Communication Coaching is an increasingly popular means of improving interpersonal skills within the umbrella of coaching. High quality communication coaching relates to mediation in several ways:
- It is based (perhaps implicitly) on the principles of mediation.
- It can enhance the quality of the mediation experience for both the mediator and the parties to mediation.
- It can be a substantial aid to those who do not wish to or cannot enter into mediation.
- It can help anyone to prevent the escalation of conflict by generally enhancing communication. In this respect, it is a powerful means of augmenting work relationships for managers and others including, for example, customer relations and personnel departments.
The purpose of this article is to familiarize the reader with Communication Coaching, and to provide insight into how it should work for the client and how those benefits are achieved. We begin with some definitions, continue with a discussion of what is available under that name, and provide further depth through one consultant – Blessing Transitions – and her experience in this area. Finally, we recommend seeking a communication coach who has credentials in communication – or at least, understanding what communication credentials, if any, back up a given provider.
Communication in the Coaching Context
There is not room here to go into coaching per se. For our purposes, coaching is a partnership with a trained listener and observer who elicits the client's own skills and creativity. Coaches customize their approach to individual client needs and the focus is on the "now" and on the future. A recent online article (Cinnie Noble, "Conflict Coaching – When It Works and When It Doesn't.") on Mediate.com describes the differences between coaching and such services as counseling, advocacy, and mentoring. As that article states, self-determination and self-discovery on the part of the client are the core of the coaching experience.
Blessing Transitions adds to the definition of coaching the two goals of the non-directive Transformative Mediation (Robert A. Bush and Joseph P. Folger, The Promise of Mediation, Responding to Conflict Through Empowerment and Recognition, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, Rev. Ed., 2004): empowering the client to express himself and to be heard (which is different), and, thereby, enabling the exchange of recognition among parties to the relevant relationship. In our coaching, the relationship is at first that between coach and client, and then between the client and others (within or outside of mediation), as the client's skills develop.
Communication is by definition a more than one-party transfer of information; it is inherently systemic, in that the entire environment (lighting, noise, mode of communication, who is listening…) becomes a factor in what is transmitted. Anyone can benefit from the trained ear of a third party – even practiced writers and public speakers.
Types of Communication Coaching
Communication coaching is far from being one distinct field. A recent internet search on the term "communication coaching" resulted in 21 million hits. However, a survey of the content of the most relevant sites (by the standards of the search engine) makes the field more intelligible. While the offerings vary widely, common types of services include:
- Voice coaching (for the quality of the client's voice, regardless of purpose)
- Speech therapy for speech problems and foreign accents
- Relationship enhancement for the client's personal life
- Advertising and company image services
- Emotional intelligence training for business relationships, including assertiveness training
- Training in facilitation and team building
- "Systemic Communication Coaching"— which can be much like several of the above with the "systems" label attached (and perhaps some genuine attention to systemic issues)
- Evaluation of and help with speech and report writing, or of speaking style.
As may be evident, not all of these can be accomplished while conforming to Noble's distinctions between coaching and the various evaluative and therapeutic services. Yet most claim to maintain the highest standards of coaching. The import is that the definition of coaching itself is not fixed, even among highly reputable agencies. We will deal here with communication per se, with less emphasis on the personal relationship. However, systems of relationship (personal and otherwise) always constitute the context of communication; and personal relationships are always reflected to some extent in professional communications.
The backgrounds of the coaches vary widely. The providers on these sites often do not advertise their credentials up front. Those (of our survey) who make credentials easily available are most often attorneys or business people (with MBAs or degrees in Organizational Development). Notably, the American Management Association has massive offerings including Communication Coaching. There are also psychologists, speech therapists, social workers, educators, and at least one coach with a divinity degree. However, the most compelling result of this survey was the near absence among the providers of these "most relevant" websites of credentials in any field of communication per se.
The format of training also varies – from a half hour on the telephone each month to one-on-one and group training over days or months, to buy-our-books-and-teach-yourself, and even correspondence courses. Presumably the quality varies as well. The appearance of the website can be misleading, because there are highly skilled professionals with small websites and mega-organizations with large and expensive websites, professional societies and universities that have invested varying amounts of effort in their sites, and generally so many that comparison is difficult. Oddly, communication coaching is not always marked by stellar communication of the service – though this fact may mean only that the coach is not a web designer.
Goals for the participant
It should be clear that the client must have goals firmly in mind and shop for the appropriate type of communication coaching, from the appropriate source. However, a client's basic goals are of two kinds:
1. Transferring information
- Identify and realize a clear purpose for the communication
- Take charge of the way the client is perceived by the audience; become aware of the client's assumptions and of the client's own miscommunications
- Maximize the effectiveness of evidence in an argument
- Learn the role of emotion, positive and negative
- Become aware of other factors in perception (appearance, whether people are eating…)
- Become aware of the characteristics of the communication channel (voice, print, email, television, radio, internet. . .)
- Learn basics of good communication for the specified purpose
- Receive feedback targeted to specific problem areas
- Recognize and build upon untapped strengths
- Experience improvement in a timely fashion
- Increase confidence as an intrinsic part of the client's communication – as opposed to a false confidence based on the assumption that others are getting the message.
In summary, the client should achieve both a more effective communication style and greater command over the effectiveness of his communications.
Who's Doing the Coaching? An Inside Look at Communication Credentials
Communication credentials come in a variety of "packages" that are too numerous to mention here. The client should at least be aware that communication can mean physical communication systems (telephone networks, cable television…) or some aspect of computer science. The credentials that are appropriate to a communication coach are those that deal with the ability of a person to give planned and intended information to other persons.
The goal of this section is to provide an in-depth view of the value of such credentials to a mediator, business professional, or other client. On the websites we surveyed, there was virtually no "inside look" at the providers' communication experience beyond the one-paragraph summary of achievements – hence no way for the client to decide whether to choose an attorney or business professional without further analysis, or to look for a communication professional. We offer the experience of Kamila Blessing (Blessing Transitions) as food for thought in the choice of a communication coach. We also urge other communication coaches to provide readily accessible information on credentials generally, and on communication credentials in particular.
To begin, communication credentials ensure that the coach has the experience, based upon theory, that trains the eye and ear in a way that other professions do not explicitly do. As we proceed, we make explicit the connection between field of study, work experience, and benefits to the client. Of course, other analogous credentials might do as much for the client.
1. Degree in Technical Writing and Editing: at Carnegie-Mellon where I studied, this was a thorough preparation in professional writing, including courses in many different genres – expository, journalistic, technical, speech, even fiction; at least two courses in each science taught at the university (mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology, computer science) and each humanities and social sciences field, along with English literature. The object was to become familiar with the technical language of the widest possible variety of fields; to be able to talk with specialists in those fields; and then to help the specialist make the intended meaning fully available to a lay person. From the time I was in college on, I have coached students and professionals one-on-one in communication.
Over more than 35 years, I have been able to communicate with nearly anyone and also bring people to see how others hear them and why they may be misunderstood. I have laughed with (emphasis on with) many a writer over their miscommunications and the simplicity of the solutions (from students to senior chemists to top management at Fortune 500 companies). In this period, I was the ghost writer for a corporate CEO for two years, mainly writing his public relations speeches. Over the years, I have helped to improve the communication between scientists and management, between various kinds experts and their students, and between management and employees. This background was a tremendous boost when I began doing pastoral counseling, and finally when I began offering mediation.
I have also tested my own communication skills over that time. One particular proof of their effectiveness is that I have been able to raise millions of dollars for a long list of churches – just by speaking, though never actually asking for money. Where their treasure is, there their heart is also… I reach into the heart of a very wide range of people with diverse professional and cultural backgrounds using a careful balance of "head" and "heart" appeal.
My clients are surprised when they find they also can reach just about anyone in ways that constitute real leadership, and that directly benefit their company or organization – even in measurable ways like work productivity and the ignition of a vision among the people with whom they work.
2. MS and PhD in Information Science: the main emphasis was on the systemic nature of the world and of communication. This new worldview was stunning to me; it made everything look different and the solving of communication problems a very different process. A great deal of this new worldview was the work of a number of researchers at the Wharton School of Business, UC Berkeley, and other schools, beginning in the 1970's. See, for example, the work of Ackoff and Emery, and C. West Churchman. (This movement toward the systemic view of management continuing today, for example, with the work of Margaret Wheatley). This systems-management view of communications has provided me with a very productive avenue for all of my business clients – and also many other kinds of clients such as churches.
I began my study of organizational communication at the poison control center of the Emergency Department of Childrens Hospital of Pittsburgh, looking at the totality of the medical environment – nurses, doctors, books, computers, patients, the emotional nature of the situation, the rushed pace of emergency care – the entire system. In particular, the emergency nurses had to judge the emotional competence of the parents, and do so in only seconds. Other professional "interactors" do the same, though less urgently. Preachers and politicians, for instance, have to respond to the eyes of the audience in mid-speech; attorneys do the same with the witnesses and jury. A good salesman does it in making a pitch to a customer. The communication is part of an entire system of signals, people, and environmental elements. Almost any client can make consistent use of such elements – in surprisingly short time, using what he already knows and does.
The work at Childrens Hospital led to substantial consulting at a Fortune 500 company, and later, to a faculty position – the first ever in this country – conducting research in "user studies." In the laboratory I built at the university, I spent thousands of hours interviewing people, videotaping them interacting with a "self-teaching" computer system, and then analyzing the tapes for minute changes in body language, eye movements, and general demeanor as well as their keystrokes and verbal expression – all to understand whether the software was communicating effectively, and if not, why not? I did this work under Allen Newell, one of the founders of artificial intelligence, who had the hypothesis that we could create truly intelligent systems (software and users) by iteratively feeding into the software design this feedback from the users. This effort was highly successful and resulted in the creation of one of the forerunners of what we now know as icons on the "desktop" of our minicomputers.
For the purposes of communication coaching, all of this work led to a tremendous awareness of the meaning of a person's total systemic communication and the ability to do quick and flexible analysis of the client's communication with the systems in which he works.
Among the areas to which I applied this knowledge were: a college course in the analysis of systemic communication in organizations and the use of that analysis to increase both productivity and the quality of relationships within the organization. My students had to contact a company with which they had no prior relationship and do just this task as a term project. Every student who attempted it was able to make a remarkable contribution to those companies – according to the managers who read their term papers and acted on their analyses. These undergraduate student had little or no prior study in psychology, public relations, management, or other areas that might have enabled them to do this work. All of this resulted from a small amount of introductory instruction, and a semester of videotaping the students interacting and allowing the class to draw their own conclusions from watching the tapes. It was in fact very like what happens in communication coaching with professionals today.
Partly to get the students' interest at the beginning – noting that most of them were women returning to college and work after raising families – I taught them about body language that makes money. Every student who took that course and also applied for a job got the job and the salary they wanted. I myself was paid more to teach those courses than I was at first offered, because of that same body language. My point is that the techniques are simple. They are sometimes culturally determined (so that clients need to have cross cultural sensitivity). However, anyone can apply them to:
- Lock in a contract
- Avert a crisis with a client or employee
- And many other processes – such as knowing when an applicant is applying body language to get the job!
Another application of this kind of knowledge became useful when I was Vice President of a publishing house. In that capacity, I was the administrator of a large national research project on Christian education materials being created privately. I ran small-group retreats on a regular basis, each one including several authors of such a project, samples of their project materials, and a combination of individual coaching, group discussion, and reflection/work time to turbo-boost their work. Many of these people were not trained in writing, education, or communication of any kind; all of them achieved tremendous insight and progress in just three days – as they themselves noted with considerable surprise.
As an unexpected bonus, I discovered that there was an invisible boundary between some of the more conservative and the more liberal participants. It turned out that certain otherwise harmless words, appearing in the title or materials of a Christian education program, were a political and theological signal. "Family," for instance, implied (to them) conservative values – even though they all valued family per se. They simply would not use, and certainly not buy, programs containing such "loaded" terms. I was able to bring these people to talk together across that boundary, really understand each other, and give each other truly valuable feedback. By bringing them to hear each other's intent as well as their words, I essentially mediated a warm and productive relationship among each group.
All in all, I have been able, over 35 years, to solve what had, sometimes for years, been intractable conflict in a wide variety of venues, with a minimal investment of their time and mine. The skills involved are skills that anyone can develop: "active listening" – understanding body language – opening a door in oneself to the other – skills anyone can learn in such a small group (or mediation) setting. The role of the coach (or mediator) is to provide the space (physically and mentally) where that can happen safely and in a spirit of adventure, rather than threat or stress.
3. Study of mediation: after 20 years of dealing with conflicts in a large number of churches and 30 of dealing with conflicts in other venues, I took the mediation training from the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center (a highly structured process) and then the training in Transformative Mediation from the Institute for the Study of Conflict Resolution at the University of North Dakota. I found that the spirit of both was deeply embodied by my work in all the previous years, but the Transformative approach was exactly what I had been doing (without labeling it as mediation) all of the times when I had the spectacular results – so that bishops and management routinely said to me, "How did you ever get them to tell you…" "How did you achieve that… when no one has been able to for five, or ten, or 20 years?" Mediation is a specialized form of communication – so that communication training and communication coaching are vital to anyone who is going to engage in mediation. Communication principles are central to eliciting from the parties their issues, their growth, and their capacity for more positive relationships in work, family, and community.
Blessing Transitions recommends that:
- Mediators and anyone else who must communicate (!) consider communication coaching
- And that communication coaches disclose communication credentials (or lack thereof) in such a way that the credentials are immediately accessible to potential clients through websites and other advertising.