What Role Does Voice Play in Coaching?
We might think of “voice” as the instrument of coaching, the tool with which the coach navigates the GROWTH framework. Yet we are often unconscious of this tool, its impact, its potential and how it might be more strategically used in an authentic and genuine way to achieve the purpose of coaching, which is self-directed learned. So, what is it that your voice conveys? What do you want it to convey in order to be an effective coach? What is within your control to modify and how might it enhance the coaching process? For the purpose of this article, we explore voice as the way words are delivered – a tool of coaching if you like – its sound, tone, rhythm, pitch, volume, modulation – and the impact this might have on the coaching conversation.
Each voice is unique--as unique as your face, your fingerprint. We can identify each other by hearing voice alone. Young children can discern the voice of a parent. At one level, our voice conveys who we are - our sex, age, background, even our status, but it can also convey emotion, mood and judgement. It can be domineering and authoritarian or wondering and invitational. If as coaches, our aim is to move away from more top-down forms of conversation, then we need to be conscious of using voice to demonstrate a genuine curiosity, a tone of expectation and belief in the other. This intentional self-management can convey our coaching way of being.
The GROWTH framework is a set of ‘sign posts’ that guide a coaching conversation. We use powerful questioning and other key coaching skills to help generate actions, clarity and energy for the coachee Essential to effective coaching is the trusting relationship that the coach builds with the coachee. However, there are many times when a coach will be meeting the coachee for the first time. That is why our ‘coaching way of being’ is paramount, how we show up to each session, the “message” that we deliver not only in our words, but in our body language, our presence, our listening and, I would suggest, our voice. This is the vehicle that delivers the greeting, the welcome, the explanation, the questions.
What message does your voice convey? Voice is especially important during telephone coaching where it is the primary mode of presenting meaning that the coachee perceives. During face-to-face coaching, body language conveys much of the message of the coach, contributing significantly to what is interpreted. Voice might be seen as part of that, but it can also be explored separately as it is related to the way questions are delivered.
Tone - the sound of the voice, also conveys meaning. Listening to unfamiliar languages, for example, we can interpret meaning based on pausing, intonation, volume, pace and inflection even though we have no understanding. These vocal cues influence the overall message. We often prioritise non-verbal cues when the spoken words are delivering a different message. Changing tone changes the message. Noticing our tone and being conscious of the message it might be delivering is therefore important. Similarly, noticing the tone of voice of the coachee is essential. Is the tone delivering the same message as the words?
Given that, in a highly effective coaching conversation, the coach’s voice is in smaller proportion to the coachee’s voice and is present mainly in questioning and clarification seeking, how might we use voice to enable questions to land effectively? The natural tone of a question is an upward inflection which denotes genuine wondering – essential in genuinely asking questions that don’t presuppose an answer, but particularly relevant with the question “what else?”, especially if it’s used multiple times. How might we consciously frame that question on its fourth iteration to show genuine wondering? How might we ask it differently to show curiosity and demonstrate genuine belief in the coachee? What elements of voice are modifiable to achieve this? Using an invitational tone ensures that we are not heard as judgemental, that we are wondering and as Covey would say, we are “seeking first to understand” (Covey, p.235). It also ensures that the response isn’t presupposed, that we expect and believe in the capacity of the other to respond.
If we become a noticer of voice as a tool to enable the coachee, we can be conscious of the messages our voice is conveying. How might I modify it to demonstrate interest, concern or empathy? What might it be communicating that I am unaware of?
Reinhard Stelter suggests that the coach becomes “an engaged fellow human companion” and should be “willing to empathise with the dialogue partner’s life world by showing understanding, acceptance and empathy” (Stelter, pp. 5-6) The coach isn’t passive, but is involved in the coaching journey as a participant. Voice is an enabler of this shared conversation, and supports the relationship that is at its core.
So, how might the coach use voice to demonstrate empathy, especially in phone coaching where visual cues of nodding and facial expression are absent? Empathy is ‘feeling with’ – demonstrating an understanding of the other’s perspective. What are the words, or sounds and the inflection or intonation that best demonstrate this? It is important that coaches are conscious of showing genuine concern, acknowledging others and affirming them whilst being non-judgemental (verbally and non-verbally). When we do this, we create a safe space for the coachee to explore her thoughts and feelings, a space of trust where there is a willingness to be vulnerable, to take risks, to be stretched and comfortable with the discomfort. Then, genuine understanding and awareness occurs and the coachee is open to new learning and to change.
How might voice link to the 4 key coaching skills listening to encourage thinking, asking powerful questions, paraphrasing and summarising and noticing (van Nieuwerburgh, 2020). Again, voice is a tool we use in the service of these skills. Being non-judgemental in the execution of these skills is vital, and particularly so in the provision of feedback. Given the importance of being conscious of how feedback lands, we must ensure it is delivered authentically so that it is valued and acted upon. We might “check in” with the coachee that our intention in the feedback was met by asking a follow up question (e.g. “how do you see it?” or “what are you thinking?”, and “what might you do now?”).
How might voice be different when paraphrasing and summarising as opposed to providing feedback? These skills ensure that the coach has understood and is able to help the coachee gain clarity. Therefore, we need to be succinct, moderate in pace, calm and clear. Voice needs to reflect these qualities.
What might be helpful for the coach to be more conscious of in phone coaching? Clearly, body language is absent as a vehicle for communication – coach and coachee cannot “read” the rich information that the body, often unconsciously, communicates. Yet phone coaching works! It is possible to establish a trusting relationship and to coach effectively via the phone, and voice as an indicator of what the coachee is thinking or feeling requires careful attention. Listening deeply to the words and the way they are delivered – attending to the pauses, vocalisations of the coachee and also listening deeply to the coachee’s voice – what is that telling us that maybe the words aren’t? Is there self-doubt or anxiety or something hinted at but not said? Without facial expression the coach must rely on voice alone to communicate the unsaid. We must scan for subtleties of the voice more consciously than we might in face-to-face coaching.
So, just as anyone proficient in their craft or work becomes more skilled and flexible in the use and applicability of their tools, the coach by increasing their awareness of voice can apply that tool to enable learning, reflection and those “aha” moments. By becoming more conscious of our own voice and how we might purposefully modify it, we can utilize it to support the coachee to achieve what’s wanted. And as we are attuned to the voice of the coachee, we can listen not only to the words, but to how the words are said and what that might mean. It is a tool worthy of greater consideration in order to maximize its potential and impact.
- Covey, S. R. (2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people: powerful lessons in personal change. New York: Free Press
- Stelter, R. (2019). The art of dialogue in coaching: Towards transformative exchange. London: Routledge
- Van Nieuwerburgh, C. (2020). An introduction to coaching skills: A practical guide (3rd ed.). London: Sage.