If you asked a beginner coach what a great coach does really well, the beginner coach will likely respond with “Ask great questions.” But if you ask a seasoned coach what a great coach does really well, they will very likely respond with “Listen well.”
Asking and listening are the twin, interrelated skills that a coach must master, and both are incredibly important. However, while powerful questions get much of the focus and attention, listening is often underrated. In the game of golf they say you drive for show and putt for dough. Applying that mantra to coaching, we can say that questions are impressive, but listening is what really sets apart great coaching.
Synthesizing is an advanced aspect of listening that can really improve your coaching game.In our book Coaching for Christian Leaders, my friend and co-author Linda Miller emphasizes the importance of synthesizing: “This is a critical skill in coaching, because coaching conversations go in so many directions. Coaches who synthesize are able to track themes from different conversations (or even in the same conversation) and link them together.”
Synthesizing should not be confused with summarizing or rephrasing what you’ve heard from your coaching client. Those are helpful and important aspects of listening, too. However, synthesizing goes beyond these forms of active listening in that the coach who synthesizes is listening not only to what’s being shared and what’s been shared, but also notices how various aspects of what the client shares fit together into a bigger picture.
Synthesizing can involve seeing a bigger picture, noticing broad patterns and themes, or recognizing how seemingly different issues are connected. For example, I recently talked with a client who was frustrated with a request a family member had made of her. The family member asked for some free professional help (my client is an attorney), which my client willingly offered and which took a couple of hours, but which also left her feeling frustrated. She wasn’t sure why her frustration was so great. I recalled that in a previous session she’d mentioned not having time to buy groceries that week, and I asked her if maybe the two were connected. She blurted out, “Yes! I am pulled in so many directions that it felt just plain rude for my family member to assume I had an extra two or three hours to work on their question.” This allowed the conversation to turn from the issue of frustration to the deeper issues of allowing herself to be overwhelmed, not standing up for herself, and (eventually) sabotaging her own wellbeing. By synthesizing, I invited the client to the new awareness that it wasn’t her family member who was being rude, but my client was being rude to herself by agreeing to help.
Synthesizing is an effective way to help our clients notice what’s going on from a fresh perspective. One of the major outcomes we expect from a coaching session is new awareness for the client, and synthesizing is totally aimed at spurring the client to new awareness – not necessarily new awareness concerning a solution, but certainly new awareness about what is really going on.
When synthesizing, be sure to avoid diagnosing. Seeing a connection is not the same thing as seeing a reason or spotting a root cause. And since coaches are not in the business of diagnosing, prescribing, or curing, we shouldn’t employ our listening skills toward such aims. Also, be open to the fact that some of the connections you think you see are not in fact real for the client. When you offer the possibility of a connection, a pattern, or a theme, the client might not see it, might not agree with it, or might not see it yet. That’s okay – just move on.
If you want to improve your ability to synthesize, try these suggestions:
- Take notes. Keep your notes simple and brief (don’t try to capture everything) and review them often. Reviewing notes from previous sessions can help you notice connections in today’s session.
- Know your preference for details vs. big picture. Synthesis requires the coach to notice details and to connect details into a bigger picture, and most people have a preference for one or the other. In MBTI terms, Intuitives prefer the big picture and Sensors prefer the details. Knowing which you prefer can help you be more intentional with the other.
- Ask the client to notice themes and patterns and to make connections. Many clients can do this when invited to do so. When a coach asks, “What’s a theme in your work?” or “How does this issue fit any kind of pattern in your life?” the client can essentially teach the coach how to synthesize.
- Work with an advanced coach and notice how he or she does it. Working with a coach not only allows you to deal with your own issues and opportunities, but it’s also a great way to increase your coaching ability.