How to Boost Your Coaching Skills (and Presence) with Observation by Dr. Sarah Evans MCC

Several years ago while on a holiday to the beautiful Big Island of Hawaii, I visited the Mauna Kea Observatory. The altitude (over 4,000 m) and isolation in the Pacific Ocean make it an ideal site for astronomical observation, and the night sky and star gazing was a spectacular and awe-inspiring experience.

"…Observatories (and the large telescopes they house) allow us to look at some of the faintest objects in the night sky, and see the brighter objects even clearer. ...These fainter objects - galaxies and nebulae - are the best reasons to visit an observatory."1

As coaches, we act as an observatory with our coachees. And along with curiosity, deep listening and powerful, generative questioning, observation is an integral part of a coach's 'superpowers'.

Coach as observer

One of the benefits of working with a coach is that coachees see and hear things from another perspective, one that they may never consider or otherwise 'see'.

So as coaches, we can observe the nebulous - that which might be faint, just out of focus, unclear or hazy for the coachee. And we can also observe the bright spots.

Our observations can bring greater focus and clarity, just as the telescope in the observatory does.

Thoughts on sharing our observations

Observations are what we notice happening with the coachee in real time while we are coaching them.

An Oxford dictionary definition of observation is, "a remark, statement, or comment based on something one has seen, heard, or noticed." It is not an interpretation or a conjecture.

  • As we share an observation, without attachment, we must remember it's coming from our perspective and it may not be true for the coachee.
  • Acting in full partnership, the gift we offer our coachees is a psychologically safe, confidential, nonjudgmental space that allows them to consider our observation and navigate through to what is true for them.
  • Then, as coach, we continue to be an active and curious observer, noticing how our coachee is receiving our observation, which may lead to further observations.

But what are we observing?

There are many things we can observe in our coaching conversations. Some examples include:

  • The choice of words, ideas or concepts the coachee is using
  • The coachee's tone of voice and the volume of their speaking
  • The energy in their voice and the emotional tone of their voice
  • Body language and congruence between words and physical gestures
  • Patterns, themes or connections within one conversation or across multiple conversations
  • The context in which the conversation is occurring
  • We may observe conflicting perspectives that the coachee is holding simultaneously
  • And we may observe what isn't being said

For example, a coaching colleague observed that when I talked about a piece of work that is meaningful to me, I spoke of it as both a passion and a millstone around my neck. I hadn't realized this, and this observation was an entry into a deeper conversation.

Creating new awareness and learning

Sharing observations, without attachment, has the potential to create new awareness and learning for the coachee.

In a previous blog article on asking powerful coaching questions, I shared that the concept of neuroplasticity teaches us that our brains can physically change to encourage creative thinking and new knowledge. Our neurons can actually move into new locations in our brain when we learn.

Our observations can act as a catalyst for our coachee's brain to change and move forward with new insight. In effect, the coach is acting as a neurotransmitter ensuring an important connection is made and that new awareness is evoked.

Similar to when we ask powerful questions, when we share observations the coachee's entire brain becomes active as it reflects, releasing serotonin - a natural mood stabilizer.

As serotonin is released, a rush of energy (or insight) occurs as the brain fires up, moving ahead into discovery of perspectives, answers or solutions. This encourages gathering intelligence from all areas of the brain, allowing for more insight for the coachee. New neural connections begin to be made as the coachee's brain moves closer to finding their own new perspectives, answers or solutions.

The coachee who received the observation has literally had their brain provoked and that rush of energy can become a motivator for action.

6 ways to boost your observation as coach

  1. Notice what you are hearing beyond the spoken words - in your coachee's tone of voice; choice of words, ideas, and concepts; in their body language.
  2. Be inquisitive. Bring your own observation into focus by noticing what you are noticing: What are you sensing, seeing or hearing? What are you missing?
  3. Engage in mindfulness practices to enhance your capacity to focus your attention and quiet your mind so that you're less distracted.
  4. Embrace childhood observation games to help you hold focus. Remember 'I spy…'? The memory game?
  5. Clear your lens by acknowledging and managing/working through potential biases, emotions or interests that could cloud your ability to offer clear and nonjudgmental observations.
  6. As you observe physical gestures or responses, incorporate somatic questions to help coachees become more present, have access to other ways of knowing and increase their acuity of what is happening in and around them. For example, "What do you notice in your body as you are saying this?", "What comes up for you there?" or "What emotions or sensations are you noticing in your body?"


What practice or strategy will support you in strengthening your superpower of observation?


1 Kirk Long, Star Talk guest blog, April 23, 2017

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Sarah Evans, MCC Guest Author

Contributing Author:

Dr. Sarah Evans, PhD, MCC, Dip. CS is passionate about working with visionary decision-makers and influencers inspired by the transformative potential of coaching. She is an executive leadership & team coach, facilitator, OD consultant, coaching supervisor, and mentor coach at Evans Leadership Group. Sarah is dedicated to cultivating resilient leaders—supporting individuals, teams, organizations and coaches lead and thrive in complexity. Her goal is to maximize human capacity, organizational capabilities, and contributions to societal well-being. Her key working themes are relationships, resilience, results! Visit her website here and connect with her on Linkedin. Sarah is a member of the International Coach Federation, where she holds a Master Certified Coach (MCC) credential.

Learn more about Sarah & see all their articles here >>

Image of Telescope against night sky by Kevin Quezada via Unsplash

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