Working virtually is here to stay. There are many ‘how to’ blogs and videos on the technical aspects of using the technology so no need for me to repeat them here.
Many coaches already work via Zoom and Skype but, surprisingly, I hear from many coaches who don’t and who shy away from it. As most helping practitioners have been forced by the pandemic to move to working virtually, I thought it would be useful to share why I am such a fan of working virtually. Especially on the phone only, and how it can transform your clients and your coaching.
When we enter into coaching relationships with a client, or indeed any kind of helping practice, we are making a commitment to the priority outcome being beneficial for the client. I know that ‘benefit’ is tricky to define as often people take some time to get benefit and things can appear to unravel and get messier before they get better. Overall though the coaching is about them and not you. If a coach makes it all about themselves, however subtly, you could argue they are not coaching at all. I won’t go into that here but let us agree that the purpose is benefit for the client.
So what gets in the way of things working well in coaching?
There are a few counterintuitive things which I will explore briefly in my 5 points below.
1. Not having to deal with too much information about each other the coach and the client can be more self aware
Just being with a coach in a physical space can be a barrier for a client and, especially in early stages of coaching, for the coach. Humans are automated noticing animals. We have senses that are configured to pick up as much data as possible from the outside world. Whilst it might be the case that some clients are thoroughly self absorbed and not seeming to notice you as their coach, it does not mean that they are not noticing everything you do and your own psychological state. As body language research shows us we express ourselves physically in a myriad of subtle ways most of which we are unaware of and which we can struggle to control. If you recall a time in your coaching practice where you felt stuck with a client, where you suddenly did not know what to say. Your heart rate went up, you started to sweat a little, throat got a little dry? Ever happen? Well that all shows as small, even minute changes which another person, in this case your client, can pick up. What then is the impact on them? Depends of course on what you do next but for sure there is an impact.
Many practitioners find working virtually difficult because they believe that the more they can get information about their clients, the more they can notice their every move, shift of body, eye movement and so on the better they can work as a coach. I would question that assumption, especially in coaching, as coach awareness of the client is not the most important awareness that the coach needs to foster. The most desirable awareness that will work in the client's favour is awareness of themselves. Not awareness of you or your awareness of them.
To many practitioners this sounds counterintuitive but think about the opposite side of this for a moment and you can see it can’t be any other way.
So the problems that can arise from being together can be the distraction of the clients awareness of you and your awareness of them.
Working virtually then chokes off the information flows especially if you don’t use video but just stick to working with voice which is my preferred way of working virtually. In fact it is my preferred way of working full stop.
If you are working with video as well you will be facing the issues of how to stay staring at the screen for long periods of time and how to manage your screen behaviours. While being able to see each other is nice, I only use video to say ‘hello’ at the beginning of a coaching session and only if the client wants to see me and vice versa. Once we kick off we usually go with just audio. Of course, as this is coaching, the client gets to choose and if they want to sit looking at you they can. What I have discovered is that given the choice most clients choose audio only. What is important is to work it out together and experience the different combinations so that they are in a position to decide from session to session.
In the information reduced space there is room for other human aspects of connection to come into play. If you can only hear someone talking, breathing, phrasing words, pausing and so on you have to become a very focused listener. You can sense an enormous amount from just listening to what someone is saying and not saying. People know when they are being listened to at a deep level. They can sense it. Many clients report that being listened to and being able to listen are the top benefits of being in a coaching relationship. We can’t of course imagine a coaching relationship that was working properly if we were not listening deeply as coaches but it is surprising how poorly many coaches listen.
The client and you are liberated from having to deal with too many other pieces of information about each other's behaviour. We don’t have to be distracted by nose scratching, yawning, leg crossing, fidgeting, closing of eyes and so on. Should we be doing all these things in a coaching session? Coaches ought to be in a very clear state of awareness of themselves so as to be aware of how they are impacting the space but, until coaching mastery is approached, this can be hard to achieve.
The client then is left in a different kind of space when they are working with just your voice and, in my experience, this is overwhelmingly good for them which leads me to my second point.
2. Creation of safety client control of connection
All practitioners would agree that they want their clients to feel safe. This safety is then going to lead to the client being able to share details about themselves to the coach. This is usually seen as an overall good. Many coaches tell me that they are happy when a client tells them something that they are reluctant to tell anyone or indeed, have never told anyone. I agree only insofar as the most important aspect of this is that the client can tell themselves out loud. We cannot get too attached to the idea that the more disclosure the better. We cannot know for any particular client if that is always a good thing for them. This is for them to decide. What is true though in working virtually is that clients often feel safer when they are in a more controlled and distant situation.
I had a client, let’s call him Phil. Phil was struggling with addictions of various kinds. He insisted that we should meet face to face but when we did he was continuously nervous and uncomfortable. Nothing I did seemed to change this and we really were not making headway.
I suggested for a session that we work on the phone. He resisted but agreed. The next time we spoke he was at home. Fifteen minutes into the call he started to pour out some things that he felt really bad about and that were haunting him. It was a turning point and we made good progress together. I asked him why it had been so tricky to share with me before we went to the phone call. He said he found his shame too difficult to overcome when he was in a room with me. He could not bear to see my response up close and personal. He added that he assumed that my response would be judgmental of him in some way and that he would see that on my face or behaviour. I like to say that of course he would not have and I am skilled at self control but this was not about me but about his beliefs about himself in relation to me. He also added that he knew that if he felt too ashamed he could always just put the phone down and immediately stop our connection. This spoke to the need to have a high level of control over the connection between them and their coach. People use it to manage their intimacy and feelings around personal safety in highly charged emotional situations.
Counter intuitively, then, working in a way that seems weaker can bring other benefits.
3. The power of accessing varied settings
Traditionally helping profession sessions take place in a regular setting at regular times. How this practice evolved is not a matter for this blog but it is not a practice that necessarily works to the benefit of clients.
People are not the same at all times of day, week or year. We are rhythmic, our moods go up and down and, vitally, we are shaped and influenced by our environments.
I argue that to understand another person as widely as possible it is necessary to be with them in contexts and settings that vary. Working remotely via video and phone means that the coaching relationship can extend out more into their worlds and environments.
Another client, let's call her Jane, was experiencing difficulty with parenting and the communication with her son in his early teens. This was spilling over into other areas of her life, her marriage and her ability to work.
I was working with her via phone and our coaching conversations took place when she was either at work in a private room, in cafe’s, when she was walking or when she was at home. On one occasion she was particularly distressed due to an argument with her son. That evening the son was out with his father and my client was home alone. We were talking while she was in her home office. The conversation focused on the troubled relationship and what she wanted to say to her son but could never seem to find a clear way to do. In addition there were aspects of the situation that related to her own childhood relationship with her own mother.
At a certain point I asked her if she was willing to continue our coaching conversation from her son’s bedroom. She agreed and went upstairs and sat on her son’s bed. Surrounded by her son’s world and bedroom environment Jane was able to access feelings and insight into herself that had previously eluded her. She had a conversation with her son as if her son was there with her which led to the release of deep emotions. This was a turning point for Jane and the relationship moved on and improved greatly over the next weeks.
Working like this with a client would not be possible without being willing to embrace distance coaching via phone. This story about Jane and many other coaching experiences like this have shown me the power of environment to shape insight and self awareness with clients and the opportunities for coaches to be profoundly more helpful by working with clients in their own settings.
4. Flexibility and creativity
I am coaching a young man in his mid twenties, Jack. He does not yet know what he wants from life. We have been working together for a few weeks when he starts to have a recurring dream. In his dream he goes into a dark wood late at night and meets another version of himself who shares truths about his life and what he really wants.
After three recurrences of this dream I ask Jack if he knows where the wood is. He tells me that he passed a wood like that in his dreams when taking a bus ride. I ask him if he would like to go to the wood at some time and we have a coaching session while he is there.
Jack is intrigued and a little nervous about the idea. He thinks about it and then to my surprise says he would like to do it if we can do it late in the evening. We spend a little time designing how this will work and set a date and time.
The full story of Jack’s experience is too long to go into here but the impact is significant for him. Jack experiences a shift in how he relates to himself and his life which results in a real world change of profession. In the woods his experiences of himself are profound. As he draws the world of his dreams closer to his conscious experience of self more information of all kinds becomes available.
Working like this as a coach requires courage and confidence and should not be done so lightly. It illustrates the potential and possibility of taking the coaching relationship into other situations, places and contexts. This is creative coaching and creativity can be generated in ways that are unavailable in traditional coaching settings.
5. Transforming you, the Coach
So far I have been writing about the opportunities that working on the phone and or video can afford the client. In terms of your ability to coach I would argue that great coaches can coach well and with mastery in any situation, face to face, on the video, on the phone, by email, carrier pigeon and so on.
The focus then is on developing coaching range and confidence so that you can use blended approaches, effortlessly moving from one to another. This means you can be responsive to your clients. You can hardly work effectively with online coaching with your client if you are terrified of it. So getting familiar with it is vital.
What this will do for you is build up your different abilities around listening, presence, powerful questions and so on. It means you can understand what leaving behind issues like what to wear for a coaching session can allow to happen. One of my coach trainers I had many years ago when I was in certification told us he coached all his clients on the phone in his underwear or dressing gown! At the time we were all a little shocked. I got it after a while when I realised that there is something about coaching when you are exposed physically that maps onto being open at a deep level to humanity.
As coaching virtually means no travel, no parking problems and so on it means more time freed up to undertake other activities related to doing your work in the world. It means a slightly different financial model too.
You can experiment with coaching from different environments. Maybe the countryside or the top of a tall building , cafe or hotel room. In short through this flexibility you can find out who you are as a coach. The great enemy of coaching mastery is inertia. Mastery is a living thing that requires flow and change. Without that it ceases to be mastery. If you want to be or keep being an excellent coach you need to be a constant learner. Taking your practice into new environments and realms helps to do that.
Please let me know how you get along.