If you believe in the ICF approach to coaching, then you probably also agree that client empowerment is a top priority. Coaches may empower clients in many ways, including using a style of speech that is inviting rather than persuasive or directive. Invitation is inherently empowering because it makes no attempt to think or act for another person, and instead projects trust in another’s competence. Coaches who use invitation are consistently sending their clients the message, “You are in charge, and I trust you to find your own best awareness and answers.”
Persuasion, by contrast, is disempowering because it involves leading others to a belief, decision or action that is not of their design. If a coach persuades a client to take a course of action, even a helpful one, it’s hard to imagine that client feeling a greater sense of personal power as a result of that experience.
Directing or commanding represent the most extreme form of persuasion, so the more direction a person receives, the less power s/he feels. Coaches that frequently use persuasive language and tone are subtly sending their clients the message, “I know better than you, and you should trust me above yourself.”
Does occasional persuasion derail effective coaching?
When I confront coaching students on their use of persuasion during mentor coaching sessions, they initially feel micromanaged and harassed. How could innocent expressions such as “Let’s…” or “Tell me…” be damaging enough to deserve this much attention? A few instances of persuasion probably do not single-handedly undermine a coaching session. However, if you consider that clients, without realizing it, feel more or less empowered depending on the language and tone they encounter from their coach—and that a coach’s mission is to empower clients—then my demands for more invitation and less persuasion make sense.
Through a vigorous exercise routine, I may burn 1,000 calories, a big leap toward my health and fitness goals. If I eat an Oreo cookie afterwards, it doesn’t wipe out the entire benefit of my workout, but it does reduce my gains by 53.3 calories (or 70 calories if it’s a “Double Stuf”). Every cookie counts, because for each one I eat, I’m falling back from my full potential (1,000 calories burned). If I continue snacking, those losses begin to add up and can ultimately neutralize the majority of my progress. Persuasion in coaching has the same drain on client empowerment as Oreos have on physical fitness: a quiet, piece by piece movement in the wrong direction.
Why would coaches work hard to facilitate a client’s growth and sense of personal power, and then knowingly forfeit that client’s advances with the use of persuasion? With awareness of its negative impact on empowerment, I believe most or all would attempt to minimize persuasion, and replace it with increased invitation.
Language conversion made simple
Once coaches develop awareness of the persuasion in their speech, they begin to catch themselves, and soon start reframing their commands as invitations. The following examples demonstrate ways to achieve this shift:
Persuasion/ Direction Invitation/ Permission
“Let me stop you” “May we stop for a moment?”
“Let’s talk about…” “Would it be okay if we talked about…?”
“Tell me about…” “Can you tell me about…?”
“Try to…” “What have you tried to…?”
“Think about strategies for…” “Would you be willing to think about strategies for…?”
“Imagine you are…” “Can you imagine a situation in which you are…?”
“I want to explore…” “Would it be helpful to explore…?”
“Here’s what I think…” “May I make an observation?”
“Give yourself credit” “Can you give yourself credit…?”
“Why don’t we return to…” “Is it okay if we return to…?”
Why disguise persuasion when you can lead with invitation?
The last example demonstrates that starting a command with the word “Why” can disguise it as a question or invitation, but it still amounts to persuasion. Another way I catch coaches trying to cheat is asking permission to give advice, and then becoming directive. Seeking permission may soften the impact, but if it leads to pure persuasion, even with consent, this will still compromise the client’s empowerment.
Finally, some coaches have such a disarming demeanor that when they use directive statements like the examples above, their persuasion is less noticeable because they are so nice. My grandmother was also nice when she fed me Oreos, which no doubt enabled me to eat more of them. Instead of persuading nicely, charismatic and smooth-talking coaches can use their talents to double the empowerment impact of their invitations.