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Interrupting Skills for Coaches and Facilitators

By Martha Lasley
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Originally published in Facilitating with Heart


What if we’re working with someone who likes to tell long stories? As long as we’ve already built rapport and have heart connection, there are plenty of ways to interrupt. Telling the details is a strategy that people sometimes take when they want to be understood deeply, or they like their comfort zone and are avoiding taking action. Our job is to listen between the lines and discover what they really need. They might need clarity, information, self trust, support, or any number of things that you can ask about.

When would a coach encourage storytelling?

  • Encourage your client to enjoy the jackal show to uncover the beautiful need. “You sound angry – can you voice that anger fully to see what sweet desire of yours is fueling this fire?”
  • Stretching your client’s imagination to envision a desirable future. “Tell me a story about an ideal day one year in the future.”
  • Your client has a series of stories that are connected to their inner state, say of overwhelm. “You sound completely overwhelmed. What else is happening that is contributing to the pile up? … As you think about all the ways you’re overwhelmed, can you slow down and notice what you are wanting?”
  • Using Appreciative Inquiry to uncover the client’s life force, innate power, values, vision. “Can you share an experience of a time when your value of adventure was fully honored?… How can you honor that value more fully this week?”
  • When would a coach interrupt storytelling?
  • Your client tells the same story slightly differently several times. “You’ve told the same story twice and it sounds like you’re about to tell it again. Will you relive the event one more time in silence and connect with what you need?”
  • Shocked by someone’s actions, your client explains all the contributing factors. After empathizing, you suggest, “It sounds like you’re bewildered and wanting to make sense of this. Would you like to role play so you can understand where he might be coming from?”
  • Nothing stops your client from telling you all the details of the story, and you’re starting to get bored. “It sounds like you really want to be heard fully. When you connect with what you’re wanting, can you give me the core essence of this story in one sentence?”
  • After identifying the needs, and fully experiencing the energy of the need, your client seems fully self-connected. But when asked about what actions or requests are likely to sustain the self connection, she starts telling the story again. “Hold on. Are you sharing more details of the story because you really need more time to grieve before you can take action?”
  • Feeling helpless, your client tells a story about someone’s actions that don’t contribute to well being. You empathize silently and ask, “So what do you want to do about that?”
  • Your energy drops as your client tells a story. “I notice my energy is dropping like a rock and I’m guessing your energy is also dropping. Can you connect to what’s missing?”
  • By telling many details, you suspect that your client is avoiding the work of self connection because of possible pain. “What are you avoiding?”
  • You want to express transparently. “It breaks my heart when I hear how much you value friendship, yet you spend our sessions explaining how impossible it is for you to have friends. When I hear how stuck you are, I want some relief – I’d like to connect to the energizing forces within you… You don’t want to be alone, so what would you like to change?”
  • Circling back to the story becomes a habit. “I hear how discouraged you are. Here’s a challenge for you: What are five things you can do to tap your courage and move you forward?”
  • The inner critic is running wild. “Yes, you are so stupid… Or is it that your inner critic wants easy connection, and you also want to give yourself much more freedom to make mistakes and learn from them?” Or you can ask, “Would you like to reframe that story you’re telling yourself?”
  • You’re overwhelmed by the details. “Can I stop you? That’s a little more than I can take in right now. I’d like to reflect back to you what I’m hearing to make sure I’m getting why this is important. Okay?”
  • You’re worried that the venting could go on forever. Let me check something. It sounds like you’ve had a horrendous week and really need to vent. How about you take another two minutes to pour out all that’s bothering you, and then we’ll look at what you need and want to do about it.
  • Your client complains about being wronged. “Hold on - let me see if I’ve got you. I hear you that you’re frustrated and that you care deeply about integrity. What did you learn from this experience that you can use in the future?”
  • Your client analyzes multiple options. “It sounds like you really value analysis and want to make a great decision; what do you need to do to get the information you need to move forward?”
  • The client takes great pleasure in entertaining you with her story. “Telling stories seems to be something you really enjoy. To help you stay focused on what you want, would you like to tell a story about how you want things to be different?”
  • Your client shifts from one issue to another aimlessly. “Wait… Can you check in with yourself and get clarity about why you’re telling me this?”
  • Your client is speaking very rapidly, trying to fit a lot of information in. “Slow down… Would you like to take this a little deeper? What’s going on for you?”
  • You start to wonder if all the details have any relevance. “What really matters here?”

I’ve given a lot of examples here because this seems to be one of the most difficult coaching skills to master. Out of a desire to be polite, the coaching session goes nowhere. Each of the examples above could be delivered judgmentally or with deep caring. When you create your coaching alliance, ask for permission to interrupt story telling so your client expects you to intrude whenever your intuition moves you. When stories become a smokescreen, you can accelerate connection by helping your client connect with two things: insight or action.

Continuously empathizing with the same story each week serves no one. Likewise, being polite, holding back, or letting the story go on beyond your comfort level does not contribute to life. As Marshall Rosenberg asserts, “Interrupt as soon as you’ve heard one more word than you enjoy hearing.” As long as you’re self-connected and connected to the needs of your client, open your mouth before you know what you’re going to say and trust that whatever transparent expression comes out will enhance your connection.

Coaching is life-changing, world-changing work. The coaching programs at Leadership that Works go beyond theories and models and work with clients on a deeper level. You learn how to coach the whole person: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Whole person Transformation.

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