How coaching promotes focus (and why it matters)

Written by Matt Somers on . Posted in Coaching Skills for Managers

Coaching Skills Series

This is one of many articles I intend to post this year considering the range of principles, skills and experiences you’ll need to be an effective coaching manager for the people in your team.

Here we consider how we can utilise the power of focus. In around two weeks I’ll post again on the matter of establishing trust.

focusThe ability to achieve a state of focus is surely the greatest asset any employee could have in the chaos that pervades in the world of work these days. When someone is focused they work with a quiet concentration that seems almost eerie. When someone is focused they achieve results with half the effort of their huffing and puffing colleagues and become so conscious of what’s going on that every task becomes a learning experience. Athletes talk of being ‘in the zone’; actors talk of being ‘in flow’ but these are all just alternative expressions for being focused. For many people it is a state they have experienced only rarely and often fleetingly when they do. However, it is a state that can be cultivated and I aim to show how the coaching approach achieves just that, but first we need to ensure we’re clear about exactly what focus is.

Focus distracts us from being distracted. When we’re focused we’re almost oblivious to other things that are going on around us as anyone who has experienced the condition will readily testify. Watch a teenager absorbed in a new computer game and you’ll see exactly what effective focus is like.

Focus follows interest though which means that before we can expect anyone to focus on their work or critical aspects of certain tasks we must take time to ensure that they’ll be interested. Many will be, but with other team members we may need to firstly create interest by explaining the requirements of a given task, underlining its importance and underlining any key connections with other work activity.

Focus needs to be appropriate, which in a work context normally means focusing on what is to be achieved rather than what is to be avoided. At the Aims stage it’s therefore important to set goals in positive language; ‘Achieving quality standards’ is better than ‘Minimise wastage’. ‘Keep spending within budget’ is better than ‘No overspends’

Ideally we should allow people to focus on one thing at a time. However this is virtually impossible in any modern place of work and so we need to try to minimize the numerous different areas of focus that vie for most people’s attention. A member of your team may well have ten things to do, but there’ll do them better in sequence rather than in parallel. This may mean some changes in the way that the work of your team is organised and distributed but it would be well worth the effort.

Imagine you work in a customer relation type role and I say to you ‘What do you most notice about the tone of your customer’s voice?’ To answer my question you’ll need to focus on the customer’s voice, which is of course exactly what I want you to do! But asking you about customer tone rather than instructing you to concentrate upon it raises your awareness, encourages you to take responsibility and demonstrates that I trust you. Thus focus combines these three key coaching principles.



Are you hearing what I hear? (The importance of listening in coaching)

Written by Matt Somers on . Posted in Coaching Skills for Managers

Coaching Skills Series

This is one of many articles I intend to post this year considering the range of principles, skills and experiences you’ll need to be an effective coaching manager for the people in your team.

Here we consider the art of listening. Next time we’ll move on to how all of these coaching attributes give the coachee the ability to find their focus.

ListeningI’ll assume here that your hearing is not impaired in any physical way and that your listening faculties are basically intact. How well do you listen? When people talk to you at work do you become oblivious to everything else or do you still partly monitor other conversations or watch what else is happening? Do you patiently wait while the speaker rummages in their mind for just the right word to describe their thoughts or do you finish their sentence for them; impatient to move on?

Listening is without doubt the key skill of the effective coach. In fact, it is the key skill of any professional engaged in helping others, from marriage guidance councellor to careers advisor. It is however a skill often deployed quite poorly because it is confused with hearing which we do all the time, and not recognized as a skill which needs attention and practice. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that when we talk of listening we are not talking about one thing. There are modes of listening or levels of listening if you prefer.

Level One is superficial

We hear the words of the other person, but the focus is on what it means to us. This brings about the problem that happens when coaching around an understanding of the current reality. That is, we worry about forming our own reality as coach, rather than allowing the coachee to explore and understand their own.

Level Two is passive

Here we tend to listen more carefully but are more concerned with content than feeling; we remain emotionally detached from the conversation. Useful for minute taking, essential if recording the content of a disciplinary interview, but not much use in a coaching conversation where it is just as important to demonstrate that we are listening as it is to listen in the first place.

Level Three is active

Hearing that picks up emotion, body language, and the context of what is being said.

Levels one and two listen primarily for words. Level three picks up everything else including all of the sensory data as well as mood, pace and energy.

For many of us the ability to operate at level three has dulled over time, but the good new is that it can be honed again quite quickly. Try to practice level three listening in situations other than coaching and see what happens to the quality of exchange. Try encouraging speakers by using verbal and non-verbal prompts. Nodding, raising eyebrows, smiling, using ‘I see’, or ‘Do go on’ are all ways to help you concentrate on your listening and encourage the speaker to continue. Summaries and using the speaker’s own words also serve to reinforce rapport and demonstrate that we are truly listening.

I sometimes think that coaching is like being a potter: you can do nothing without any clay. The clay in a coaching conversation is high quality thinking and its your listening that will really draw that out.


What are you looking at? (The importance of body language in coaching)

Written by Matt Somers on . Posted in Coaching Skills for Managers

Coaching Skills Series

This is one of many articles I intend to post this year considering the range of principles, skills and experiences you’ll need to be an effective coaching manager for the people in your team.

This post is about body language and will be followed up in a fortnight’s time by a further post on the subject of listening.

DogsWe know that developing our coaching skills has us asking carefully constructed coaching questions and listening intently to the response. We can also gain a lot of feedback about how well the session is progressing and the cochee’s readiness for change by monitoring their non verbal communication; that is their tone of voice and body language.

Professor Albert Mehrabian’s famous statistics back this up:

  •  7% of meaning is in the words that are spoken
  • 38% of meaning is paralinguistic (the way that the words are said)
  • 55% of meaning is in body language

In other words – and to paraphrase the song – it ain’t what the coachee says, it’s the way the coachee says it.

These statistics often seem odd at first glance, have been challenged widely and are often taken out of context but for now let’s you and I consider them merely helpful food for thought that makes intuitive sense.

Certainly words alone can be very confusing. Consider for example the sign at the start of this post that I saw on a recent trip on the London Underground system.

Simple enough sign, but I looked at it and thought What if you haven’t got a dog? My business brain got ticking and I began to think there might be an opportunity to rent dogs to commuters that they could carry on the escalator and hand in at the top. Someone from the dog rental firm would have to re-stock say, every half hour by bringing a big basket full of dogs back down to the beginning. How easily we can get side-tracked by unclear communication!

The power of paralinguistic communication – tone of voice – has been well known to politicians and those in the public eye for years. Just watch as any politician comes to prominence and you can almost see the work of the voice coaches coming through.

Body language consists of four elements. There is posture; how we hold ourselves whilst standing or sitting, gestures; the way we use our hands, expression; our eye, brow and mouth movements and adornment; the use of make-up, tattoos, jewellery and so on.

The good coach will monitor body language and tone of voice to check that these things are in sync with what the coachee is saying. If for example the coachee is claiming to be committed to the latest change project whilst slouched in their chair yawning, it’s clear what the real message is. Be wary though of taking non-verbal signals too literally. Scratching my nose may well mean I’m lying, but could also mean I have an itchy nose. Folding my arms my well be a defensive gesture or it could simply mean I’m more comfortable that way. It is groups of signals that give the real message, not single gestures.

As well as monitoring the coachee’s non-verbal communication, you can also use your own to help the conversation flow. Three ideas from NLP are particularly helpful: Try Pacing, that is, matching the coachee’s speed and volume of speech. You can also try Mirroring which is when you match the body language of the coachee (carefully and subtlety though I would suggest). When these have helped you establish rapport you can then use Leading which is where you change your own non-verbal communication and bring the coachee with you.