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

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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.


Matt Somers

Matt Somers

Matt Somers is the UK’s leading trainer of managers as coaches. His coaching skills training programmes, books, articles and seminars have helped thousands of managers achieve outstanding results through their people.

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