Life Coaching Help: How to Effectively Communicate with Your Clients

Principles of Communication in Life Coaching

Communication seems as though it should be a very easy task; but in reality, it is one of the most complicated activities we do every day.

When we do not take the time to learn proper communication, we are stifling and limiting our ability to grow in every way: at home, at work, and in our communities.

Just watch small children trying to get along. Those who are about two years old and have learned some language usually do fairly well with learning to cooperate. Those who have not learned much language become very frustrated and often turn to anger or violence, such as biting, to solve their problem. We all know people who are adults and still handle their communication dysfunctions with anger and frustration.

Communication occurs when a message is sent, received, and understood.

Any one of these critical steps can change the course of the interaction, and communication cannot be said to have happened.

  • Message: If you, the speaker, have a message to convey, you either speak or write your message.
  • Sent: This message is either sent on paper, verbally through an intermediary, or directly from your mouth to another individual.
  • Received: Someone either reads the message or listens to the message.
  • Understood: This is the critical step because both parties need to make certain that the message has been understood before either can believe that communication actually occurred.

In this process, something can go wrong at any one of these steps.

In the case of the message, perhaps the person wishing to communicate the message has difficulty putting his or her thoughts into words. The very message could be garbled from the very beginning.

The "sending" portion of the message can cause problems if the note goes astray or there is static on the line or just a bad connection.

The "receiving" portion of the message can be to blame for lack of communication if the person to whom the message is directed does not see it, does not read, or does not understand the language. Similarly, if the person hearing the message does not hear, does not understand the language, or sets down the telephone to attend to something else, the message has not been received.

The part of communication that is vital and yet very rarely clarified is the "understanding" portion of communication. The only way to ensure that a message has been communicated is to ask questions that will clarify whether the actual message has been sent, received, and understood.

The Art of Listening

Most of us are not aware of the proper way to listen. Once there was a couple in a restaurant that appeared to be having a conversation in which communication was taking place. They were respectful when the other person was talking, they appeared to be interested in the conversation, and they were making pretty good eye contact.

Anyone nearby who actually listened to the conversation, however, would have discovered that each party had an agenda. When one person was speaking, the other was quiet; but instead of listening, hearing, and understanding what the partner was saying, each party was thinking about what he or she was going to say when it was next that person's turn to speak.

When the couple got up to leave, it was apparent from their body language that they were frustrated, even slightly angry. They thought they were communicating. Instead, they were merely talking to a wall because neither of them was actively listening to what was being said.

When you are in a coaching session, your job is to listen and really hear what your client is telling you. Do not think about what you want to say next. Do not think about what you want to have for dinner. If a stray thought comes into your mind that is important, jot it down on the pad of paper, and then refocus on the conversation.

When you perfect the art of listening, the success of your client will skyrocket because so few people actually are heard and understood when they speak. Most of the time, we are so focused on what we are going to say next that we do not hear what is being said; and if even one of the components of successful communication is broken, the entire system of communication breaks down.

Being Understood

As a life coach, your job is to make absolutely certain that your client believes you are listening, hearing, and understanding what he or she is trying to say.

The only way to clarify this for your client is to reflect back what you are hearing. Use phrases such as the following:

  • When you say __________, do you mean _________ or ________?
  • I understand you to say that _______________."
  • Let me see if I understand you correctly. You said ______________.
  • Go on, I want to hear more.
  • I'm not sure I caught that. Would you please repeat it?

Working to understand your client will be ongoing throughout your entire career as a life coach.

Body Language

It has been established that up to 93 percent of our face-to-face communication is based on body language. For this reason, it is important that you understand as much as you possibly can about body language. Some people make it an entire career. There are body language experts who analyze politicians during speeches to interpret what was said beyond the mere words of the exchange.

Empathy: This is a powerful tool. Use it wisely and use it well. Empathy is not sympathy. Empathy helps people to not feel so alone and that everyone has basically the same needs, wants, and desires. We want to be safe, healthy, and free from pain and distress; and we choose pleasure over pain every time.

Empathy comes from awareness and being able to understand what others feel. When you feel what others feel, you are experiencing sympathy. Empathy does not mean that you agree with and support the thoughts, feelings, and actions of another person. You understand them; you do not have to agree with them.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Life Coaching course?

One emotion, born of empathy, makes us powerful and that is compassion. Most people fail to use compassion appropriately because, while they are able to be compassionate toward others, they fail to exercise it on themselves. We will deal with compassion more fully later. Now there are some people who exercise the fullest depth of their compassion on themselves but not for others. These people are called narcissists.

As a coach, you must be empathetic. You must be open and aware of your client. Maintain eye contact and show by your body language that you are listening and are fully present for the session.

Communication Exercise

This exercise was taught in a communications workshop with John Day, who uses it to teach what effective communication is all about in his leadership workshops. His application focuses on a large group setting. Here we will describe it in a smaller setting where just you and your client can participate.


Roll of blue painter's tape


1 to 2 dozen mousetraps (the old-fashioned wooden and metal spring type)



This works only for people who are able to walk and have no fear of being blindfolded. All participants must wear shoes!


For this activity, you will need a large clutter-free area; a wide hallway would work if it is just two people participating in the activity. Any more than that and you will need to find a larger space of about 16-by-16 feet or bigger.

Take the painter's tape and apply it to the floor in a very long strip about 12 feet long. Using the yardstick, measure 3 feet away from the first strip of tape, and place a parallel strip of tape exactly 3 feet away for the length of 12 feet. When you are done, you will have outlined a pathway that is 3 feet wide.

Now set all of the mousetraps. Be careful; they are pretty sensitive! As you set each trap, place the traps in a random way throughout the entire outlined pathway. The more traps the better. The more random the placement the better. The idea is to put the traps directly inside the pathway.

Once all the traps are set in place, you will place the blindfold over your client's eyes and position him or her at the entrance to the mousetrap-strewn pathway.

The Activity:

The first time through this activity, give very little instruction as to how to do this activity successfully. When teaching this activity to others, tell them, "You and your partner have to communicate where the traps are, where and how to step around them without setting any of them off."

Never tell them at the outset how to communicate. People learn so much better when they become frustrated with their partners, either for not giving the proper instruction, or when the blindfolded partner does not understand.

Using only your words, you need to instruct your client how and where to step so that they are able to navigate the pathway without setting off any of the traps.

This sounds a whole lot easier than it really is to do in person! People have participated in this activity many times; and each time they do, they learn so much more about communication.

You are welcome to change any parameters of this activity in any way you wish, provided that you are encouraging your client to understand why communication is so important and the various components of communication.

What to Do When Someone Cheats

From time to time, you will have a client who is able to cheat by peeking through the blindfold. Some coaches used to stop this behavior, but you can use it as a learning activity. If they navigate the entire pathway ignoring any incorrect communications, you will know that they did not do it based on communication, but based on taking control of the situation.

In their debriefing, you could ask:

Coach: How did that work for you?

Client: Great! I made it all the way through without stepping on a single trap!

Coach: I noticed that I made a couple of mistakes when I was guiding you. I'm very sorry about that.

Client: That's totally OK! I succeeded anyway!

Coach: I noticed that you appeared to be looking down a lot.was there any chance that you could see through your blindfold a little?

Client: I might have been able to see a little.

Coach: So, do you believe that this activity really illustrated what communication was about?

Client: No. I guess not.

Coach: We have been working on your tendency to just take charge of a situation, and when you can, you simply do it. Is it possible that you did the same thing with this activity?

Client: Yes, I see what you mean. At first I thought I could just ignore the fact that I could see, but then I got so caught up in winning that I just couldn't stop myself.

Coach: But you see now, don't you, that you really didn't win at all because the point of the activity was not necessarily to get from one side to the other without setting off a trap, but to communicate with me on how to help you do that. Is it possible that you are cutting off your awareness to being able to communicate effectively because you want to win so badly?

Client: Yes. I did do that.

Coach: Would you like to try again?

Client: Yes, but now I'm really afraid I'm going to fail.

Coach: There is no failure in this activity; it is all about learning to speak, be heard, and to understand and be understood. Any time you don't understand something, you are allowed to ask me for clarification. By asking questions of me, you give yourself a much greater understanding of what I'm trying to tell you.

Those who are most successful in this communication exercise speak carefully and clearly. Both partners ask questions when they do not understand something that was said.

Within moments of good, successful communication, the blindfolded partner relaxes completely and is able to totally trust the guiding partner.

Good communication not only gets the message across, it helps to eliminate fear and anxiety because both parties know they are hearing and understanding the same thing.

This activity, when done in large groups, is much more chaotic, and works on different aspects of communication that are not as relevant to the coaching situation. The large group activity requires that you create three pathways that all intersect in the center so that they radiate outward in a star shape. To further complicate matters, we have pairs start at every entrance, so at any given time you have six pairs of people working to navigate the mousetrap maze.