As long as records have existed, music has been used to soothe babies, unite people, lift spirits and rally the troops. There are many examples of using music in medical and therapeutic contexts. It can calm restlessness, minimise pain and anxiety, treat PTSD, depression and psychiatric symptoms, resolving feelings that could not be expressed through talking. It can modify the mood in minutes.
It is unsurprising then that the positive psychology field is also starting to explore how music can be used in interventions to increase wellbeing. Broaden and build theory indicates that positive emotions can result in building intellectual and psychological resources. If music can invoke positive emotions, this could be helpful in coaching conversations to help clients think differently and perhaps create new awareness.
Although creativity and use of the arts in coaching is growing in focus, research into using music in coaching is still limited. In a peer coaching context, research indicated that listening to music prior to a coaching session was found to positively affect the progress clients made, their energy levels and wellbeing.
I became curious about how listening to music could be used in coaching sessions with clients. Anecdotally, fellow coaches shared that they might select a song to play in a coaching session to see how it lands with the client, instigate conversations around their response to the music and perhaps discussing some of the metaphor within it. The risk here is that the music doesn’t resonate with the client or is jarring in some way. Other coaches might ask a client to select a theme tune to help them anchor a feeling or quality they want to work towards in coaching.
I decided to conduct research involving the client choosing music for them and their coach to listen to prior to their coaching session. There was no steer on the purpose of the music as I was curious about what they would choose and why. The choice about how much and how the coach worked with the music in the session was left to them. All coaching was online.
Some interesting themes emerged:
“This is me”
- Clients chose music for different purposes; to feel different (e.g. energised and uplifted) or calm and relaxed, joyful and at peace. Some chose it for the message — e.g. “You will get through this” — and for others it was simply a reminder of a pleasant experience they had.
- Half of the clients found music choice challenging as it would reveal something about them which was more personal than anything shared previously in coaching. One client was concerned that sending a romantic song might result in the coach thinking she was sending a subliminal message.
“Music makes the people come together”
Most of the coaches and clients revealed that listening to the same music resulted in them feeling more connected through this shared experience, building the relationship, giving the coach more of an insight about the client. One client described it as an icebreaker for the coaching session and another thought the coach had a better understanding of his thoughts, behaviours and motivations.
“Different strokes for different folks”
In some cases the coach and client responses to the music was very similar but in others it was very different. In one case there was quite a variation with the client choosing the music which reminded him of how he got through a dark time in his life. The coach perceived it as harsh and felt that she was shrinking and uncomfortable listening to the music.
“Break from the old routine”
Participants were also surprised that stopping for a few minutes to listen to a piece of music provided a real distraction from the working day and a buffer between work and coaching, which led to greater focus in the session. One said it forced him to take a break which made him less frenetic. Rather than thinking about the to-do list whilst making a cup of tea, he focussed on just listening to the music providing a single focus. Some coaches and clients said they would like to use music for themselves just to enhance their breaks.
“It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it”
Left to their own choice, coaches’ approaches varied. They included checking the client listened to the music acknowledging the shared experience. Another asked about the reason for selecting that piece of music and explored the emotional response which they felt helped to build connection. Another added to the above by asking about the relationship between the music and the coaching subject, exploring imagery and metaphor in the lyrics and soundscape. They found the sessions to be more impactful and focussed. The clients were surprised to find that there were connections between the music and their coaching subjects that they had been unaware of and that this impacted the coaching positively.
Possible approaches to using music in coaching
While it is early days in researching how music can be used in coaching, some possible approaches are:
- Listening to music to prepare for a coaching session to achieve a certain state e.g. relaxed, energised, reflective. It can work quickly and effectively and if positive emotions are targeted could result in new thinking and perspective.
- Using music as a buffer between the rest of the day and the coaching session for coach and/or client — e.g. randomly choosing music to listen to that takes the coach or client out of their normal working headspace. This may be more palatable for those initially resistant to mindfulness practices.
- Asking the client to select and share a piece of music could help build connection when getting to know them and building rapport.
- Sharing music between client and coachee can deepen connection especially when discussed — e.g. reason for song choice, emotions it invokes.
- The meaning behind the music, the music itself or lyrics can be used in the coaching session as a metaphor for the client’s situation or goal which could result in a different conversation with potentially more potent results — e.g. asking how the music relates to the subject, what the similarities and differences are.
As everyone responds differently to music and it works quickly, there is a risk that the coach or client has a strong response that could affect the efficacy of the coaching. It could therefore be helpful for coaches, as with other creative methods, to consider how to contract around using music and to consider how they might approach it. They may also plan how to regulate their emotions should they have a strong response in the moment.
Despite those potential limitations, music could be a powerful addition to the art of coaching and with appropriate consideration, contracting and application, could help the client to go places they would not otherwise have gone. If you use music in coaching it would be interesting to learn about your approach.
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