Chris Holder: The Art of Communication (for Coaching and Beyond)
For many of you, the topic of communication is going to feel routine, basic and common sense. That should reassure you . . . but also engage you.
What I am here to tell you is effective communication is none of those things. There’s nothing routine, basic or common sense about it. In fact, there are a myriad of aspects of productive communication that most of you have never heard of. The reason I know this first hand is because I spent the last two years studying Neural Linguistic Programming (NLP).
I have always considered myself a strong communicator; someone whose instincts were dialed in since the beginning of my career. What I quickly came to understand was that whatever I was good at was by pure chance and that communication, like training with weights to get stronger, is something that needs to be studied.
What brought me to NLP was my other life, that of a Medical Qigong doctor. My medical practice requires me to deal with individuals who are very ill and because of the focus of this type of medicine, I needed incredible flexibility with my words, body language and rapport building to effectively reach these folks. Trust me, it’s surgery with words in this forum and I needed to make sure that I had this piece of my practice mastered.
Little did I know what an enormous impact it was going to have in the weight room, during training sessions and one-on-ones with my athletes.
What is NLP?
First off, let’s set the stage for what I spent the last 24 months working on. As defined by the program I studied with (NLP California), Neural Linguistic Programming is the science of studying the patterns of excellence in the world’s most successful people, identifying the processes that produce their amazing results, and then re-programming the software of your mind to replicate their successes. NLP is a focused study of how we perceive language, how we interpret what is being said; it outlines a way of communicating that allows the most seamless opportunity for the person listening and the person speaking to understand one another.
There are multiple ways we communicate, the most obvious being language. As we go beyond the spoken word, we realize that much of what is being “said” is not being said with the words we chose.
Our body language actually makes up more of the ‘take home,’ when it comes to communicating a message, than the words themselves. How and where you stand, where your eyes are when you speak, your posture, the tone, relative inflection, pace of speech, volume and physical movement all come into the equation that makes up what you are saying. The more you understand this, the more practice you have at doing things correctly, while experiencing when it is incorrect, and focus your attention on all of the ways of communicating, the better your message will be received. To be honest, it’s an art.
Most of our greatest communicators have considerable experience with this line of study. Folks like Tony Robbins, iconic movers and shakers in the business world or some of our favorite (or not so favorite) politicians all have spent time studying this. And their respective followings are all experiencing the effect of it, first hand.
When it comes to coaching, we don’t have time to make errors in communication. I don’t know about you, but if your workload is anything like mine, you will likely see hundreds of people each day for training. I don’t get the luxury of an hour with one individual. My hours are more like thirty at a time and if one of my kids gets any significant portion of that time, it’s probably because they are doing something gravely wrong. I don’t have time to be misunderstood. I don’t have enough hours in the day to be repeating myself over and over. I have to be effective with my words, calculated and confident that the ones I choose will be the ones that elicit the response I am seeking.
Where are You Standing?
The best place to begin to look at how to do things is where you are located when you engage someone. Most of us don’t know that our placement in the interaction carries significant weight on whether or not our listener is going to hear us the way we intend.
For example, in most coaching situations, we find ourselves standing directly in front of the person as we talk to them. What most of us don’t realize is that this positioning is typically threatening most everyone. If you are a coach, regardless of your reason for approaching them you will find with most people, especially younger ones, being directly in front of them reflexively makes them put up their defenses. They go into a protection mode that filters your message as aggressive, no matter how positive it might be.
Unless you are chewing their ass out (in that case, being in front of them is the perfect location,) be aware of where you are standing.
Did you know that most people have a “good side” and a “bad side?” What I mean by that is, each person typically has a side, either their left or right, which feels more comfortable than the other. Take me for example. I’m very left eye dominant. I have large gaps of my visual field in my right eye that are totally blind. So, when someone stands on my right, due to my vision and their location forcing my right eye to take the lead, I tend to get anxious. I can’t help it. Whereas when you stand on my left, I’m able to settle into a cozy place and be a full participant in what is being talked about.
You can easily figure out what side feels better to the listener by watching how they receive you when you talk to them. If they look comfortable, you are likely on their good side. And the opposite, if they look stressed, if their eyes wander or if they seem distracted, is true. I know this sound like a lot of work, but once you spend a few seconds observing the body language of who you are talking to, you can easily correct to make the interaction more effective. This also gives them the sensation of we rather than you and I.
We feels better to everyone.
Rapport is critical if you want your message to land as you hoped.
Think of the last conversation you had with someone in person. Was it awkward? Was it stressful? Was it smooth and both parties walked away with value? Rapport is all about congruency. When/If two (or more) people who are on the same page within the conversation, teaching and learning are effortless. If you plan on being an effective communicator, you need to understand how to build rapport with people—in a hurry.
One of the most important rapport building techniques you can use is to be genuine. Be yourself, which, for many coaches, can be tough. I know coaches who would script fits and tantrums. They would go into a rage over the smallest of things to get a group revved up, only to fall flat on their face because the room felt how false it was. I experienced this very thing in my early days of coaching. I was so enamored with my mentor that when I went out on my own, I basically tried to be like him. Problem was, I wasn’t him and it made for awkwardness for my athletes. I wanted so bad to be effective like him that my solution was to try and be him, like an actor would.
What I missed was that the reason he was so effortlessly able to captivate the room was that he was being himself. The second I realized that and stopped trying to be someone I wasn’t, my athletes were able to relate.
You also need to know who you are talking to. Sounds fairly obvious, right?
What most of us don’t think about is that many of our athletes come from very different places. Their experiences are very individual and many of them have had a difficult time. If you are a drill sergeant all the time, there are likely athletes in the group who have had rough times with people just like you and your chances of ever reaching them is next to zero. Take for example the two universities I have spent the bulk of my career with: Cal Poly and San Jose State. Cal Poly kids are unique. They are, for the most part, very smart, come from middle-to-upper class families and come from homes where the family is intact. Not all, but most. In contrast, my experience at SJSU was dramatically different. Cal Poly is similar to an Ivy League school and SJSU is, well, not. Many of my kids I coached there had tough stories. They weren’t well to do and neither were their families. Many of them came from broken homes and I had more “street” kids than I could count.
Knowing this, I made sure that I didn’t go into that setting and bow up on anyone (at least in the beginning). I came in with a more, “I’m here to help, I’ll do whatever it takes to help you succeed and we are in this together.” This approach allowed me to get close to many of the guys who were resistant to authority figures and build relationships with them where we would have waked through the fire together. Know who you are talking to and then have the flexibility to become a chameleon from person to person.
Lastly, when I’m working with a new group, I go the extra mile to get to know each one of them. I just took over the women’s soccer and women’s tennis programs here at Cal Poly. Both teams were changing coaches and those changes weren’t necessarily well accepted. My way of fast tracking the rapport with all of these kids was to schedule individual ten-minute meetings with each girl. In those meetings, I let them know that the point was for us to get to know one another. One of the ground rules was we weren’t going to talk about their sport. No team talk, just who are you, and what are you about? Tell me about your family. What do your folks do? What are you studying? What do you want to do when you graduate? You know, general things that two people who are getting to know each other would talk about. What this has done for me is it has created an automatic individual relationship with each kid. When we are in team settings, they know I know them and are more willing to hear from me because I have taken the time to get to know them . . . as a person.
This singular approach has been one of the smartest acts I have done and has saved me tons of time and effort in the back end.
Do you talk with everyone the exact same way? Is your tone, your volume and your pace of speech identical from person to person?
If your answer was ‘Yes,’ you are likely not being heard by everyone.
When you are addressing a group, you have “your” way of talking. I have a huge voice. I can be heard six buildings down if I want to be, so I can command a room with my words. But, when I am talking to them as individuals, I listen to how they are talking to me. And, without being overtly obvious, try to match their way of communicating. Think of some of the people you speak to day-to-day who have a soft delivery. They are soft in their way of communicating for a reason. If you can ease off the gas with this individual, soften even a little, you might find your effectiveness reaching them improves.
Same thing goes with someone who is the opposite. My best player on the football team is a boisterous, loud, big personality type of guy. You can hear him coming from the locker room down the hallway. No, I’m not saying to join in the noise, but I understand that if I want to reach him, I am going to have to bring my energy up.
This one is a coin flip. The best way to create the “us” feel is to make eye contact. The best way to hold that “us” feel is to hold the eye contact.
I would say that most people fall into almost a trance state when you lock eyes with them. This is great in most situations and I highly recommend using it with everyone. Until you stumble upon those few who literally scurry away from it. You know, the person who locks in on you and then fights to get their eyes off of you as quickly as possible. That simple thing can be a deal breaker for some and you might have to do some leg work getting them back. What I find is that most people who won’t track eyes with me typically aren’t in rapport with me, and that is my fault. Therefore, I know I have some work to do with this individual to get them comfortable with me.
I don’t want to spend a great deal of time on this one, but it has significant value when done correctly. Mirroring someone is about matching a person’s posture, whether sitting or standing. This can take some practice because it can feel false if overdone, and that is the kiss of death.
I’ll leave this with something for you to think about. The next time you are sitting talking with someone and things are going great, conversation is flowing and you feel completely comfortable with the situation, take inventory on how you and this person are sitting. nine times out of ten, you will find yourself in similar postures.
Great coaching is a product of great communication
If you are reading this, there’s a good chance you are a coach of some kind. Great coaching is a product of great communication. It doesn’t matter what you know if you don’t have the skill to convey that knowledge. I have worked with some of the smartest coaches around who were brilliant minds, yet horrible communicators. And unfortunately, they struggled.
Take your time as you work on this aspect of your game. If you want to be a world class coach, you need to be a world class communicator.
Chris Holder is the head Strength and Conditioning coach at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California. His football background, a Master RKC certification and 20 years of coaching experience at the college level have given him an edge in developing his athletes. Holder is also a Doctor of Medical Qigong and has found training success in his unique blending of eastern medical and spiritual approaches with western strength science.
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