This week, I watched a documentary about the cult NXIVM. During this documentary, psychologists talked about the power of NLP to manipulate cult members, and this got me thinking about how different coaching modalities are used to manipulate and how far this manipulation is from coaching.

I used to be an NLP practitioner, did my first two NLP training with the NLP co-founder, Dr Richard Bandler, and did a further 2 Trainer Training with the co-owner of NLP Society and the originator of the Swish technique. I struggle to believe that anyone is manipulated for more than a second or two by this?

I was attracted to NLP by the idea of changing your thoughts. When I was introduced to another way of working in 2009 that showed me that it’s that you think and not what you think that you experience, there wasn’t any point in continuing to work with NLP as I’d cut out the middle man.

I love the language of NLP, but the one thing that I always felt was more theatre than true were the techniques.
Can someone tell the Emperor that he has no clothes on?

Coaching methods in negotiation
Chris Voss, the FBI negotiator, denies that he studied NLP but admits there’s an overlap and watching videos of Voss, you can see the NLP patterns he uses.

I can’t see how these linguistic patterns influence people, but I’m watching the videos sitting in my comfy chair and not in a high-stress situation. My state of mind is calm, and my thoughts aren’t spinning.

So what does Chris Voss and negotiation have to do with coaches? Voss talks a lot about reading between the lines and watching body language, which many coaches train in.

NLP coaches are trained to listen for language patterns, submodalities, deep and surface structure and believe that they know what the client is saying better than the client.

They read between the lines and make up a different narrative, honestly believing that they are intuiting what the client means.

Or maybe they’re just, innocently, making up a different story?

And how about watching body language? We’re told that there are many body language cues, such as if someone is talking to you, but their feet are pointing towards the door, they want to leave.

Again, coaches are taught to believe that their interpretation of how body language is correct and that they are accessing their client’s subconscious.

When I was an NLP coach, I had to concentrate so hard on watching out for body language and eye accessing cues and listening and tracking the conversation to pick up the language patterns; it was exhausting.

And made me wonder how much I truly listened to the client and how much I listened to my own inner narrative about what I believed the client was doing and saying?

Active listening
Chris Voss is said to be an excellent listener. But the active listening that a negotiator employs is not the kind of listening you do as a coach.

Word mirroring shows that you are listening and trying to understand someone else’s perspective. It is also said to break down any barriers or resistance that the other person may have.

This is another form of active listening that involves carefully listening to what the other person is saying and then repeating their words back in a slightly different way to show that you understand their point of view. For example, if someone says something like, “I’m not sure if I’m ready to commit my partner,” you might respond with, “It sounds like you’re not quite ready to commit yet.”

But listening in a coaching session means letting go of everything you have on your mind to listen to your client rather than tracking and repeating back your client’s words.

And I don’t know about you but it irritates the hell out of me when someone repeats my words back to me.
Word mirroring might be thought to be an effective way to build rapport with the other person, but there are better ways to get rapport.

The idea that you have to create rapport is one of the biggest myths in the coaching world. Have you ever had someone try to build rapport with you?

It feels awkward and clunky when someone crosses their arms or scratches their nose just after you do. Or if they match your breathing or mirror your body language.

When you are truly present with your client, they can feel it. When you sink into a space of heart-to-heart connection with the person in front of you, rapport is created naturally and deeply.

Using techniques to get into rapport might work in negotiation but has no place in a coaching session.

Nor does labelling.

A coach helps you see that you aren’t your labels, whereas labelling is a powerful part of a negotiation.

In negotiation, labelling the other person’s emotions is used to move the conversation along. As top FBI negotiator Chris Voss says, ‘We employed our tactical empathy by recognizing and then verbalizing the predictable emotions of the situation. We didn’t just put ourselves in the fugitives’ shoes. We spotted their feelings, turned them into words, and then very calmly and respectfully repeated their emotions back to them. In a negotiation, that’s called labeling.”

This might work in negotiation but in a coaching session, the coach recognises that you experience feeling via thought and so rather than putting words on emotion to fix it in place, a coach encourages the client to think in a different way.

Labelling and calibrated questions are negotiation techniques used together to shift the other person into a positive frame of mind.

Calibrated questions
Calibrated questions are a key strategy that negotiators use.

These questions are carefully formulated to elicit specific responses from the other person. They can gather information, gather feedback on different approaches or strategies, or even test someone’s level of commitment to a particular deal. For example, a calibrated question might be, “How do you feel about this proposal? Would it be something that you would be able to commit to?”

In negotiation, the key benefit of using calibrated questions is that they allow you to quickly assess how the other person feels and thinks about the negotiation. This can help you adapt your strategies to get the best possible outcome that meets everyone’s needs.

Using calibrated questions is a powerful strategy used during negotiations and some coaches try this too. Calibration is taught in coaching programmes to read unconscious, non-verbal responses.

But coaching isn’t a negotiation. Coaching is not about you trying to find solutions or outcomes.

Coaching is about holding a space for your client to find their own solutions and outcomes.