Coaching in person vs. over the phone

Many people wonder about the trade-offs between coaching in person versus over the phone.

Most assume that in-person sessions are better, but that isn’t necessarily true.

In-person sessions can be uniquely powerful, but as a coach and coachee I’ve been iteratively surprised over the years at how effective phone-based coaching can be.

If you’re looking for a coach, but are skeptical about whether phone-based sessions are right for you, here are some thoughts to consider.

Coaching in person: the pros

As we often hear, over 70% of communication is non-verbal. And the bulk of that is neither fully conscious nor fully visual.

In an in-person session, coaches can demonstrate support, acceptance, and engagement through their physical presence and body language.

They can model deep presence and equanimity.

They can observe the coachee’s body language moment to moment.

Nothing fully replaces the immediacy, the richness of in-person communication. Hence the expression: “I need to speak with you in person.”

Coaching in person feels more real… and gives both the coach and the coachee more data to work with.

Coaching in person: the cons

That said, more isn’t necessarily better, and just because something feels good doesn’t mean it’s more effective.

Coaching is designed to transform a person’s mental maps into patterns that are more effectively in line with their goals.

Only the coachee can do this, one insight and one action at a time. The coach can create context, but is as best a guide.

A principle of good coaching is that the coachee does most of the work.

Some coachees will consciously or unconsciously seek the familiarity of in-person communication to push responsibility onto the coach.

This can manifest in many ways, such as extra time spent on pleasantries at the start of sessions, or showing up less than fully present.

Coachees are also often traveling or dealing with work communications up until the very last minute before in-person sessions, and so their brains are abuzz with information. Settling the mind and deeply engaging are then more difficult.

The coach also has challenges to manage that are unique to in-person sessions.

She will have to invest in travel time and/or the overhead of maintaining a physical office.

She will have to watch more carefully for any tendencies to get caught up in the coachee’s emotional energy or stories.

She will have to manage more artfully taking good notes without breaking eye contact or seeming less than fully attentive.

A good coach is capable of all these things. But these extra efforts cost time, money, and energy.

This is why most coaches charge more for in-person sessions.

Coaching over the phone

Delivering quality coaching over the phone has some constraints, but those constraints create some unexpected positives.

Without visual information and embodied energy, coaches and coachees have less data to process. But there are still millions of pieces of data to attend to every second.

When I’m coaching someone via phone, I find myself paying extra attention to breathing, pauses, and what’s unsaid. The restricted data stream in some ways makes me more focused.

Without my own body language and presence to help communicate, I choose my words with extra care. Coachees frequently do the same, so communication is generally clearer, insights sharper.

For phone-based sessions, coachees must take responsibility for being fully present. They must create systems to eliminate work, environmental, and digital distractions beforehand. As a result, they tend to show up very focused.

Since our shared memory is built entirely out of words, over the course of multiple sessions we’re both more able to notice and examine patterns of language.

For the coach, phone sessions are efficient and convenient to schedule: coaches can be anywhere in the world, so long as they have systems in place to be fully present. Most coaches charge less for phone-based sessions.

Beyond the phone

Some coaches attempt to combine the benefits of in-person and phone coaching through video calls.

I use video calls extensively for consulting work, but personally I’m not yet a fan of them for coaching.

Compared to in-person sessions, I miss the non-visual, embodied energy in the room as a source of information. Compared to audio-only sessions, I miss the restricted data stream and the ability to isolate thoughts and words.

I used to do a fair bit of (non-coaching) work in Second Life, and imagine that virtual environments might become highly effective for coaching. For my business, neither the need nor the technology is quite there, but I suspect that will change in the decade ahead.

Though phone coaching has many advantages, one pattern is consistent: the majority of my coaching relationships begin in some way in person.

Seeing and talking with someone in person gives coachees maximum information so they can build comfort and familiarity with a coach’s disposition, style and knowledge.

For this reason, I try to schedule in-person sessions at the start of a coaching series and whenever I am in the same city as my clients.

Once coaching is underway, many of my clients transition to the more flexible benefits offered by over-the-phone sessions, though some still prefer the convenience or challenge (as they experience it) of coaching face-to-face.

As always, I let coachees choose what’s best for them.

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