Using Language in Coaching to Generate Constructive Reality
By Jeremy Stunt
A few years ago I worked with Joyce (not her real name), the Hong Kong head of sales for a large multinational company. Joyce was seen as an important contributor in the company’s Asian region but was regarded by new management at head office as having an abrasive communication style.
The company had set challenging growth targets and Joyce’s stakeholders said she resisted constructive discussion about how her territory could contribute to those targets. They were also not happy about her attitude. They said she was angry during budget meetings and refused to listen to them. They also wanted her to stop what they called ‘inappropriate emotional outbursts’. I was engaged as a coach to help Joyce.
When I first met Joyce, it soon became clear to me that she was a very experienced business leader, well-respected by her staff and with a good track record of delivering strong business performance over many years. So what was the problem?
As Joyce explained to me, her new bosses at head office could not understand some important differences between markets in Asia. Hong Kong was a mature and saturated market for the company’s products compared to other parts of Asia where the market was newly opening and where growth potential was big. She felt strongly that they were imposing impossible growth targets that she could never deliver.
If someone is trying but failing to communicate an important message, they can often get very frustrated at the other party’s failure to understand. This was what was happening with Joyce. In fact I felt she was in a strong mood of resentment – bordering on anger – with her head office.
I felt for her too. I have worked on both sides of the head office / local office divide and have suffered similar frustrations about the other party not understanding the reality of the situation we face. And therein lies the problem: who is suffering and where does the suffering come from?
So what to do? Part of me was telling me that it was her fault she was suffering since clearly the way she was communicating with head office was not helping her, and that she should find a different way to communicate. I judged that given the mood she was in, telling her this wasn’t going to be the way to help her. And in any case, we coaches know better than to tell; we prefer to ask!
So I engaged her in a conversation to explore her situation in greater depth. I used one of my favourite ‘magic’ questions which is a version of ‘tell me about / tell me more about’.
After a few minutes of her speaking with some minimal prompting from me, I asked if I could share some observations about what I had heard. On getting her permission to share, I said that when she had been describing her interactions with head office I had heard her using the words ‘fight’, ‘battle’ and ‘war’ several times. She paused and then sighed deeply. I felt there was an important shift happening for her so I stayed silent. Eventually she sighed again and said ‘It feels like a war but I don’t want to fight them!’
We had reached an important juncture for Joyce as an observer of her own situation. By seeing that she had been languaging her situation as a battle, she had played a part in creating and sustaining a fight to be right. Joyce was experiencing that the words we use create our reality and can limit our options.
By being in a fighting mindset, Joyce seemed to have got herself trapped in a win-lose situation. And she didn’t want to be in this ‘war’: it was frustrating, tiring and a stressful distraction for her. As Alan Sieler has said, ‘our words can sentence us to a reality’ but by changing those words we can unlock new possibilities. It took a short coaching conversation to unlock this learning for Joyce in a deeply relevant way. You can’t change what you can’t see but once she saw how she was approaching her conversation, she was able to consider new and different ways to engage.
I invited Joyce to offer some different words and she changed her language from that of the battlefield. She reframed her situation not as a ‘war’ but as a ‘communication challenge’ – something that might be hard but that could be possible to navigate without having to ‘go to battle’. She even began to describe her situation as an opportunity to help her new head office colleagues understand the Asian market.
After another coaching session where we explored some moods that could be more resourceful than her previous moods of frustration, resentment and anger, Joyce began to show up with more constructive conversations with head office. These led to some new and innovative ways for her to contribute further revenue growth in her mature market. They also uncovered some ways for her, as a ‘veteran’ in the region, to share her experience with other territories to accelerate their revenue growth too.
For Joyce, all this began with her with her 're-languaging' her situation: new language unlocked new actions and possibilities.
If you are facing a challenge or stuck with something but don’t want your words to 'sentence you' to an unhelpful reality, you might want to consider these questions:
How are you describing your situation?
What do you notice about the words you use?
Where might you use different words that could be more helpful?
How might your mood be contributing to you being stuck?
What’s at stake for you here?
What actions are you willing to take to get unstuck?
One last question: if you are not a coach but were Joyce’s boss, how would you have handled the situation?
Jeremy Stunt is a UK based ontological coach and facilitator and he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org