Walking down the street 25 years ago, the sight of someone talking to themselves would probably make you want to cross the road to avoid them. Nowadays, it is nothing strange – we assume that they are on their mobile phone. But the idea that inner conversations should not be vocalised is a vestige of the association with mental illness. And it is this association, suggests an article in Scientific American[1], that has hindered research into the inner conversation until relatively recently.

In workshops, when discussing the concept of personal reflective space (PRS)[2], I sometimes ask people to raise their hands if they regular talk to themselves when alone in the car or doing some repetitive activity unobserved by others. (For a word to describe this, we have to turn to an obscure Indian dialect, where rawadawa refers to doing something we would be ashamed to, if we thought someone else was observing.) Children and adults with severe learning activities constantly verbalise internal conversations. Current developmental theory regards this as an important step in learning how to have conversations with real others – practising words, meanings and structures. Over time, we learn to mute these conversations externally, but they still happen inside our heads.

Psychologist Charles Fernyhough at Durham University has found that inner speech comes in two varieties – monologue and dialogue – which use different areas of the brain. Dialogic speech activates areas that are much the same as when we engage in a real conversation with someone else. The difference between monologue and dialogue is that dialogue involves the generation of two different points of view.

Fernyhough’s research has found four key qualities of inner speech:

  • Its preference for dialogue over monologue – even when we tell ourselves “I am going to tidy my office today”, it seems more like another part of us is saying “You will tidy your office today”
  • It is often condensed, particularly when acting as a reminder – for example “Dustbins”, instead of “I must remember to put the bins out”
  • It incorporates other people’s voices
  • It plays a role in motivating or evaluating our behaviour (how often do coaches encourage clients to check frequently with themselves questions like Will this take me towards or away from achieving my goal?)

Far from being ashamed of self-talk – vocalised or not – we should embrace it, says Fernyhough, explaining “much of the power of self-talk comes from the way it orchestrates a dialogue between different points of view”. It is a valuable source of creativity.

In more than 30 years of helping people improve their skills of being coaches and mentors and also of being coached and mentored, the parallels between the stages of PRS and those of the coaching of the coaching or mentoring conversation are striking.

First, we have to find an environment, which is conducive to deep thinking – quiet and uninterrupted, although it may involve a solitary, repetitive activity that requires only a small proportion of our cognitive powers to manage. Examples include swimming, running, ironing and driving a car.

Second, we have to achieve a level of focus – allowing one topic or thought to dominate our thinking. Our inner dialogue may take us through considerations, such as Who is involved? Why is this important now? Is it really my issue?

Third, we look at the implications of these initial thoughts. Our inner dialogue works away at the issue, expanding our understanding and opening new avenues of enquiry.

After several iterations between the first and third stages, we reach a moment of Aha! Suddenly we see the issue differently. This is stage four.

In stage five, the insight opens up perspectives we had not considered before. We are able to reframe the issue in ways that lead to stage six – generating innovative and creative ways forward.

Finally, we emerge from PRS wanting to translate our thinking into action. In terms of expressed energy, PRS is an inverted bell curve – the more deeply we think, especially at stages four and five, the more energy the brain needs and the less is available to our extremities.

This natural process has been given face validity by tens of thousands of workshop participants in some 60 countries over recent decades. It appears, then, that coaching and mentoring are likely to be at their most effective, when they replicate this process. Among critical lessons from this perspective are that:

  • The right coaching or mentoring environment is vital – to what extent does it allow the person to focus fully on one issue that concerns them? Do they and the coach-mentor both enter the room in a frame of mind that encourages creative thinking? It is increasingly common for experienced coach-mentors to hold sessions while walking in a relatively tranquil environment, for example.
  • Taking a client’s presented goal at face value is a common mistake. Most goals are far more emergent and ill-understood than common coaching practice allows for. Time spent really understanding the context will lead to much more creative and effective solutions later.
  • Stimulating the inner dialogue is the core of the coaching and mentoring process. Two dialogues are of particular importance: that between the client’s competing values and motivations and that between their understanding of their internal context and their understanding of the external context (what is going on around them).
  • Much as the coach-mentor may like to think it was their brilliant question that created the client’s insight, it is actually the client, who has done all the hard work. It is rather like an earthquake. Many tiny shifts of perspective gradually accumulate before these small tremors trigger a major release of pressure.
  • Having an insight is not enough. Many coach-mentors rush from here to gathering potential solutions and choosing one that seems best. Effective coach-mentors work with the client to help them understand how this shift in perspective changes their understanding, both of this issue specifically and of the client’s relationship to themselves and their world more generally.
  • Finding and choosing between solutions is relatively easy, when it happens on the top of all of these preceding steps. What distinguishes great coach-mentors from the average is their ability to use this stage not just for deciding what to do, but as yet one more part of the learning process. What has the client learned about the way that they think about such issues? How can the new perspectives they have gained help them in being pre-emptive about other, emerging issues?
  • Similarly, the reflective process should not stop when the coach-mentor closes his or her notebook. Very often, the outcome of the session is not a specific set of actions, but a new agenda for thinking. “What else do I need to know?” is as positive an outcome of coaching and mentoring as “What do I need to do?” Coaching that is wedded to idea that solutions must be found within the duration of the coaching session inevitably tends to be covertly directive, based around the coach’s ego-driven need for solutions, rather than the client’s need for understanding.

In short, effective coaching and mentoring are less about the dialogue between coach-mentor and client, than about stimulating and enhancing the internal dialogue within the client. When the client incorporates the voice of their coach-mentor into the conversations they have with themselves as they commute to and from work, then the formal, spoken dialogues have truly made an impact.


© David Clutterbuck, 2017

[1] Charles Fernyhough (2017) Talking to ourselves, Scientific American August pp 69-73

[2] David Clutterbuck (1998) Learning Alliances, CIPD, Wimbledon pp15-17

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