Is it okay to take notes?

Taking notes

“Real help is different. Real help, professionally or personally, consists of listening to people, of paying respectful attention to people so that they can access their own ideas first.” 

Nancy Kline

On day one of our coach training courses, one of the most powerful experiences that we can facilitate for our participants is to help them truly understand the impact upon the coachee of listening with interest and full attention.

Listening in this way creates transformation — see our Compassionate Listening post for more resources on this – and starts the inquiry in a new coach of what is required for them to be truly present and create this relational container for change.

After an exercise like this, during the debrief we are often asked, ‘is it ok to take notes?’

The need to retain the flow of the conversation, the goal and key words are of course important, and naturally we can think we need to get it right and remember everything the coachee has said – so we grab a pen and paper to do this. If we take notes though, are we limiting what we pay attention to?  

Before making note-taking part of your coaching practice, we would encourage you to consider a few potential challenges:

  1. It may become an interference for the coachee
    Imagine being with a coach that is taking notes during the session — what might you start to think as the coachee? What is the potential dynamic? (Think doctor and patient or an interview). As the session goes on, you notice that the coach captures notes about some things you say and not others; what might that suggest to you in terms of the importance of what you are sharing? How might this impact trust and the relationship?
  2. We can’t multi-task
    Studies have shown that only 2.5% of us are able to multitask effectively. In fact, human beings are wired to be monotaskers; when we multi-task we are switching between tasks and this is energy-intensive for our brain. Studies consistently report that our performance decreases when we are multitasking, especially if the activity (like coaching) requires our active attention.
  3. It can become a barrier to listening
    When we are writing notes, what are we missing? The coachee’s words are only one modality of communication that is being expressed during the coaching session. If we are writing, and especially if we are breaking eye contact, what else are we not experiencing within the listening space?
  4. Note taking may not help us retain the information being shared
    Bloomberg Business reported that the human brain appears to be wired to recognise when information is being documented and to intentionally forget that information so as to be able to free up room for other things. The brain assumes that since the information is written down there’s no need to remember it.

Developing coaches over the last two decades, I have seen many coaches during practice exercises sitting ready with pad and pen in hand (often in the grip of needing to get it right) and either…

  • Barely writing one word when they get over their initial anxiety for the session
    Once they become fully present and absorbed in the dialogue, the pen stops, and the coach shifts focus to a more expansive space, trusting in the coachee, themselves and the coaching process. So it is important to be clear on their intention for writing notes – what is this for?
  • Or writing so much that they become less present to the coachee.
    Being present and listening deeply as the coachee discusses their reality enables us to track patterns in the coachee’s verbal and non-verbal communication, and the impact on us (‘self as instrument’). If we are taking notes, this interferes with our capacity to attune to the coachee and notice any responses in them or us as they are talking.  

On a recent module, I encouraged a coach to try an experiment and put the pad and pen down, to listen with all their senses, to hear the spoken and the unspoken – to notice not just what the coachee is saying but how it is being expressed. As the module continued, they reported that the coaching dialogue had deepened considerably.

“To listen fully means to pay close attention to what is being said beneath the words. You listen not only to the ‘music,’ but to the essence of the person speaking. You listen not only for what someone knows, but for what he or she is. Ears operate at the speed of sound, which is far slower than the speed of light the eyes take in. Generative listening is the art of developing deeper silences in yourself, so you can slow your mind’s hearing to your ears’ natural speed, and hear beneath the words to their meaning.” 

Peter Senge

For coaches training with us, we offer them development in mindfulness and embodiment practice to support the training of their attention, resourcefulness and centered presence. Through the discipline of practice, they notice their focus strengthen, their mind quieten and a deeper connection with their coachee during the session. Most critically, they will notice an enhanced capacity to listen with presence.

“The greatest communication is usually how we are rather than what we say.” 

Joseph Goldstein

Of course, a coach needs to do what works for them to be present and to truly be available to the coachee. If taking notes supports them to do this, we would encourage them to check-in on their intention. Who is this for? What is this for?

Then, to contract about the note taking with their client, its purpose and what will happen to the notes at the end of the session.

And if you are up for an experiment, try putting the pen down and see happens!

Here, we have not discussed reflective practice — taking time after a coaching session to reflect on what we experienced, our observations and learning is critical for our ongoing development and professional practice as a coach. For more details on this, you can watch the webinar below with Jackee Holder, faculty member and expert on reflective practice.

YouTube video

Sources: Bloomberg Business – Taking Notes Kills Your Memory.

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