Research Paper By Angie Salisbury
(Executive Coach, UNITED STATES)
In this paper, I will explore two concepts that I feel are vital, powerful tools for coaches to have in their proverbial backpacks. Both concepts are popular outside the coaching field, commonly taught in business settings, but when looked at from a coaching perspective, they prove to be invaluable in setting the stage for a successful client experience.
There are a lot of off-shoot components that are tied into these main two, so I’ll explore each in a little more detail, and then see how they connect to result in a wonderful coaching experience for both the coach and the client.
The two concepts that I will explore are the “blank slate” and WAIT, a commonly used acronym that stands for
Why am I talking
Are You A Blank Slate?
Before going into any coaching situation, every coach should strive to become a “blank slate.”
Blank slate is a concept made popular by Jim Camp in his 2002 book called Start With No: The Negotiating Tools that the Pros Don’t Want You to Know. Camp described the blank slate as a powerful concept that every good negotiator should understand and use.
It means, simply, to be successful at any negotiating situation, one must enter the negotiations free of any expectations or assumptions about what is going to happen during the negotiation or what the outcome may be. You are free of any agenda. By achieving this state, the negotiator will be free to react organically, ask appropriate questions and be more authentic during the exchange. You will be more present during the negotiation, which will most likely result in a more positive outcome.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
As coaches, in order to have the best outcome from a session for our client, we need to enter into a session as a blank slate. We need to leave any expectations or assumptions behind and focus on being present and authentic. We need to focus solely on the client. This is especially true if you are well into the coaching relationship with your client and have had several sessions together. We need to leave any assumptions or expectations we may have about the session at the door and embark on the journey that is ahead of you at that moment.
You may have a path of topics and things you already discussed, but if you assume that you’re going to follow that same path each time you meet, you’re not letting the client guide their journey.
Let me share a real-life example from my own coaching experience. I was working with a client weekly for a couple of months, so I had a good sense of the over-arching issues she was focusing on and goals she was working towards. For the past several sessions, we had been discussing a specific relationship and how she wanted to be more assertive and make some changes to that relationship. We were at a point where she was making progress and she was pleased, but had not yet completely resolved what she set out to accomplish. So when we met for our next weekly session, I could have made the assumption that she would want to continue on that path.
She did not, and instead turned to focus on a companion goal that she had set for herself.
Because I had entered into that coaching session as a blank slate, I was able to flow with that line of discussion and be present, listen, be authentic, and ask powerful questions. It ended up being a very beneficial session for my client. She did revisit her original goal a couple of sessions later, when she was ready. She even acknowledged that she stepped away for a bit, but doing so gave her a refreshed perspective on where she wanted to go.
As her coach, it was my role to be her journey guide and allow her to explore all angles of a situation and progress towards her goal. It was not my place to force her to address an issue on my terms, in my time.
When you’re a blank slate, you’re leaving any preconceived notions behind. By doing this you can ask more powerful questions and be more present and authentic. Expectations can be a killer in coaching. If you have an agenda and pre-set questions, you’re dictating what is going to happen. You’re controlling the conversation. Doing so may actually result in a force-fit where the client is talking about one thing, and you make an abrupt shift to something else, leading to some discord and dissatisfaction with the coaching process, and possibly even them giving up on reaching their goals. You’re taking them out of their energy.
It is important to be a blank slate no matter what point you’re at in the coaching relationship – your twelfth session or your first. But how can you achieve the state of being a blank slate prior to a coaching session?
First and foremost, it is imperative that we quiet ourselves and get in the right mindset before even meeting with the client. This means taking some time prior to the start of your session and turning off any noise and distractions – both physical and psychological. Take control of your coaching environment. If you’re meeting in person, control the physical environment as much as possible to make your client feel confortable and safe. Choose a spot that has minimal distractions and that is conducive to a private conversation. If meeting via Skype or over the phone, reduce or eliminate any noise around you as best as possible.
Quiet your mind. Some coaches find it beneficial to engage in a brief meditation exercise to quiet their mind. Reviewing your notes from previous sessions can help focus you on the coming time with your client. This is an opportunity to remove yourself from anything else that is happening in your world and in your mind leading up to this point. Your concerns have to be put on hold. If you have noise in your own head when you approach a session with your client, you will not be able to effectively help them, and that is the reason they are turning to you. You need to be there for them.
WAITing To Speak
WAIT is a commonly known acronym that stands for “Why am I talking?” It’s often referenced as a strategy in communication, relationships, networking, and business. It’s a way to check yourself and ask whether now is an appropriate or beneficial time to be speaking.
As coaches, we ideally listen 80% of the time while we are present for our clients, and talk 20% of the time. Sometimes this ratio can be challenging to maintain, but for our clients, it’s almost a necessity. As coaches, it is our job to listen so we can react accordingly, ask powerful questions that will spur our clients to action and acknowledge them when appropriate. If we’re not quiet, we cannot do those things effectively.
In our culture in the US, we’re conditioned to talk and fill any voids that may come up during a conversation. We often feel it’s necessary to make our voices heard and end up talking out of habit. But often that talk is not mindful; it’s empty filler. We can even say it’s akin to small talk, which has a definite purpose and function, but not in a coaching environment, perhaps maybe the start of an initial, exploratory session.
According to Dr. Loren Ekroth, a specialist in human communication and national expert in conversation, we can become more mindful in conversations by
first [seeing] the value in mindfulness, and then we must commit to being more mindful.
It can be especially difficult for a newer coach to master the pause because it can feel awkward or uncomfortable. For instance, when I was just starting out, I would find myself asking a question and rather than quietly waiting for a response, I would rephrase the question, asking it slightly different than the first time. While this technique can have a place in business or education, in coaching it only serves to muddy and delay the thoughts of the client. Fortunately I was able to recognize this issue quickly and change my habit. Likewise, not giving the client enough space to respond can lead to frustration.
If you’re asking powerful questions, you’re going to make your client think. You’re going to guide them to explore ideas, possibilities, paths, and solutions. Give them the opportunity and the space they need to process what you’re asking and arrive at their own answer or conclusion. It’s very important not to rush this.
WAITing to talk allows you to actively listen to your client. You can listen for what is being said and perhaps more importantly, what is not being said. You can observe how they are saying something – their tone, speed, facial expressions, and body language. If you’re actively listening, you’re able to observe and note any inconsistencies and incongruences.
According to Christi Byerly of Awaken Coaching, by using WAIT you’re engaging in power listening, which can be extremely beneficial to the client. It allows you to listen for a shift in the client. A shift in their perspective, in their understanding, their attitude, or resolve. You will be able to witness those “ah-ha” moments that we love to see in our clients.
By WAITing, you can better identify any excuses they give for why they do or do not do something, any discomfort that they are experiencing or perhaps if they are avoiding a question. If you can embrace the silence that may occur, you will gain a greater insight into the client’s actions, inactions or feelings and be able to respond or pose additional powerful questions. During your coaching session may be the only time in your client’s day where someone gives them that space, and that is truly a gift.
By recognizing the things mentioned above, you will be able to genuinely acknowledge your client.
As a coach, it is important to stay focused and present while WAITing, even if the silence goes on for a couple of minutes. During this time, the client is processing their response or pondering your comments/question. Give them the space to do that, as long as it takes. Learn to be comfortable in the silence and understand what a powerful tool it can be. The client is the one processing their response, not you. But make sure you stay focused and present so your mind does not begin to wander during this time, and you’re not jumping ahead to your next question or response, worse yet, thinking about what you need to do once the session is over.
Again, it is important to focus on the client, be present and give them your full attention. When you do this you will be able to respond and possibly ask another, equally powerful follow-up question. If your attention wanders, you may miss that opportunity.
Connecting Blank Slate And WAITing
So how can we tie together these concepts of blank slate and WAIT in a coaching perspective?
By entering into a coaching situation with a blank slate you are most able to benefit your client. You are giving them your full attention and ensuring that the session is about them and for them. You are conveying that they are driving the session, but you are right there next to them to guide them to action, to become the best version of themselves possible. You are giving the gift of attention, focus, space. You’re giving them room for thought, room to process, explore and think.
While commonly used in business, both of these concepts are directly applicable to coaching. In fact, you might argue that in order to excel in business, employing sound coaching practices will only serve to your benefit.
These are two tools that all coaches need to build into their arsenal. Once there, we need to nurture these skills and continue to refine our expertise with each. We need to find our own system for quieting our minds and surroundings before a session. We need to determine our own ways to turn ourselves into blank slates for the benefit of our clients. We need to practice WAITing and pause before we speak to ward off gut responses, interruptions or reactions.
By learning how to combine these two strategies, we’ll be on our way to providing the most supportive environment in which our clients can thrive and feel safe. And ultimately, there is no better gift we can give.