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Reflective Language

Language that reflects back the coachee’s own words is a win-win formula for success. This is called Reflective Language. The coach does not use up mental activity in interpreting and the coachee does not have to detach from the ‘experience’ they may be having in order to worry about the meaning of the words (interpretation of semantics) the coach is using. Reflective Language is very standard and used gracefully by all the best coaches I know. Coachees do not notice Reflective Language, but observers do notice!

The language is designed to help the coachee stay deeply in their discovery process. The words that they express are reflected back as perfectly as possible, so they do not need to translate them. It is like a keyhole that lets words (the key) out and then I insert my key (their reflected words) right back in again, without any resistance.

The coachee does not notice or question the words because they are their own. Because this process of reflective-questioning is so perfect for the keyhole, the coachee does not notice the construction of the sentences either. The coachee is able to stay with their own evolutionary thinking and discovery.

Here is a typical dialogue:

Angus: So, what do you first notice when this pattern starts?

Coachee: My head starts to throb

Angus: And if something happens just before that throb, what is that thing that happens just before?

Coachee: It’s like there is a freezing of time for a millisecond and a cold blade opens up my forehead

Angus: And if something happens just before that freezing and the cold blade opens up ‘my forehead’, what is that thing that happens just before that freezing?

Because Reflective Language seeps in so beautifully, the coachee stays exquisitely with their process and here we see that it invites metaphoric possibilities:

Angus: “As someone who clearly contributes and is always ahead of expectations, how is your experience now of having a backlog of orders?”

Philip: “I feel frustrated with myself.”

Angus: “And what is this ‘frustrated with myself’ experience like?”

This is the metaphor question, inviting the possibility of a metaphor. It does not always work but Philip had a metaphor and shared it with me.

Philip: “It’s like trying to get through a dark doorway with a big, shadowy face-less figure in the way, like filling in the whole doorway.”

Angus: “A big, shadowy faceless figure is in the way of the dark gateway, what else?”

Philip: “He is the stupid policy-geek buried somewhere at head-quarters, his pockets are full of useless statistics, he is a light-weight but is filling up that gateway and I want to get past him, push him over, but he is wedged in.”

Angus: “This wedged-in geek is filling up the gateway and you want to get past him, push him over. How can you change this situation to make that possible?”

I was inviting Philip to find a solution that might make the doorway bigger or float away, that might make the policy-geek shrink.

Philip: “I have a pin-stick on my desk. Completed orders go on that. I am pushing it into the geek’s stomach and he is just a bag of wind, he is shriveling, going translucent pink and the papers are drifting away in the wind, there is just a pink mat with the words ‘You’re Welcome’ written on it.”

Angus: “And you pushed the pin-stick into his stomach and he has shriveled down to a pink mat with the words ‘you’re Welcome’ written on it’. What happens next?”

Philip: “I skip over and through, the gateway is polystyrene, breaking up and is flying away. All my orders are on the stick. The phone is ringing.”

Angus: “And this experience of the pin-stick and shriveling geek, the pink mat and the gateway flying away, then you find your orders all on the pin-stick, how is this different to where you were before, a shadowy face-less figure in the doorway?”

Philip: “I was stuck but I had the solution all along. It’s my pin-stick. I stab that geek every time I bang an order down on it!”

Angus: “So, what is the likelihood of you completing the orders on your desk within the time-frame you mentioned earlier, zero through ten?”

Philip: “Total, ten plus!”

Philip had explored his metaphor and found a new solution, literally right in front of him on his desk. No external factor had changed, just his perception of it. This is another example of the benefits of Conscious Perception, this time by involving his metaphors. The example is different from others so far in that one of the questions was to encourage him to adapt and change his negative image of the gateway by using color, light, texture etcetera to change the way he experienced the situation. These parameters of sensory information are termed sub-modalities and are widely encouraged in coaching and NLP therapy. In this case, Philip changed the big, shadowy figure to a pink bag of wind and then to a doormat with words on it; he changed the dark gateway to something made of polystyrene. This just broke up and blew away. With sub-modalities we can encourage changing perception of any experience or metaphor whether visual or not. The sub-modalities of a boss’ voice might include a squeaky-voice of Donald Duck. Smell can be changed. Visual material can be altered to reduce the size of an obstacle (as Philip did with the geek) but also to expand and lighten until invisible. An obstacle can be framed and then moved so far away that it is insignificant.


Sub-modalities are simply variants in experience. In coaching, it is possible to extend the coachee’s experience of the world by inviting them to focus on, and play with those experiences. Needless to say, these ideas sprang from California in the 1960’s but are no less important for that. Exploring the sub-modalities of experience may involve changing a visual representation, an auditory representation or any kinesthetic (feeling) representation.

Clues to how people store information are available in their language. Phrases like, ‘I see what you mean’ and, ‘I think I grasp that idea’ suggest that the representations of these ideas are tied in with preferred mental (including emotional) representations. Inviting a coachee to experiment with the sub-modalities of their experiences can enable them to find more constructive ways of managing future situations and can be anchored to provide automatic support for difficult scenarios including phobias. For a more comprehensive look at sub-modalities, I invite you to read Bandler and MacDonald.