If I, as a life coach am to become an effective communicator, I think I must (1) understand my current limitations and (2) be open to learning how to improve and gain proficiency over such matters. Effective communication strategies are at the heart of life coaching and are crucial to professional success (Morreale et al, 2016). I have noticed my own improvements over time as I have gained more knowledge and awareness on this topic and have experienced the positive results when working with my clients. The ability to communicate and build quality relationships with my clients is of utmost importance and has even been noted among the competencies exemplified by top leaders (Goleman, 2013 as cited in Egan, 2012). During this reflective process I have chosen to focus on the roles of empathy, paralanguage, and active listening. I found these elements to be of a sub-standard quality when working with my clients, and further feel that if I am to be of most value to my clients then these components must be addressed and improved on. By paying attention to how I define each component, its role in communication and counselling, and knowing how to make best use of it to create the best possible outcomes for my clients is at the core of this continued educational process.
While the exact definition of empathy varies, most will agree that empathy is the ability to accurately assess, interpret and understand the feelings of another, and as described by Krzesni (2015) “is a necessary prerequisite for altruism and compassion”. Empathy is seen as a desirable personal characteristic in counselling and is a crucial skill to hone if one is to create effective treatment strategies and interventions, so that client satisfaction is achieved (Clark, 2010 as cited in Egan, 2012; Bayne & Hays 2016). While Carl Rogers found that (1) congruence (genuineness or realness), (2) unconditional positive regard (acceptance), and (3) accurate empathic understanding (Midwinter, et al., 2020) are the three must-have attributes to cultivate, Egan (2012) emphasises the importance of empathic responding with regard to (1) knowing how to respond, and (2) understanding how to effectively deliver such a response during a therapy intervention. Combined, these skills assist the therapist to be present and responsive to the client’s needs.
The developing relationship between the Life Coach and client should, in my opinion, be grounded in the intelligent use of empathy and empathetic responding by the Life Coach to provide a non-judgemental space (Bayne & Hays, 2016) for the client to explore their presenting issues. Making use of empathy can lead to a deeper understanding of what the client is feeling about their issue and may help to identify more responsive and targeted treatments (Neumann et al., 2009 as cited in Egan, 2012). By embedding empathy into one’s responses so as to communicate understanding, allows the client to feel fully understood and accepted for who they are as a unique individual. This builds trust in the client/counselling relationship and which may hopefully lead to the required behavioural change over time.
I feel my need to be a problem-solver during my earlier interventions has been one of my greatest stumbling blocks on my journey to becoming a better communicator across the cultural spectrum and therapist. I failed to realise that even though solutions to clients presenting problems are important, that what was more important was helping my clients to feel understood, valued and accepted. Clients need to feel listened to and that their stories are important. They need to be able to trust the therapist with their potentially deepest and most intimate memories, thoughts, and feelings.
Going forward it will be important put aside my own need to be seen as a problem-solver, but to focus on being fully present and attentive for my clients. I must express empathetic understanding in my behaviour and communication style so my clients can feel they can trust me. By taking these steps I feel that I will then be able to help them realise their own innate intelligence and problem-solving abilities to make the required changes in their lives.
Active listening is the ability to not only pay full attention to what is being said and how it is being said, but to be present the conversation in a way that respects the general worth of the speaker (Rogers & Farson, 1987). The need for concentration, commitment and mental engagement in this process is high as the listener must accurately assess the theme of the conversation and how the individual components fit together to make story meaningfully complete (Egan, 2012). For this to happen the listener must avoid getting distracted by their own thoughts and try not to interrupt the speaker. By applying active listening skills, the listener must utilise nonverbal communication and backchannelling (Rost & Wilson, 2013 as cited in DeVito, 2019) to demonstrate to the speaker that they are fully engaged in the conversation. Things such as appropriate eye contact, verbal fillers, silence, and open body posture keep the listener actively and visibly engaged. It is a useful tactic in life coaching as it allows the Life Coach to better understand what is being said, and then to use that information to respond appropriately to the client.
Active listening is important in not only counselling, but also useful in everyday conversations. When a speaker feels they are being listened to; that the focus is on them; that they feel acknowledged and understood; and that the feedback from the listener is relevant to the conversation, then they will feel more comfortable with the listener (Rogers, 1980 as cited in Egan 2012). Once the speaker feels comfortable to express themselves, then the active listener will be provided with opportunities to give informed responses effectively with questions to expand on what is being said, to stay on topic, and then assist the speaker to dig even deeper into their issue. By making a conscious effort, active listeners are better able to pick up on subtle emotions, which can lead to empathic understanding, and then further to empathic responding (Egan, 2012). This is especially helpful in therapy as it can direct the therapist to core issues and crucial bits on information that the client is experiencing.
I have found that conventional conversations often lack many important considerations for the speaker. As the listener, I have often resorted to a problem-solver, or a “me too” mentality, and have been susceptible to three conversational errors during conversations. (1) I have often been inclined to get lost in my own thoughts and lose important information from the conversation. (2) I have failed to listen-to-understand but would rather listen so I can compare to my own life, and then provide advice on what I would do if I were in their position. (3) I would interrupt the other person as soon as I thought I could give valuable information.
Active listening is a conscious choice one must choose to work with, and fine tune if one is to gain any mastery over. Therefore, as an aspiring Life Coach, I must choose to hold back the need to make the counselling conversation about me and my expertise, and rather focus on what the client needs by utilising the valuable skills that active listening provides. Active listening is a crucial skill to enhance so as to be directly engaged in the conversation with the client, so one can then provide high quality intervention strategies that are best suited to that client.
Paralanguage, also known as vocalics, refers to the nonverbal vocal aspects of speech that provides information. Paralanguage has an impact on speech as it helps to express emotion, articulate meaning, and convey underlying messages (Meservy & Burgoon, 2008 & DeVito 2019). Paralinguistics, which is the study of paralanguage, investigates the way vocal expressions, and even the lack thereof which influences and modifies speech. Common examples include inflection, pitch, sarcasm, hesitation, verbal fillers, volume, intonation, prosody, and speed (Schandorf, 2020). In simple terms it pays attention to how something is said as opposed to what is being said. Its purpose is to create contextual information about what is being said by the speaker so the listener can better understand the implied message (DeVito, 2019). Listeners form physical, personality and evaluative impressions about the speaker by the way they use paralanguage (DeVito, 2019).
Paralanguage is important to be aware of in counselling as it allows the counsellor to notice potential implied messages, meanings, assumptions, and feelings that the client may be expressing beyond the actual words being spoken. What Pedersen (2009) terms “inclusive cultural empathy”, allows clients to feel like the Life Coach is fully engaged in the conversation as core messages can be picked up on by the aware Life Coaching. If for example the client exclaims in a loud tone, “… Then he said that it was all my fault that the project failed”, the therapist will notice the volume may be demonstrating anger and frustration, while the intonation on the word “my” seems to point to disbelief by what the client heard. At this point the life coach may paraphrase the following, “He (intonation) said it was your (intonation and increase in volume) fault. I see how this can make you angry (affirming the client’s feelings).” Being aware of a client’s unique use of paralanguage and knowing how to make best use of one’s own paralanguage can build the foundation of being an empathically accurate perceiver (Ickes, 1997 as cited in Egan, 2012).
Since counselling and communication skills are a core component of my work, it is crucial to understand paralanguage and its effective use, and the consequences of its misuse. Since, in my personal life I like to make use of humour, I found myself adopting that attitude with my clients and would often resort to using sarcasm. I assumed it could lighten the mood and point out my client’s blind spots or errors in thinking and behaving. While this strategy can work if used with tact, overusing, or misusing it can make a person feel judged and/or ridiculed.
I now value and understand how important something like paralanguage can be in a counselling environment. I am now learning to notice my assumed interpretation of the messages and feelings behind the words being said by my clients. This deeper form of engagement also allows me to immerse myself in their world as they relay it to me. To get more value out of paralanguage I feel it is important to notice it when my client speaks and then to clarify and/or paraphrase various core moments expressed via paralanguage that I feel stand out. Furthermore, I feel it’s necessary for me to learn how best to improve my own style of paralanguage with my clients, so they feel more understood.
The take-away message that I have gathered from this reflective writing process is to identify how best to make one’s clients feel valued, understood and respected for who they are and what they are coming to counselling for. By continued and refined practise of skills such as empathy, paralanguage, and active listening, I feel I can become a therapist for my clients. Furthermore, I feel that these cognitive skills are guidelines when dealing with real-life situations and not hard-and-fast rules and should always be used with wisdom and appropriate use if one is to become a great life coach.
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