 that it enables 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 should occur. They can be tied anywhere in the session 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 audibly hear only 45% of communication, of which only a tiny 7% is the 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 frequent tiny, fleeting and 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 Homosapiens 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 and contemplate. Open your mouth to speak too early, and you will be like a biologist slicing open a cocoon of thought only to find the ugliness of an incomplete metamorphosis inside. Keep it shut, and you will witness the 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 a wonderful first step – 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 an understanding of its application and a way to move forward using it. That is where the bulk of the coaching value resides. Asking the client about their realizations is great. However, leaving them without an investigation into the implications of that new awareness borderlines coaching malpractice. Well, not that bad – no one will drag a coach into court to seek damages for not helping them take their new awareness forward and putting it to use, but you hopefully get my point here.
Some great questions that invite further contemplation from 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?
You can let the client leave the coaching session with some loose ends untied or you can help them tie some knots tightly around their new awareness. This is a process choice each coach must make. Make the right one.