A Coaching Power Tool Created by Padraic O’Donnell
(Educational Coach, UNITED STATES)
Kabir says: Brahma suits His language to the understanding of His hearer. (92)
The difference between the almost right word and the right word is a large matter. ’is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. -Mark Twain
During a coaching session, clients may often experience moments of insight that sets them down a road to real action steps. These moments are so valuable to both the coach and the client. They all occur through language; they often happen when a client’s perspective broadens. We can spot them when they happen, but how do these moments occur? In coaching, one name for it is‘new learning.’ For this coaching power tool, I will explore how this phenomenon happens through the coach’s depth and breadth of language. Both the cultural commentator and author, Mark Twain’s, and the 15th-century Sufi mystic, Kabir’s, insights above are avenues that can help us understand this phenomenon. To explore this phenomenon, I will shed light on the shift from the language of our thinking to language for the other person’s understanding. When a coach has a keen awareness and discipline in the use of his language, these moments of insight will happen more often and become more effective. If a coach can deepen and broaden his language to recognize his thinking and simultaneously consider the level of the client’s understanding, then these moments of insight will have a bigger impact on the client’s actions.
During a conversation, how often has someone restate what you said, but it did not accurately reflect what you meant? Either, they added a word or a phrase that you did not use or the word or phrase given a different shade of meaning. Sometimes the hearer converts it into what they understood you saying without enough awareness of your perspective. This language situation tends to happen because the speaker is only framing their language from where they are what they are thinking. To avoid these confusing missteps, the speaker needs to be more precise during these quick, interworking verbal labyrinths of her mind. A shift happens when the speaker can frame their language for the hearer’s understanding. This is not an easy task. This is what Kabir meant when he stated, “Brahma suits His language to the understanding of His hearer.” Brahma is the Hindu creative god and He suits His language to human beings, his hearers. We do not have to be Hindu or religious to get the point here: even gods change their language for the sake of the other. If you come from a sacred tradition then if He did not change His language, we would not grow spiritually from his word or understand how to be in a closer relationship with the divine. It is interesting to note that Brahma is the creator god and that language is a major creative power we have. However, the important aspect, we see in Kabir, is speaking for the sake of the hearer. The speaker must be highly aware of the nuances of this circumstance during conversations and especially during coaching sessions.
Parents naturally have this awareness and shift their language all the time when their child is learning their native tongue. They know the vocabulary the child currently understands, and they use it. They cater to their language. Teachers do this all day long too. Many professors often purposely speak with a broader language to expand their student’s understanding. Not all parents, teachers, or professors do this well. They can speak too far above the child’s or the student’s understanding and then the learning is lost, the insights remain dark. The difference lies in whether the person uses the language of their thinking or the language of the others’ understanding.
If we examine the underlying language, we can ask, what stance is the person taking? What quality of their standing out? The speaker might value listening, or other perspectives, or humility. The values behind our language can vary. For this tool, all those qualities I listed are important, but the essence of them all would be that the coach can broaden their language, and hence their thinking, beyond themselves for the sake of the other person. That is the same reason parents and teachers adjust their language, they care about the child or students and speak for their sake; they narrow down or broaden their language so they meet the hearer where she is for the hearer to grow for themselves. This gives some insight into the speaker’s way of being and how it needs to be conscious and practiced behavior. The other side of this issue is the actual language, the words that the speaker chooses.
Mark Twain adds this flavor in the introductory quotation above. About the precision of language Twain uses a lightning bug and lightning. These two contrasting images amplify this amazing difference: on the one hand, the gentle, soft light of a summer evening bug’s glow and the other terrifying, split-second flash from sky to ground. When the right word is used for the situation, we are deeply impressed by the accuracy of its exactifying meaning. When the almost right word is used, we don’t feel that jolt that Twain is illuminating here. For a simple example, if someone is sharing a story that reveals she is struggling with a co-worker, you might have a variety of responses to show you understand where she is coming from, such as, “Oh, you must feel discouraged,” or “If that were me, I would feel angry,” or “Just hearing that must make you livid.” Which word—’discouraged,’ ‘angry,’ or ‘livid’ — makes a difference to the hearer and shows them that you, as the speaker, can be trusted in your understanding of the hearer’s situation. But it may not be the lightning word. So, if you put Kabir and Twain together for the key aspect of this shift, we get this: a person can speak precisely for the sake of the other person they are addressing.
In coaching, two core competencies particularly delve into these moments of insight: powerful questioning and direct communication. It is the coach’s job to ask powerful questions that show she understands the client’s perspective. It is also the coach’s job to communicate directly about what she observes or intuits. Both the questions and direct communication are rooted in language and the coach’s language is often rooted in her understanding, values, or way of being. So, coaches need to be aware of what they understand, what they value, and what their way of being is during a coaching session.
If we look at the ICF core competencies rating levels, we see that at the master level (MCC) for powerful questioning, it reads, “The coach uses the client’s language and learning style to craft questions” (ICF). When we, as coaches, use a client’s language in our questions instead of our language, we are moving away from the language of our thinking toward a language for another’s understanding. If we use the client’s exact word or phrase in the question, the question has a better chance of being understood by the client and a better chance of moving them forward. Sometimes as coaches we are tempted to try to land the perfect powerful question that we have been thinking about as the client is talking and we miss their language and their understanding. This coach is coming from a stance or way of being that says “my thinking will move the client forward” when more new learning will happen if the coach simply listens and asks a question in which the client’s language is embedded.
We see this in the language of the rating levels themselves from the professional level (PCC) to the MCC level. The PCC level states, “Questions will tend to use coaching terminology or language easy for the coach versus using or exploring the client’s language” (ICF). The shift to the MCC level, quoted above, is that coaches use or explore the client’s language. When we shift from our thinking to the client’s understanding, which needs to be explored, then we can ask powerful questions — ones that bring a client to moments of insight about themselves or their situation.
The competency of direct communication also plays this shift out. From the PCC level, it read, “The coach tends to use some coaching language versus the language of the client.”And from the MCC level, “The coach has a broad language base to use and play with and uses the client’s language to broaden that base” (ICF). By directly communicating a word or phrase the client has shared, we meet the client where their thinking is, where their understanding of their situation is. In the earlier simplified example, a coach doesn’t want to directly communicate that the client was discouraged or angry or livid, because the coach doesn’t want to plant their thinking in place of the client’s feelings. The coach’s language is to be at the service of the client’s understanding and it is the coach’s job to broaden that understanding, just as Kabir’s Brahma or Twain’s lightning word would do. Because the Brahma uses language for the listener and broadens the listener’s base of language with a lightning observation, he or she moves toward their insights, their new learning.
Moving away from the language of our thinking during a coach session is difficult to work. It takes conscious practice. Remembering to be present for the client leads coaches to speak carefully towards the client’s understanding, for the sake of the client. Knowing the power of a coach’s language to move the client into moments of insight and gain new learning makes for exciting work together. This power inherent in language can be awoken when the coach makes a conscious shift from their thinking and use of language toward language which broadens and benefits the client’s understanding. With this shift, more clients will come to experience those aha moments that catapult them into a landscape of action they never perceived before.
International Coaching Federation (ICF), https://coachfederation.org/app/uploads/2017/12/ICFCompetenciesLevelsTable.pdf, May 15, 2020.
The Wit & Wisdom of Mark Twain. Dover Publications 1998.
Songs of Kabir: A 15th Century Sufi Literary Classic. Translated by Rabindranath Tagore, Red Wheel/Wieser publishing 2002.