How Coaches Can Use Language to Facilitate Individual Change

Language is an essential component of coach-client interactions. The ability to express emotions and thoughts plays a significant role in understanding what might be hiding behind them. So, what happens when your client can't find the right words or doesn't have the language to define themselves and their emotions? Continue reading to uncover the answer through research conducted by Barbara Fölscher-Kingwill and Nicky Terblanche (2019).


The scarcity of research focused on the impact of language on coaching success and individual change prompted Barbara Fölscher-Kingwill and Nicky Terblanche to conduct a study in 2019 entitled, The Role of Coaching and Coach Language in Clients. The research aimed to answer two key questions:

  1. To what extent does coaching change the language of clients?

  2. How does coach language influence client language during a coaching intervention?

To answer these questions, Fölscher-Kingwill and Terblanche selected six clients who were coached by one of three coaches. The criterium for selection were that participants needed to (i) come from a variety of industries, and (ii) have notes that were taken during the coaching sessions.

They conducted 12 in-depth face-to-face interviews with coaches and clients, which lasted approximately 60 minutes each. These interviews produced 12 transcripts.


Using Atlas.ti software, data were analyzed according to the six phases of Thematic Analysis. The initial 368 codes were reduced to 140, which were sorted into 15 groups and three themes:

  • Theme 1—coaching triggers iterative change in client language

  • Theme 2—coaches confirm client linguistic change as essential to individual change

  • Theme 3—coach language broadens client language in multiple ways

The general finding that emerged from the data is that both coaches and clients reported significant changes to client language through coaching.

Theme 1: coaching triggers iterative change in client language

Table 1: Fölscher-Kingwill, B. and Terblanche, N. (2019)
Source: Fölscher-Kingwill, B. and Terblanche, N. (2019)
  1. The first step towards personal change that clients emphasized was becoming aware of the language of their inner voice. Clients reported that they were often so disconnected that it was hard for them to hear that inner voice. They needed the help of a coach to bring their words to the surface. After achieving that, they were able to examine the language as an object. That led to the realization of how often we identify ourselves with words and phrases. By becoming aware of their inner language and the words they use, they noticed the impact their inner voice has on them and their identity.

  2. It was determined that most clients experienced inner discomfort at the beginning of coaching, which was attributed to not being able to answer the deep existential questions because of lack a of language. The lack of appropriate vocabulary led clients to describing their discomfort as anxiety, insecurity, and confusion. After they had integrated new, clearer language, they were able to define themselves, which they describe as the most critical movement of positive internal change. Coaching taught them to identify their emotions with linguistic accuracy. The development of new phrases and language positively impacted their self-confidence and self-acceptance.

  3. Coaching influenced the change in criteria that clients used for measuring success, going from external (such as financial success) to internal criteria (making a difference).

  4. Going through positive internal change influenced how clients interacted with others. That was especially visible in conflict situations. The key method that helped them to move away from reactive behaviors was "slowing down."

  5. The clients explained how coaching helped them to change their management style, going from "authoritative" and "directive" to "engaging" and "collaborative." The most significant change they had experienced was learning to truly listen.

  6. The final change that happened through coaching is learning how to use the language intentionally to facilitate individual change. Using linguistic priming, clients started to “feed the brain with the thoughts, the language that you want it to play,” as one of the clients described.

Theme 2: coaches confirm client linguistic change as essential to individual change

Table 2: Fölscher-Kingwill, B. and Terblanche, N. (2019)
Source: Fölscher-Kingwill, B. and Terblanche, N. (2019)
  1. Having interviews focused on examining language helped coaches gain new insights about the relationship between language and individual change. They realized that new language could open a client's mind to new concepts, different perspectives, and realities.

  2. Reports on client linguistic change by coaches and clients were highly consistent and similar. It can be concluded that certain linguistic methods make coaching a very successful form of communication.

  3. After clients acquired new language, positive changes that coaches noticed were enhanced levels of contentment, self-understanding, and confidence. The conclusion can be drawn that obtaining more language enables the change in client perspectives, which leads to increased emotional well-being.

Theme 3: coach language broadens client language in multiple ways

Table 4: Fölscher-Kingwill, B. and Terblanche, N. (2019)
Source: Fölscher-Kingwill, B. and Terblanche, N. (2019)
  1. Most clients were aware of the phrases and words used as part of the coaches' language. In fact, clients eventually started using similar language themselves (for example, “I need to reframe"). One of the main influencers that enabled new thinking for clients and opened up a new world for them is the internalization of the coaches' key questions, such as “What are you leaving behind and what are you moving towards?”

  2. This study showed that the coaches' role in helping clients find new language was especially vital in broadening clients' vocabulary of concepts, practicing positive reframes, and practicing key phrases that would later become linguistic primers. Another significant finding supports the importance of asking key questions in coaching as it was shown that coaches' questioning techniques played a pivotal role in helping clients broaden their perspective and gain clarity. The results of this study showed that verbal solutions provided by a coach might support individual change. The authors indicate that this is in alignment with the findings of Gessnitzer et al. (2016) and contradicts the belief that coaches should use a language similar to a client's language as suggested in Grove’s Clean Language practices (in Wilson, 2014).

  3. One of the successful methods that facilitated the change in client language was the deliberate rehearsal of newly constructed phrases. At the beginning of practicing these phrases, the clients’ inner belief often didn’t align with the new phrases they were telling themselves. However, after practicing them regularly, they began believing in them. Another essential tool in coach-client interactions is active listening. That was supported in this study with clients emphasizing that the success of their individual change depended on the quality of their coach's listening. Coaches mentioned two important modes of listening. One, they would be fully immersed in the client’s language. Two, they would interpret while listening.

  4. When it comes to what was most helpful in assisting a change in language, the clients' reports on reflecting and reframing were inconsistent. Some clients preferred reflection of their own language, while others found reframing more useful. On the other hand, the coaches' insights were unanimous and concluded that reframing helped get closer to their client's language to create shared understanding.

Actionable Steps

This study offered valuable insights into the role that coach language has in client change and coaching success.


It was shown that coaching influenced linguistic change, which facilitated individual change. Moreover, it can be concluded that coach language has an impact on client language.

The results of this and similar studies show the importance of language as a tool for change. Coaches should be aware of the weight that their words carry and the strong impact the language they use might have on their clients.


By using insights from studies like this one, coaches could learn how to use the language more effectively to assist the individual change.


Some of the skills that coaches need to steadily develop, which were also suggested by Fölscher-Kingwill and Terblanche, include:

  • Bringing the words of clients' inner language to the surface and offering verbal suggestions to help them with positive reconstructions

  • Building own vocabulary to extend their emotional range and verbal granularity

  • Using linguistic priming techniques to activate individual change

  • Using different modes of listening

  • Using reframing and reflecting


References

Gessnitzer, S., Schulte, E. and Kauffeld, S. (2016) '"I am going to succeed": The power of self-efficient language in coaching and how coaches can use it', Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 68(4), pp.294-312. DOI: 10.1037/cpb0000064.

Fölscher-Kingwill, B. and Terblanche, N. (2019) 'The role of coaching and coach language in clients’ language and individual change', International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 17 (2), pp.158-173. DOI: 10.24384/bnaz-3r85

Wilson, C. (2014) Performance Coaching: A Complete Guide to Best Practice Coaching and Training. London: Kogan Page




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