Mastering communication skills for coaching and mentoring
Effective communication is essential for success in coaching and mentoring. As the primary focus of these engagements is to generate insights and learning for the coachee or mentee, it is crucial that the practitioner has strong communication skills.
The practitioner must be able to adapt their communication style to engage and benefit the client fully.
In this article, we will explore the key communication skills required for effective coaching and mentoring, including active listening, empathy, clarity, questioning skills, feedback, nonverbal skills, and adaptability.
Active listening is a fundamental communication skill for coaching and mentoring. It involves paying close attention to what the coachee or mentee is trying to articulate, without imposing views or value judgments on the topic at hand.
Active listening can also involve summarising what a client has said in their language to provide a mirror of their thoughts so that they can be examined in a fresh light.
Follow-up questions can also be considered an element of active listening, which can be used to probe further or provide a shift of perspective for the client. Genuine curiosity can also be an element of active listening, following the path of the client’s thoughts to their logical ends.
Another critical communication skill for coaches and mentors is empathy. It involves the ability to understand and connect with the client’s feelings and experiences without any judgement.
This helps build rapport and establish deeper relationships with clients, leading to more meaningful and productive conversations.
As Nancy Kline notes, “Empathy is about being present in the moment with the person you are coaching or mentoring, listening deeply to what they are saying and to what they are not saying” (Nancy Kline, “Time to Think“, 113). It is crucial to pay attention to both verbal and nonverbal cues to get a full picture of what the client is trying to communicate.
In addition to active listening and empathy, clarity of communication is another essential skill for effective coaches and mentors. This involves being able to remain objective about the topics being discussed and distilling complex issues to their essence.
Practitioners should select language that is direct, objective, and free of misinterpretation. Clear communication also involves avoiding jargon or technical language and pitching communication to the level of the client based on what the practitioner knows of them.
As Kline notes, “Clarity is about being able to describe what you are thinking or feeling accurately” (Kline, “Time to Think”, 113). It helps to ensure that clients understand the conversation’s key points and the actions they need to take to achieve their goals.
As well as being a key aspect of active listening, effective questioning is often considered to be the bedrock of coaching and mentoring. However, it is important to note that there is a danger in becoming too focused on asking the “right” questions rather than truly paying attention to the client.
As Marcia Reynolds notes, coaches can end up spending more time trying to remember their question script than actually engaging with the client.
Instead, an effective coach or mentor should have the ability to reframe comments and observations into open questions, allowing the client to continue to think and talk aloud.
However, it is important to be aware of one’s own values, biases, and judgments and adjust them before posing questions. The purpose of follow-up questions is not to steer the client to a conclusion but to provide an opportunity for them to continue to think and examine their thoughts.
Clear and constructive feedback is a critical element of communication for coaches and mentors. It is important to maintain boundaries and address harmful behaviours, but it is equally important to provide feedback in a supportive manner that does not feel like an attack on the client.
An effective coach or mentor should be specific about the feedback they would like to offer, focusing on facts rather than using words like “you” or “I” which could make the conversation inflammatory.
Additionally, remaining calm and objective while being direct about the issue is crucial. Sometimes, saying something positive before and after can help, but it shouldn’t be used if the client is likely to ignore the feedback itself.
While Albert Mehrabin’s study of 37 female study participants back in 1967 was the source of the perpetuated myth that only 7% of communication is verbal (this thinking has been challenged since by Timothy Hegstrom (1979) and Ray Birdwistell who himself was criticised for his research).
There doesn’t appear to be a modern-day researcher who has challenged and developed this type of research recently.
Mehrabin himself published an update stating that “this and other equations regarding the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable “ (Mehrabian 1981).
However, whatever the exact percentage of communication that is non-verbal, it is widely accepted that it is important for effective communication.
Gesturing, body language, tone of voice and facial expressions all have their part to play in communicating effectively, more importantly helping others communicate more effectively and build a relationship of trust.
This is critical when we consider that “our brains operate with a negativity bias, that causes us to register even innocent expressions more readily than neutral or positive” (Marcia Reynolds, “Coach the Person” 178). “Mastery in coaching requires that you accept that you are a judgy, biassed person. To judge is human”.
We must however “catch and release” these judgy non-verbal reactions before they “sabotage your coaching” (Reynolds 179). This is easier said than done, but we can always strive to be a “nonreactive thinking partner” (Reynolds 182).
Being aware of what we communicate nonverbally is the starting point for this and echoing without investing in our clients’ non-verbal dialogue can help us build and strengthen relationships.
Finally, it has been touched upon in other elements of effective communication but adaptability lies at the core of great communication.
The ability and continued curiosity to try different styles of communication for the benefit of the client.
As people learn very differently and respond to different styles, clients respond and engage differently with different forms of communication. Sometimes their preferences can be determined by the type of character they are, or by formal assessments (such as Insights Colours or a personality questionnaire).
Whichever method is used, tailoring to the client’s needs should be the priority. For example, a practitioner will need to use different communication techniques to help a mentee who is introverted or shy to open up, or they may need to be more direct and authoritative with a mentee who is resistant to change. These techniques will develop and evolve with the engagement as they develop, gain insight and start improving their outcomes.
In summary, effective communication skills are essential for successful coaching and mentoring. By developing these communication skills, practitioners can create positive and productive coaching or mentoring relationships, leading to better outcomes for clients.