Research Paper By Betsy Sajdak
(Career Coach, UNITED STATES)
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in sweeping social and economic changes around the world. These changes have been seen in nearly every environment that we both work and play in. These universal changes are as widespread as shutting down sports venues to fans, sending workers home to work, limiting large gatherings at weddings and funerals, and even changes to civic activities such as voting. As we live within the confines of the pandemic and develop our “new normal” there are many safety measures that have been put into place which may not quickly go away. The most pronounced of these safety measures are social distancing and the wearing of masks.
Interestingly, in North America, the wearing of masks has traditionally been associated with health-care workers, particularly those in/helping with surgery, superheroes, and at times, people who have a known illness. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing and mask mandates have become the norm. At the time of this writing, only two states do not have a “mask mandate,” and those states are Iowa and South Dakota. A study published in The Lancet on June 1, 2020, on the efficacy of social distancing and wearing masks, found that “wearing face masks protects people (both health-care workers and the general public) against infection by these coronaviruses and that eye protections could confer additional benefit.”1 With that in mind, as a society, we are going to have to learn to incorporate social distancing and face masks as our new norm.
Social distancing and indoor mask mandates bring up an interesting challenge for the professional coach, especially when starting a new, in-person coaching relationship. The International Coaching Federation (ICF) Core Competency (C) – Communicating Effectively, has a ‘Listens Actively’ section that outlines what active listening looks like for the coach, including “noticing….nonverbal cues or other behaviors” and “notices trends in the client’s behaviors and emotions across sessions to discern themes and patterns.”2In an article on non-verbal communication, Hall, et. al. asserted that “If you only listen to what a person says and ignore what that person’s face is telling you, then you really only have half the story.”3 In another article published online, Dr. Bryn Farnsworth notes there is a way to code emotions by reading facial expressions. This coding is called the facial action coding system (FACS). When using this coding, thirty-three out of forty-six of the main facial actions involve the nose or mouth – areas typically covered by a traditional facemask. Further, the article states, “Using FACS, we can determine the displaced emotion of a participant. This analysis of facial expressions is one of the few techniques available for assessing emotions in real-time.”4 To effectively coach, the coach needs to “share observations, insights, and feelings” and this is based on active listening which ICA defines as focusing “on what the client is and is not saying to fully understand what is being communicated.”2 As such, it is important for the professional coach to read and unmask the emotions other ways since the client’s nose and mouth are covered by a face mask. In an article published in May of 2020, Mark Craemer states, “Without being able to see the nose or mouth, you’ll need to rely more on what is revealed in their tone of voice and what you can determine from the other person’s eyes.” Craemer adds, “You’ll need to work harder to understand their intent, seek information from their body language and continually check your assumptions to fully understand.”5
To coach effectively while your client is wearing a facemask, the coach must employ three techniques: 1) Active Listening; 2) Reading of Body Language, and 3) Using Intuition. In the remainder of this paper, we will explore these three areas. Since the coach cannot see half the client’s face when masked, the professional coach must make effort to use these techniques to have an effective session.
First, active listening is a hallmark of professional coaching and according to ICA, “one of the most vital services we can provide.”6Listening is a verb that goes far beyond just hearing. Active listening makes the coach take into account the client’s tone of voice, tempo, and inflection, and articulate back not just what the client is saying, but also what the client means by what they are saying. Inactive listening, the coach is hearing what the client means, but then clarifies that to be sure. The coach is actively listening to and processing the words that the client uses and just as important, how the client uses those words. The tone, speed, and pitch of the client’s voice give clues to their emotions. According to an article published online by Forbes.com “Active listening is an analytical exercise: It requires concentration on what is said – words, tone, body language, etc. – and in the moment processing of the implications.”7 Facemasks certainly challenge the coach by covering up close to half the client’s face and two-thirds of their facial sense organs (nose and mouth). Because of this covering, the coach cannot easily tell if the client said something with a sly smile showing sarcasm, or the same comment said with a straight face and a downturned mouth showing angst about the situation. According to the book Co-Active Coaching, “Listening…is the gateway through which all coaching passes,”8and the use of facemasks makes the active listening role of the coach vitally important.
Next, in this pandemic era where facemasks are now a mandate for most indoor face-to-face communication, the coach must work to read the client’s full body language. In the good ole’ days, the coach was able to clearly see the client’s face including the small nuances of the nose and mouth. Many muscles in the lower facial region allow the client to have both facial and micro-facial expressions. All of these expressions and small facial nuances have significant meaning. Now, the coach must look further and read the client’s eyes and larger body movements and body positioning.
It has been said that “the eyes are the window to the soul” and as coaches, we must look through the eyes to the soul to accurately hear the client. Hearing the soul through the eyes of the client will give the coach clues to the client’s emotions and the meaning behind the words the client is saying.
Culturally, individuals have varied responses to direct eye contact. In the United States, direct eye contact typically means engagement with the other person. However, in Muslim and Asian countries, direct eye contact has a very different meaning and even different meaning depending on what gender is initiating this direct eye contact. The professional coach needs to be aware of these cultural differences when face to face coaching, particularly if the coach is using all her skills and attempting to read the client by way of eye contact.
In 2017, before we were wearing masks indoors, a study was done by Nestor, et. al. where faces were obscured and revealed with small tiles. Nestor, et al. found that from the eyes, subjects could correctly discern fear and sadness while the mouth best-discerned disgust and happiness. Additionally, when wearing a mask, subjects leaned toward interpreting more negative emotions.9With that data revealed, the professional coach must always be aware that masking may produce more intuitively negative thoughts and the client’s true emotions may not be fully heard.
Coaching in a face-to-face setting during the pandemic will bring challenges in reading emotion so, in addition to reading the client’s eyes, the professional coach will need to read body language and unpack other emotional cues. Reading body language starts when the client enters the coaching space – How did the client enter the room? Other factors the coach must consider are the speed in which the client walks to his/her seat, the client’s posture, the crossing of arms/legs, and even noticing the client’s repetitive movements if any. All of these cues can tell you more about the client’s emotional state, motivation, and engagement with the session. It will be key to merge the body language seen by the coach with active listening – all while checking in with the client to be sure that the coach is not misinterpreting these cues.
According to Psychology Today, “Body language is a vital form of communication, but most of it happens below the level of conscious awareness.” 10Many times we are not consciously aware that we are reading and interpreting body language. In a coaching relationship, it will be vitally important for the coach to check her interpretation of the client’s body language. According to Travis Bradberry, “55% of all communication comes from body language.”11 We have all heard that the crossing of one’s arms shows that a person is closed off to the communication or idea being presented, but what about if the client is talking with arms and legs crossed? The coach could interpret this body language as the client not being open to ideas, the client not telling all of or being embarrassed by the issue, or conversely, that it may just be chilly in the meeting space. Mirroring, where the client mirrors the body position of the coach, is another clue to the client’s emotional state. When the client mirrors the body language of the coach the client is showing a bond with the coach. Likewise, the coach can use this same language of mirroring the client, strengthening the coach-client relationship.
In addition to active listening and reading body language, the coach will have to use her intuition when coaching the face masked client to engage, ask powerful questions, and provide for a user session. Hannah Bates in Psychology Today defines intuition as, “a form of knowledge that appears in consciousness without obvious deliberation,” further, “Intuition relies on pattern matching as the mind combs experiences stored in long-term memory for similar situations and presents in-the-moment judgments based on them.”
Intuition is an often-overlooked skill that many presume is little more than making an assumption. However, while intuition and an assumption both are verbalized thoughts or feelings based on a hunch, coaching intuition actually takes an extra step. The extra step with coaching intuition is checking in with the client on the intuition and being open to the client’s response, including feedback of being off-track. For example, in the statement, “I feel like you know what you want to do. What do you think about that?” The coach makes an intuitive statement, invites the client to respond, and then accepts the client’s answer without presuming their intuition is correct. In contrast, when a person makes an assumption, that assumption is often not checked out but rather acted upon, “I assumed that you wanted your car put into the garage, so I did it.”
Intuition becomes increasingly important for the professional coach when coaching a face masked client as the coach won’t as easily be able to discern shifts in energy or emotion. Intuition is often described as a ‘gut feel’ without a true explanation. As we have discovered, many times this intuition or ‘gut feel’ comes from signals just underneath our consciousness. However, there is more to this ‘gut feel’ than just a saying. According to Judith Orloff, “Just like the brain, there are neurotransmitters in the gut that can respond to environmental stimuli and emotions in the now – it’s not just about past experiences.” 12It is this ‘gut feel’ that we often target as our intuition.
Now that we have explored what intuition is and why it is important, lastly, we will explore how to listen to this intuition. The coach needs to practice her intuition skills to refine the accuracy of her intuition and to be able to effectively communicate intuitive statements to her clients. In an article by Marcia Reynolds in Psychology Today, listening to your intuition is discussed then the author lists steps to take to refine your intuition. These steps are, first, listen to your head – this would equate to the coach actively listening to the client. Next, Reynolds encourages curiosity, a hallmark sign of a good coach. Take a breath and clear your mind is third and lastly, relax and listen to your gut. If the coach takes these steps it will be easier for the coach to develop her intuition even when the client is masked and will allow the coach to share this intuition without investment in the client’s response.
When developing a new in-person coaching relationship with a client, the pandemic has brought about new, specific challenges for the coach including social distancing and the wearing of facemasks. Facemasks that cover half of the client’s face make it difficult for the coach to assess changes in energy shifts and emotion. As coaches, we can’t ignore energy shifts and emotion, we just need to learn additional ways to read our clients. As we discovered, the coach that pays attention to challenges brought on by the pandemic and implements techniques to overcome the challenges will be successful. It will be useful for the coach to actively listen to the client, including tempo, word choices, inflection, and tone. Additionally, the coach needs to read the client’s eyes and body language to see what is happening in the client’s soul. Lastly, it remains important for the coach to develop her intuitive skill to put all of these skills together to ask powerful questions and to make powerful observations to create new learning for the client. By putting all of these coaching tools together, the coach will be able to unmask the client’s emotions to both survive and thrive during the pandemic.
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International Coaching Federation Guidelines. Date Accessed: October 19, 2020.
Hall JA, Horgan TG, Murphy NA.Nonverbal Communication. Annual Review of Psychology. January 2019;70(1):271-294.
Farnsworth, B Facial action coding system (FACS): A Visual Guidebook. Date published: August 18, 2019. Date accessed: October 20, 2020.
Craemer M Unmasking Emotions: EQ during a Pandemic. Date: May 18, 2020. Date accessed: October 20, 2020.
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Bradberry T 8 Ways to Read Someone’s Body Language Date: May 4, 2017. Date accessed: October 22, 2020.
Oakley C The Power of Female Intuition Date accessed: October 21, 2020.