Listening in Coaching: Paraphrasing and the Power of You | Barkley

Paraphrasing and the Power of “You”

In The Leader’s Guide to Coaching in Schools, John Campbell and Christian van Nieuwerburgh, share key coaching skills; several of which I think closely connect to listening skills.

  • Being Present – “There are few greater gifts we can give another person these days than being present.” Giving full and focused attention is a powerful way to build trust.
  • Listening Actively – “Listening at a level that really hears not only words but also emotions is enormously affirming, generating insights and self-understanding.” Listening in coaching isn’t a request for more information but rather enabling the teacher to listen to herself.
  • Clarifying – “Clarifying consists of confirming that the coach has heard and understood what the coachee has said and intended.” The coachee should gain greater clarity herself from the coach’s clarifying process.

Group of a young business people discussing business plan at modern startup office buildingIn my training and coaching of coaches, questioning and paraphrasing are often a focus of my work. Hand in hand the two coaching skills encourage teacher reflection that increases understanding and decision-making processes for future action. I describe this as empowering.

The confirmatory paraphrase is a statement rather than a question. After paraphrasing facts, feelings, or thoughts, the teacher will often confirm whether your response is on target by answering “yes” or “no.” While usually, our goal with confirmatory paraphrases is to get a “yes” response, indicating that our listening was accurate. A “no” response can indicate that our interpretation was off, encouraging the teacher to add new information to increase understanding. Note that making your tone of voice go up at the end of a statement makes it a question. The confirmatory paraphrase is not a question; it’s a statement. “You want students to have some struggle.” differs from “You want students to have some struggle?”

Confirmatory Paraphrases can clarify…

  • Facts – what happened (details of event/experience)
  • Feelings – emotions expressed verbally or nonverbally through tone of voice facial expression and body language
  • Opinions – views and beliefs

Recently, a blog from the Wharton Business School triggered me to explore another possibility as to why the confirmatory paraphrase is so useful in coaching. Titled What Makes Songs Popular? It’s All About ‘You’, the post features an interview with Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger, who with Grant Packard, a marketing professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business, completed a study that zeroes in on the pronoun “you.”

They found that songs with more “you” were more successful. People like a song more when it has more “you’s” in it and they like it more because it encourages them to think about someone in their own life that they feel that way towards.

“The word ‘You’ can drive action, even outside of music.”

– Jonah Berger

Notice that paraphrases most often contain the word you.

You are finding that…
As you see it…
Your thinking is…
You want to be sure that…
You’d like to find…
It sounds like you are convinced that…
Your point is…
You want me to…

Berger shares that, “Beyond the music industry, this has a lot of interesting implications. There’s other work showing that the word “you” can increase attention. For example, if I’m reading an ad or a piece of mail or an e-mail, and a subject line says, “You need to read this,” or “You won’t believe what happens next” — think about the clickbait world. You often see a lot of second-person pronouns used in very successful online content because it encourages us to pay attention.”

Another piece of advice for coaching was present in this study. Be cautious using you in closed-ended questions. Consider calling for customer service and getting these questions: “Have you tried this? or “Did you think about doing this?” When you use the word “you” a lot in a customer service context, it can make people feel like you think they are responsible. Customers can get really annoyed about that.

This rings in my ears when I hear a coach say, “Have you thought about…?” The teacher tends to hear,” You should have thought about…” This question frequently brings a defensive response. The teacher describes “why” the suggestion, which is built into the question, did not or would not work.

Coach: Have you considered using breakout rooms?

Teacher: My students won’t take responsibility for participating in non-facilitated conversations.

It’s very difficult for the coach to continue exploring the idea now. I find that increasing confirmatory paraphrases and asking fewer (especially closed-ended) questions in coaching settings generates more conversation. Paraphrases invite a response while questions can require a response. Conversation sets the stage for the teacher, hearing his/her own voice, to find clarity and ownership of future direction.

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