On the journey to becoming an effective coach, we continuously expand our awareness and ability to build great rapport, engage in highly effective listening and ask powerful questions which help clients go into the layers of their unconscious thoughts and actions.
When we face challenges within this coaching relationship, we might naturally reflect on the dialogue between the coach and the client to explore what might have been misunderstood, what might else we might have asked or how we missed a critical issue.
However, as Clutterbuck and Megginson describe in their book Further Techniques for Coaching and Mentoring (2007), there are, in fact, multiple conversations taking place and each might hold the clue to where the challenge could be resolved. He points out that both coach and client are engaged in reflective conversations before, during and after each session and that the solution to the challenge might well be outside of the spoken dialogue and within the unspoken/reflective inner dialogue.
His, now well-known, Seven Conversations of Coaching model provides an exceptionally useful tool for considering these conversations and how they might help us achieve better outcomes from a coaching relationship.
The Seven Conversations model offers a practical framework to review the coach’s and client’s spoken and unspoken conversations as follows:
- The Coach’s self-reflection and inner conversation before the session
- The Client’s self-reflection and inner conversation before the session
- The Coach reflection-in-action/inner conversation during the session
- The Spoken Conversation between coach and client during the session
- The Client’s reflection-in-action/inner conversation during the session
- The Coach’s self-reflection and inner conversation after the session
- The Client self-reflection and inner conversation after the session
It’s clear just from listing these seven conversations, that the inner conversation is a major piece of the jigsaw, yet, when we think about coaching, we tend naturally to think about the external dialogue.
The key aim of the Seven Conversations model, then, is to expand the supervisee’s awareness of these multiple conversations and to explore how such awareness might support the coach.
The spoken dialogue becomes just one facet of an ongoing matrix of conversations when we expand our awareness of the unspoken dialogue and self-reflection.
Practical Questions for the Seven Conversations
The effectiveness of the coaching conversation will be affected by the mental preparation, thoughts, feelings and actions of both the coach and client prior to the session.
A supervisor then might want to explore what the coach and client were thinking before the session.
Questions relating to conversations before the session might include:
The Coach’s self-reflection and inner conversation before the session
- How were you feeling as you came to the session?
- What was on your mind?
- What concerns did you have?
- What were you hoping for from the session?
- What outside issues were you thinking about?
Whilst preparation of the coaching conversation is important, being present and “holding the space” as a coach is equally vital and ensuring sufficient space between the reflection and beginning of the coaching session may be useful to support this. Indeed, supervision provides the perfect space for this.
The Client’s self-reflection and inner conversation before the session
Whilst we can’t know what a client was thinking before a session, we can certainly use supervision to help the coach guide the client to think in a more reflective manner.
Clients might not be used to thinking in this particular way and the coach can usefully guide them. Some useful reflective questions for the client would be:
- What are my key takeaways since our last session?
- What support do I need from my coach?
- What would I like to focus on in this session?
- What is my motivation for overcoming my challenges?
- How do I feel about my relationship with the coach?
- Is there any other support I need from my coach?
An additional element that can be brought in to supervision, along with helping the coach to more clearly guide the client in their reflective thinking, is to the impact of the imagined conversation of the client. What does the coach imagine the client was thinking and how did that affect the coaching?
During the session:
Once the coaching session is underway, it might be tempting to think that the spoken dialogue is the only conversation taking place. But we all know what it’s like to be having an inner conversation even as we speak with someone else! Acknowledging and exploring the inner conversations during coaching is a core part of supervision then.
The Coach reflection-in-action/inner conversation during the session
Our inner dialogue during the coaching conversation will be running in parallel to the spoken dialogue, this is also known as reflection-in-action, and requires us to hold our observations lightly, whilst remaining present to the spoken dialogue, some reflective thoughts we may want to observe as a coach are:
- What is the current level of my listening?
- What assumption might I be making?
- Am I present?
- How am I feeling in the space? (Awareness of any discomfort)
- What am I noticing about the client’s unspoken dialogue?
- How might my client be feeling?
The Spoken Conversation between coach and client during the session
As mentioned, this is usually the main area of focus on reflection by both the coach and client. Whilst less experienced coaches may not yet be aware of the inner dialogues taking place, experienced coaches will have an awareness of all three dialogues whilst remaining observant of the dynamics of the spoken conversation, whilst reflecting on questions such as:
- Are we exploring multiple perspectives?
- What am I noticing about our body language in relation to the conversation?
- Is the depth of this conversation sufficient?
- What direction is the conversation taking?
One of the biggest barriers to this process can be the coaches desire to follow a structured coaching model like “GROW”. As the supervisor, we would aim to support the coach to “let go” of an outcome, remain present and release any anxieties that the coach may have around serving the client.
The Client’s reflection-in-action/inner conversation during the session
The client’s awareness of their unspoken dialogue will increase when they are aware of the coach’s ability to act as a “mirror” for their inner conversation.
Whilst the client may initially hold back whilst making choices around how vulnerable they chose to be in the space, relevant interruptions, frequent silence and pauses can allow the client to reflect on some of the following questions:
- How am I feeling? If I am feeling uncomfortable, why?
- What assumptions or filters am I adding to the questions?
- How can I help my coach understand my challenges?
- What do I want to say? What might I be holding back?
Again, given that the client is not present in the supervision, the supervisor’s role here is to support the coach in helping the client become more aware of their own inner dialogue.
After the session:
The Coach’s self-reflection and inner conversation after the session:
A crucial part of the coach’s development journey and growth is reflecting with a learning mindset on their work, also known as reflection-on-action.
Whilst this is best done whilst the session is fresh in the coach’s mind, the coaching supervisor can actively explore these during a session with questions that get the coach to ask themselves:
- How did I help? – What did I do to help enhance the client’s thinking? What breakthroughs did the client have?
- What choices did I make? – What questions did I ask? Was I challenging? What did I focus on?
- What did I learn? – What would I do differently? What am I noticing about my client?
- What concerns do I have? How do I feel about the next session? What could I bring to supervision?
The Client self-reflection and inner conversation after the session:
Adequate time and space for the client to reflect immediately after a session is vital for them to process their thoughts into actions and progress between sessions. The coach can support the client to process their thinking in these three critical areas:
- Learning: What did I learn? What do I need to think about in more depth?
- Intention: What learning will I put into practice? What else do I want to explore? How might my expectations have changed?
- Process and Behaviour: Was I open and honest? What could I do differently in advance of my next session? How am I feeling about my next session?
And once more, the supervisor is ideally placed to support the coach in developing their client’s reflective capacity.
The seven conversations have proved to be a practical and flexible tool within the supervisors toolbox…it therefore provides a practical framework, around which the supervisor can help the coach both identify development needs and resolve issues with current clients
David Clutterbuck – Coaching and Mentoring Supervision (2011)
Each of the Seven Conversations requires a sufficient amount of space and time for reflection, here are some of the challenges a coach may present for exploration:
- Feeling like they “failed” the client
- Feeling frustrated by their client or the client’s progress
- An awareness of feeling attached to the outcome
- Disconnection with the client or feeling like they are missing crucial information
- Overwhelm or anxiety about the coaching session/relationship or journey
This process enhances the seven-eyed model (Hawkins and Smith) as it examines the conversation from the perspective of the client, the coaching relationship and non-verbal communication. This also extends as a framework for the supervisor and supervisee to reflect their observations around the verbal and non-verbal communication within supervision.
It is useful to experiment with ways in which you can use the Seven Conversations in practice during supervision. It is not a rigid, process-driven model but rather a set of lenses that you can use creatively and flexibly.
This framework creates a space for coaches to think methodically about their practice and it offers a powerful tool for self-analysis to identify when coaching relationships do not progress as expected. The best place to start exploring the Seven Conversations of Coaching is within your own practice. It can be informative to compare some of your supervision case studies to those within your own coaching relationships. Most importantly, remember to hold the model lightly and enjoy using it.