Noticing – A Key Coaching Skill?
In his text An Introduction to Coaching Skills, Christian Van Nieuwerburgh has suggested noticing and giving feedback are key coaching skills. This set me wondering. Is Christian right? What is noticing? What does skillful noticing look like? Can it be learned?
The word 'notice' implies an action, a conscious choice to do something that involves attention. In fact, it is defined as the act of observing or paying attention to something. Sometimes, however, we notice things with minimal attention, being conscious in a cursory way. Our intention in coaching is to hone our noticing skills, to make the decision to notice purposefully, to engage our thinking brain in order to pay attention in a cognizant way. But what is it that, as a result, we notice? What is it about noticing that skilled coaches do that makes it different to observing or seeing?
I glance out of my window and observe a tree and some palm fronds. I look again, more closely this time, and I notice the slight pinky shade of the tree and the furrows in the trunk, its curve as it stretches upward and its smooth surface. I’ve made a conscious decision to pay attention to the tree, and I’ve seen it differently, I’ve noticed what makes it unique – the tree outside my window rather than another tree. In the paying attention, my mind is drawn to its specificity, its idiosyncrasies, its peculiarities. If I can do this with an inanimate object, what does it look like to transfer this notion of focused "paying attention" to what it is that I, and others, do? How we behave, think, feel? And how might this be valuable?
David Rock says that when we pay close attention to something, different maps in the brain work together and create networks that stay with us – paying attention can change the ‘circuitry’ of the brain. "It’s not hard to change your brain. You just need to put in enough effort to focus your attention in new ways." (Rock, 2009, p226). And changing your attention, according to the research of psychiatrist Dr Jeffrey Schwartz, facilitates "self-directed neuroplasticity" – you are rewiring your own brain.(Rock, 2009, p226) So, if coaching is defined as a conversation "where the coach facilitates the self-directed learning of the coachee through questioning, active listening and appropriate challenge" (van Nieuwerburgh, 2012, p.17) why wouldn’t we use the skill of noticing to enable that learning?
How do we enable our coachees to notice not just what they do, but the specifics of what they do and how it impacts on others? But more than this, how they might notice their thoughts and emotions in the moment, and the impact these have on their actions. What is better when we engage in this conscious noticing?
Coaching is about identifying goals and small actions or steps to move toward that – gaining clarity around what is wanted. Asking a coachee to notice or pay attention to what is working around that goal alerts her to those moments when what is wanted is actually happening, even if in a small way. As consciousness of what is already in place is awakened, it enables the coachee to choose to do more in order to progress further.
As we notice and become curious about what we find, it creates a sense of objectivity and draws attention in a conscious way to specific behaviours that may have been unconscious. As awareness is increased through paying attention, we are able to lead the coachee to new insights through the questions we ask. As we focus attention on these insights, new neural pathways are created in the brain that can be deepened by conscious practice. A new habit can be grown.
So, what do we as coaches want our coachees to notice to maximise this self-directed learning – to raise self- awareness, create new insights and new ways of being? What is helpful noticing?
It makes sense to suggest that it is the noticing that helps achieve the coachee’s goals. What is it that the coachee needs to do more of, less of or do differently to move forward? Who else might it be helpful to observe? What strengths might be identified in self and others as a result of the noticing? What was the impact of the behavior that was noticed? What’s the learning? How will it be applied?
As coaches this is clearly a valuable strategy to incorporate in our work. It’s important to encourage the coachee to notice the specifics of the behaviours they are focused on, the subtleties, including the body language. What is it they are seeing the other do or say that’s working? And if they are noticing their own behavior or thoughts or emotions, the same applies. It’s helpful too to encourage them to notice the impact or effect of these behaviours, what does it result in or lead to? Then, as we explore these noticings and ask questions to dig deeper, particularly "what else?" "what’s this telling you?" and "what’s your learning?", it enables the coachee to grow their understanding of particular skill sets and to become, with regards to themselves, more consciously competent. Asking them, "what might be a new habit you want to grow?", or "how are you seeing this differently?", or "how will you apply these insights?" drives the "what’s next?" in a genuinely self-directed way. Checking in at the next session with, "what worked?", "what’s better?", "what will you continue?", and "how committed are you?" deepens the learning and those neural pathways that David Rock talks about. A coachee once commented, "This noticing’s addictive… I’m noticing all sorts of things that I haven’t noticed before!"
Of course, noticing isn’t only relevant for the coachee, it’s also a skill that we as coaches employ. Every coaching session involves our noticing what is working for the coachee, what is their body language telling us, their facial expression, is that thought unfinished, do the eyes indicate an aha moment, has an emotion been triggered, will the "What else?" question glean more, what was the impact of that question, how comfortable or challenged are they? And as a result of our noticing - our careful and skillful attention - we make a conscious decision whether to speak, to remain silent, to ask a question, to affirm or provide feedback. It’s part of our "way of being" as a coach. That attention we pay to what is happening for the coachee, that heightened awareness of the other, that notion of being fully present for them.
The skillful coach is alert to the "small signs", sometimes visible or audible, and sometimes intuitive. Deep listening is part of what enables this noticing, particularly in phone coaching. Noticing the "unsaid", noticing the nuances in tone, expression, volume, the pauses, the inflections on a particular word or phrase. What is that telling us? Listening not to respond but to genuinely understand. When we ask participants in workshops what they observe in our coaching demonstrations, reference is always made to the attention given to the coachee, to the visible demonstration of being fully present and fully listening. The coachee too in these demonstrations will reference "feeling" like they were being listened to and understood.
What’s important then is what we do with what we have noticed. Do we ask another question, do we wait, do we simply encourage or affirm? If we are deeply focused on the other, what we observe directs the what’s next and the what’s next should be a response to the attention paid to the coachee.
The skill of noticing is also linked to the practice of mindfulness. Amy Brann in her book, Neuroscience for Coaches describes it as "the practice of attending to present moment experiences and allowing any emotions and thoughts to pass without judgement" (Brann, 2015, p158).
Apart from exploring the benefits of mindfulness for health and wellbeing, particularly stress reduction and positivity, she describes how it might help in coaching, creating a mindset of curiosity, openness and acceptance, and helping with being present and calm and regulating emotions and attention. Bran describes the five facets of mindfulness as observing, describing, acting with awareness, non-judgement and non- reactivity. When we practice mindfulness, we are gently bringing our awareness to the present, noticing what it feels like to sit and breathe, generating a calm and a focus that opens our minds and enables us to be more aware of selves and others. We are ready to "notice".
I began with asking questions, as every coach should. My questions have led me to believe that noticing is indeed a skill helpful in coaching, both for the coach and the coachee. It is helpful in creating a way of being that is about being fully present, genuinely curious, non-judgmental and willing to listen deeply. It is helpful too in making us aware of what is working and is a powerful tool in enabling the coachee to become more conscious of what is working for them and others, and what might potentially be getting in the way. As we notice, we become curious, we are open to learning. Is this not a desirable state for ourselves as well as others?
So, just as we consciously practice our other coaching skills, we might also consciously grow the skill of becoming more focused ‘noticers’ of self and of others, gaining clarity on the specific behaviours of noticing and understanding what’s better when as coaches or coachees we engage in "noticing". Just as we work to become better listeners and givers of feedback, we can work to become better "noticers". The question then becomes, what will I, as a coach or a coachee, do with what I have noticed?
- Brann, A. (2015). Neuroscience for coaches (2nd edn.). London: Kogan Page.
- Campbell, J., & van Nieuwerburgh, C. (2017). The leader’s guide to coaching in schools: Creating conditions for effective learning. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.
- Rock, D. (2009). Your brain at work. New York: Harper Collins.
- van Nieuwerburgh, C. (Ed.) (2012). Coaching in education: Getting better results for students, educators and parents. London: Karnac.
- van Nieuwerburgh, C. (2020) 3rd Edition. An Introduction to Coaching SKills: A Practical Guide. London: Sage.