What I Learned About Coaching After Losing the Ability to Speak

By Mark Rosen
October 6, 2017

After being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, a management consultant turns to written communication and finds it can build better relationships with clients.

I was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2001. By 2003 I could no longer speak intelligibly or walk. I knew I couldn’t keep facilitating team meetings and giving strategy presentations — staples of the consulting services I had provided for many years. But I still loved my work and needed to stay active, and my clients were open to trying a new approach, so I began coaching exclusively through written dialogue in instant messages, emails and other electronic documents.

This started out as an experiment. My clients and I were skeptical about how it would go. We assumed that the lack of in-person interaction would get in the way of open dialogue. But that hasn’t been the case. In fact, we’ve discovered several unexpected advantages.

Here I describe these benefits and share practical guidelines so that others can apply them in a variety of coaching contexts — from leadership development to professional mentoring — even if they aren’t constrained by a disability.

Why Do It?

Written communication enhances accessibility, because people can fire off an email and then schedule a follow-up chat session if one is needed. The gains are both tangible (quicker feedback and action) and intangible (the increased confidence and peace of mind that come with feeling immediately validated).

But there are some more surprising benefits, too. Coaching through writing can increase psychological safety, which leads to greater disclosure and trust. Before my diagnosis, it often took two to three months to establish a close connection. Now clients open up more quickly. Without someone looking at them, they feel freer to express themselves and less concerned about criticism.

Communicating entirely through writing also inhibits stereotyping based on physical attractiveness, body language and so on. Even when I’m told that a new client is unlikable, unapproachable or negative, I can build a strong connection. I attribute this largely to limited interpersonal noise. There’s less “packaging” to skew your or your client’s perception of the messages exchanged.

And many of us do a better job of listening when we engage in written communication. Without the visual or auditory distractions of having someone else in the room, we can better focus on what’s being said. I initially expected that instant messaging might be too slow. But clients say that they like having more time to listen, absorb, think and respond, even in cultures that prize speed and urgency. It makes the communication more precise, which prevents confusion and misunderstandings later on and speeds up alignment for effective problem-solving.

Finally, there’s the impact on accountability: We’re more likely to achieve our goals when we write them down. The power of written declaration may seem fleeting in instant messaging, but the notes make it harder to forget or distort what was said. Clients tell me they welcome these conversations that feel more on the record, because they want to make progress on their goals. The written record also holds me accountable for any ground rules we’ve established or follow-up commitments I’ve made.

How to Do It

Whether you want to increase the coaching you do through writing to reap these benefits or you’ve decided to go all-in because of life circumstances, here are some principles I’ve gleaned over the past 14 years. Though these guidelines can be applied to all business relationships, they’ve especially helped me in my remote work.

Signal open access and flexibility. On the front end of any coaching relationship, it’s essential to convey credible commitment and caring. Before a first session, I send my bio and a proposed agenda, and then allow plenty of time for a new client to ask about my background, my perspective on coaching and my experience with instant messaging. I invite people to ask personal questions, too. Next, I say that I am available anytime to signal my commitment. Coaching through writing makes it easier to deliver on that promise, and making myself always available provides peace of mind for the client.

Manage confidentiality. I’ve observed that clients worry less about confidentiality issues when they’re coached through written exchanges, and that has to do with setting clear expectations. I never make a blanket promise to keep mum. Rather, at the beginning of an engagement, I ask my clients to trust my judgment to share anything that I see as a potential win for them. But I also say that if the client wants something specific to be kept between us, I’ll honor that request. You might think people would feel vulnerable in an arrangement like that, but most say they are comfortable giving me latitude to make judgment calls.

Hone your written voice. Informal language in writing can build camaraderie, but only if it feels natural. Imagine in your head how the words will sound to the receiver, and then write how you would speak them. It takes time to develop this skill, but it forces you to empathize with people, and they’ll pick up on that. Spelling and mechanics don’t matter much in instant messaging, because such mistakes are easily forgiven and forgotten in real-time chats — but in emails and other formal documents, attending to those details is essential for credibility.

In the early stages of a coaching engagement, I usually stick with descriptive language. New clients are generally more receptive to, “This is what I see happening,” than to, “This is what I think you should be doing differently,” and it shows them, by example, how to think less judgmentally and more objectively. Once you’ve built a stronger relationship, you’ll have more latitude in offering constructive criticism.

Get comfortable with personal disclosure. This may be the most important part of developing an open, trusting relationship. If an individual openly discloses thoughts and feelings to others, the other party is more likely to open up too. A productive relationship of disclosure requires authenticity — on both sides. If you model that as a coach, and it’s reciprocated, clients can transfer what they’ve learned to all kinds of situations and relationships.

Mark Rosen is a management consultant.

Copyright 2017 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

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