This lovely picture was taken by one of our new graduates Fiona Winning. She says it was late afternoon and the sun was low, leaving this interesting contrast between light and dark. It made me wonder when, as coaches, we leave be leaving footprints in the minds of our clients. Whilst that may sound impactful, that imprint could be counterproductive.

I’m reminded of a funny saying I read many years ago which went something like “Next time you go running through my thoughts, take your boots off first!”

What is most useful for your coachee? To follow your in your steps or blaze their own trail?

As coaches our clients have trust in us and usually listen to what we have to say. This means that any suggestions, recommendations and / or leading questions, all subtly push the coachee down a certain track. It might be what they expect, and it might be what you believe is right for them. However, what it also might do is deny them the opportunity of ever creating their own unique answers to the situations they are dealing with.

Mental footprints are like digital footprints. They don’t disappear when the next tide rolls in. Once a mind is influenced it cannot be uninfluenced (see research by Loftus and Palmer 1974 – click here for a user friendly article that explains the study, and here for the original paper).

With Clean Coaching, we try and limit as much as possible the footprints we leave. It’s not possible to eliminate altogether, but our overriding aim is to free the other person to think independently of other’s influence. Possibly for the first time in their life!

Paraphrasing and Suggesting

So how is this different from any other kind of non directive coaching? I think one such factor is avoiding the use of paraphrasing, which is held by many coaching influencers to be a positive and helpful coach interaction. The definition of paraphrasing is ‘Restating the message in different words, to clarify the meaning’. But hold on! Who’s meaning is it? The different words, restated by the coach, express the meaning THEY have attached to the message, not necessarily the meaning that was in the coachee’s mind in the first place. You are literally putting words into the coachee’s mouth – and mind. Chances are the coachee will integrate some of your meaning into their own, without question.

Suggestions are another interesting coach intervention. The idea is that is we gently offer an idea loosely that the coachee is free to accept or reject depending on their own viewpoint. However, again psychology research says that’s probably not the case. Suggestions are in fact suggestive – they are less likely to trigger any filters and can result in ‘unreasoned acceptance’. The well-researched evidence around the placebo effect is a good example of the suggestion effect, where patients improve when it’s suggested to them that they should do so (given this pill or medicine).

It’s not enough to decide as a coach that you are going to stop influencing your coaches with your own beliefs, opinions and values. We all have a natural bias to being directive. It’s part of our human nature: to connect and empathize with another our own impressions end up creeping into the language we use and the questions we ask. Even when we think we are asking a non-directive open question, we might be subtly influencing the direction of the coaching conversation and the kinds of solutions open for the coachee to explore.

Example questions 

Take this example. let’s say the coachee has said:

“I’d like to find a way to build better relationships with my peers”

And you follow up with this question:

“You mention you’d like to find a way to build better relationships with your peers. Tell me, how do you think you could open up possibilities for this?”

Sounds like a good open question? Maybe. Here’s a few reasons why it’s not ‘squeaky’ clean:

a) “Tell me” – this little interjection reminds the coachee that they are in communication with you and must tailor their message accordingly. We advise you stop referring to yourself within your questions and instead focus solely on the coachee.

b) “…how do you think…” This is pointing the coachee to the kind of experience you want them to have. Why not ‘feel’? Or ‘know’? Or something else?

c) “Open up possibilities” – This ‘opening up’ is metaphoric and probably says something about how the coach is experiencing the coachee’s message. It might land well, but a cleaner approach would be to reflect back the coachee’s metaphors, eg:

“And when you build better relationships, what kind of build is that?”
“And what needs to happen to build better relationships?” “And can you do that?”

Or an alternative focus:
“You’d like to find a way to build better relationships. What needs to happen for you to find that way?”

In this way we help the coachee to continue their exploration along their own particular track, their own way. Ultimately, this means that the solutions they arrive at can be completely owned by them. Usually this means they are more doable, more motivational and far more satisfying to achieve.

As another example, let’s say your coachee said something like “I have to decide.” your reflection (and most people’s) would probably naturally turn into “You need to make a decision” But actually this is quite different, the tense has changed and the words are no longer reflecting back the exact experience of the other. Instead, try repeating back “And you have to decide”

Being Clean is simple, but not easy

If you’ve already studied ‘Clean’ you’ll know only too well that it can be difficult to say nothing but repeating the coachee’s words, wrapped into a simple question. As humans we’re drawn to empathise and build rapport, just so we DO add our footprints to the trail, so to speak. To curb the habit, try catching yourself about to interject and metaphorically bite your tongue. Instead, ask a clean question that allows you to be carried along by the coachee’s path of enquiry. And then, see where it leads!

Learning Clean Coaching is not just about learning a set of questions, or having the skill to apply a certain model. It’s giving you a discipline, that with dedicated practice you can learn how to join another on their journey, and leave no footprints of your own.

People new to clean often underestimate how challenging and unnatural it can feel initially to do this. That’s where a training course can help, giving you structures and support to practice, gain confidence and see the results in a safe environment.

Angela Dunbar is a highly experienced coach and coach supervisor, accredited with AC and a former council member (now a life-long fellow). Angela’s is author of “Essential Life Coaching Skills” (2009) and “Clean Coaching: The Insider Guide to Making Change Happen” (2016). Angela’s passion is Clean Language, a powerful non-directive facilitation process that engages the coachee’s non-conscious resources through the metaphors they use. Angela teaches ‘Clean’ techniques through The Clean Coaching Centre:

Clean Coaching Module One starts on Tues 7th March 2023 – early bird discount available until 7th Feb – click here for full details