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Transforming Coaching Conversations by Focusing on Three Words

By Elena Aguilar — April 22, 2014 3 min read
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Coaches spend a lot of time thinking about communication--about how we listen and ask questions. We know that coaching happens in conversations and that we need to pay acute attention to the words we use. I am a big believer in planning coaching conversations, in scripting them out ahead of time--I know this results in conversations that tend to be more intentional and strategic. In this post I want to offer a few suggestions for how changing a few words we use can be transformational in coaching conversations.

The 65/35 Percent Factor

We communicate our thoughts and feelings through the words we use, as well as our body language, tone of voice, pace of speech and pitch. In fact, many experts say that our non-verbal cues (body language, tone, pace, pitch) are responsible for carrying some 65% of the message we communicate. The specific words that we select to make up only 35% of our message. As we read this, we probably know how true this is--that it’s not about what you say, it’s how you say it. You can read more about this idea and how to use it in coaching in this blog that I wrote.

Now, let’s focus on the 35 percent. I’d like to suggest that there are three words that if we became acutely aware of--both in our own speech and that of others--we’d transform our conversations. These three are Why?, but, and should.


This is the first word to start paying close attention to your usage of. Asking questions that start with “Why?” often makes people feel defensive. It can push them to feel like they have to justify or rationalize something they did or thought. The tone of voice we use when asking questions matters a great deal as does the intention behind the question, and so sometimes “Why...?” might be usable. As a general rule, however, it’s dangerous territory.

Your intention behind a “Why?” question might be that you want to understand. Perhaps you want to understand why a teacher responded to a certain kid’s behavior in a certain way. Maybe you want to ask, “Why did you react in that way to that boy’s behavior?” Here are some other sentence stems that can do the same:

  • * I’m curious about your thinking in that moment. Can you tell me more?
    * I’m wondering what led you to react to his behavior that way?
    * What was it about that boy’s behavior that led you to react in that way?
  • Start with just noticing how often you ask “Why?” questions and what your intention is behind them.


    If you want to experience a powerful transformation in your communication, substitute every “but” with “and.” A statement that includes “but” cancels out or discounts everything that came before it. For example, “I hear what you’re saying, but I still think you could consider doing that...” The “but” is like a big fat eraser, wiping out all that comes before the comma, making what comes after the comma feel like the truth. It can also set up an argumentative tone.

    Here’s the remedy: switch out the “but” for an “and” the whole thing sounds and feels different. Try saying that statement aloud with both words. “And” creates openness and space for many truths.

    Again, just start by noticing how often you use “but” in sentences. And then see what happens when you substitute a few “buts” for “ands.” Of course, you’ll simultaneously need to be exploring your feelings and intention behind your statements, and that exploration will shift the communication, and in the meantime, see what happens when you just start switching out the word.


    Should is a yucky word. Don’t use it. Should is full of judgment and righteousness. I know this one well--I’m a recovering-Should-er. I used it all the time, about myself and others. Usually if we use it with others, telling them what they “should” do, we have a tendency to use it with ourselves, as in: “I really should stop telling other people what they should or shouldn’t do.” Here’s the problem with should: it’s controlling and over-directive and can generate feelings of guilt.

    When you notice yourself thinking or using “should” see what happens if you substitute “could” for it. Could is a much more open word. It creates possibilities.

    Words Create Worlds

    A transformational coach pays close attention to the words he or she uses, as well as the words that the coachee uses. Our words offer great insight into our thoughts, beliefs, and feelings. They are like little windows into who we are and where we are. As Ann Hartman wrote, “Words create worlds.” I’d like to suggest that just shifting our usage of the words, “why?, but, and should” could help to create entry points into new worlds.

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