The question: “What do I do with clients who talk a lot?” is quite common in both Mentor Coaching and Coaching Supervision conversations. In this blog, I will take a look at various aspects of this question and how we can most effectively engage with a verbose client.
First be Curious and seek to Understand
The first thing to do, is not a ‘do’ at all, it’s a ‘be’! It could be very easy to assume why the client is talking so much and we know the danger of assumptions in coaching! It is therefore really important that we remain calm, grounded, flexible and open and stay curious about what might be leading to the client sharing in this way.
Is this their usual pattern or style of communication or is this a different way of expressing themselves that day?
That in itself could be a very interesting observation to explore in order to more fully and deeply understand what is going on for the client on that occasion.
- Is the fullness of their expression an indication of the significance of the topic in some way?
- What is that significance?
- How does that inform the work they want to do and the outcome they are looking to achieve?
If their usual pattern is to share abundantly, what might lie underneath that way of expression?
The answer to this could be manyfold and, once again, we should take care not to assume.
- Is the client new to coaching and perhaps doesn’t fully understand yet how in coaching a lot of detail and examples and expansion of the story is not always necessary?
- Might the client think that you need to know all of the details in order to be able to “help” them?
- Does the client think that they are supposed to share fully in a kind of update report, like one might do to a line manager for example?
- Is the client simply naturally talkative, expansive, and expressive and would welcome the opportunity to be invited to focus and be more concise in their sharing, so that you can both gain clarity on the work together and thereby make better use of the time available?
What is a Stream of Consciousness?
The term “Stream of Consciousness” was introduced by Psychologist William James in his Principles of Psychology in 1890 and was defined as: “a person’s thoughts and conscious reactions to events, perceived as a continuous flow”. The term is also sometimes used to describe the style of some authors whose literary style has characters whose “thoughts, feelings and reactions are depicted in a continuous flow, uninterrupted by objective description or conventional dialogue”
There is also a term that I hear increasingly used in coaching which describes someone as a “verbal processor”. Personally, I don’t particularly like labelling someone’s way of communicating in such a defined way, however the term does offer an example of a particular way of self-expression: “ Some of us are verbal processors. Also known as external processors, verbal processors understand the world by vocalizing their thoughts, feelings, and ideas. Unlike internal processors, who tend to think things through in their head and be slower to express their thoughts and feelings out loud.”
How can I be most effective and useful?
One of the most important things is to check in with our selves…how do you feel about the client taking a lot? Are you able to remain calm, grounded, present and deeply listening? Or are you starting to feel agitated, or even frustrated? Are you worried that you won’t remember what they have said? Are you feeling confused? Are you staying open or are you staying to make judgements about the client and the way they are communicating? Are you worried that you won’t be able to coach them if they keep talking?
So, before we do anything at all, it is very helpful to consider how are we being with this client? Clients can put our own capacity to be present to the test in many ways and a mark of our own development as instruments of this work is the extent to which we notice this, and the extent to which we can work with and on ourselves to stay present.
When a client talks a lot, it can evoke a strong temptation in the coach to jump in and respond quickly as soon as the client stops. This can also lead to the coach becoming more verbose themselves in a kind of “reciprocal” way of communicating. Neither of these two responses are typically very helpful and so this is where we really need to ground ourselves in our presence, resist the temptation to jump in and hold the space, hold the silence…
The difference between hearing and listening
The difference between hearing and listening is very important in coaching and especially so when a client is sharing a lot. When words leave a person’s mouth they are merely sounds and sound waves that travel through space (at the speed of sound of course!) and they finally reach an ear. They then need to make the journey through the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear before they finally reach the brain. It is only then that they these sounds turn into something recognisable as words, which then need to be processed for meaning.
Now, you might be thinking: yes, but sound travels pretty fast, right? Yes, it does, however we all still need time to think. Speaking and hearing is not the same as thinking. A very valuable part of the process of coaching is that it offers the opportunity for reflection and expression, along with the opportunity to consider that expression and make meaning of it.
With some clients we can add value by inviting them express, expand, explore etc. However other clients can do this aspect very well on their own. In this case, we can add value by inviting the client to make meaning of what they have shared – but only once both of you have had the chance to truly listen to what they have expressed. This is where being able to hold our presence and also be with a level of silence before responding to the client’s expression is very powerful.
In this period of silence, we can engage with our own senses and our intuition to guide us: what do I see, hear, and feel? What do I notice about the words the client has used, what do I notice about their energy, emotion, body language? What is this telling me about their current state? Are they still ‘in flow’ or is their state shifting to one that indicates a true pause in their processing? The metaphor that comes to mind here is that of sneezing…you might sneeze once or twice, and you usually know when there is still another sneeze to come – it is something that you sense…and you also know when the sneezing is over. How might you use your sensing and intuition to gauge the when the client’s expression is over?
And so, we finally come to our intervention and the opportunity to invite ‘meaning making’. We could do this in two key ways:
Inquiry, for example:
- What is standing out for you as you reflect upon what you have shared?
- What is at the heart of what you have shared?
- What is most important about what you have shared?
- If you could capture the essence of what you have share in one sentence, what might that be?
What else could you ask?
Observation, for example:
- I noticed a shift in your body language/energy/emotion as you were talking, what did you notice?
- I noticed you used the word/term XYZ several times, what significance does that have you here?
What else could you observe?
It doesn’t feel right to write a blog about streams of consciousness and talkative clients without mentioning interruption. As we know, interrupting a client is not recommended practice in coaching. It can challenge trust, safety, and rapport, as well as the client’s flow of expression and ‘train of thought’. It can also create an imbalance in the mutual relationship we have with them, inviting a sense of hierarchy that is unhelpful. At the end of the day, if we speak when they are still talking, it is giving a message that what we have to say is more important in that moment. Interrupting is also a big saboteur to presence and listening! Even as we begin to consider interrupting, let alone think about when, how, and what to say, we are already devoting a lot of our energy into working through our own thinking about that as opposed to staying with the client.
If we can allow ourselves to be present to hear and listen, to notice and be curious, to ‘step back’ and engage with the bigger picture as well as the detail being shared, we are far more likely to, not only cultivate our relationship with the client, but also have a much more of an informed opportunity to respond most effectively when they come to their own pause.