Can I coach my spouse?
Unless you are both oriented around the paradigm of coaching, I would not advise it. It can be helpful and powerful in those moments when you or your spouse would appreciate a non-judgemental, non-directive, indifferent voice in their life.
When to coach in your marriage:
- When both you and your spouse are aware of the need
- When you have been asked by your spouse OR when you’ve asked your spouse if they could benefit from and agree to be coached
- When the situation warrants it (e.g. conflict, decision-making or uncertainty, and the above criteria are understood)
My wife, Gina, is also a coach. She and I have learned to ask one another to be coached and for permission to coach the other. In our three decades of marriage, this has worked well for us. However, there are times when coaching in marriage is not advised.
When not to coach in your marriage:
- When you have an agenda to get across
- When you are angry or upset
- When the situation has reached an emotional peak
We have also found that preventive care will do wonders when we find ourselves in a heated conversation–or one that is delicious with nuance!
Early in our marriage we attended a communication workshop led by Dr. Dallas Demmit. He actually contributed to our coaching research and coined the term “Discovery Listening”. In that workshop, Dallas asked each couple to sit back-to-back. One spouse would share a situation while the other listened and summarized. Dallas sat off to the side with a clicker in his hand and made an obnoxious “click” each time I misinterpreted what Gina was saying. “Click” “click” ”click”! It was a painful, albeit helpful, exercise.
Listening and summarizing are two of the most important skills in coaching. If you listen well, and then summarize back to your spouse what you are hearing without putting your own interpretation on it, you’re halfway there. Yet, it’s surprisingly difficult.
First, let’s talk about listening. Listening means that you, as the coach, need to focus all your energy and attention on your spouse. No distractions, no mind wandering, no jumping to solutions. It means patiently and carefully listening without assuming you know where your spouse is coming from. It means asking follow-up questions to clarify and unpack what they are thinking. One of the most powerful questions you can ask is quite simple: “What else?” Keep asking that until your spouse runs out of things to say.
Then, summarize back what you are hearing to make sure you got it right. This is much harder than it sounds. It’s incredibly easy as a coach to subtly put your own interpretation on what you hear from your spouse or highlight what you may consider flaws in their thinking. At that point, you leave the role of coach and enter the role of expert or consultant. Summarizing becomes steering. Even very experienced coaches can fall into interpreting rather than simply reflecting what is being said.
Here are some exercises for growing in the skill of summarizing:
- Marriage provides fertile ground for practicing listening and summarizing. Ask your significant other or a close friend to share about a significant issue in your relationship while you just listen and summarize. After you summarize, ask, “Is that an accurate reflection of what you are saying?” A response that starts with, “Kind of,” or “Yes, but,” isn’t good enough. Likely, you’ll have to try it several times before the other person says, “Yes, that’s right. That’s what I am saying.”
- In your next conversation with your spouse, try using these phrases to summarize what you are hearing:
- So, what I hear you saying is…
- So, your experience has been…
- So, I gather that…
- What do you mean by…?
- Help your spouse create a metaphor for their situation or experience. For example, “Describe your challenge in terms of (weather, topography, traffic, a building, color, art, music, etc.).” One dentist described the need for pulling a baby tooth: “the adult teeth under the gums need to merge traffic from three lanes into two.” Ask your spouse to explain the metaphor and why they chose it.
- Help your spouse unpack. Unpacking is another listening tool you can use throughout a coaching conversation. Rather than stopping with what your spouse has said, try to take it a step further. Ask:
- What else?
- Say more about that.
- Help me understand that a bit more.
These are all helpful to exercises to build your listening and summarizing skills in marriage. One last note: make sure you and your spouse are both familiar with the coach approach before you launch into any of these exercises. In fact, over the years, we have been very clear when we’ve wanted the other person to simply listen. It is helpful to set some ground rules to frame the conversation so that both of you are on the same page (e.g. “I would appreciate it if you would listen for the next 15 minutes”).
What about you? How have you found coaching in your marriage to be helpful or challenging?