May I Listen?

As part of a new book that I am writing, I've been taking a look at communication. Since the book is about coaching, I went looking for someone with very particular skills.

I found her, and her name is Neely Spence Gracey. If her name seems familiar, it might be because she's an 8-time Div. II champion. Also, the daughter of Steve Spence, Olympic Marathoner. I discovered that she coaches when I came across a comment of hers on She got bonus points in my book for posting there using her real name, plus she exuded a positive attitude.

In addition to being an outstanding athlete, Neely coaches other runners to achieve their best. She was kind enough to reply to an email that I sent her out of the blue a couple of weeks ago, and agreed to help me out with my book project.

Now, I have to confess, I am fascinated by communication and not just in the realm of coaching. My regular job has me working with homebuyers, most of whom I never meet until the day of inspection, most of whom are under stress with the home-buying process. In the three hours or so that we're together, I have to find a way to build rapport, and to identify how best to deliver the information I divine from the crawlspace, attic, or electrical panel.

One of the highest compliments I've ever received came from an agent in Moscow, Idaho, who told her client that I was a great educator. That is, in essence, how I see the core function of my profession. All the technical knowledge in the world won't help if I can not accurately transfer it to the client, both for the defects that might be present, but also for all the other systems present.

This is also the reason I like having the client with me - I never know when they will ask a question that may take us into a discussion that, while not strictly inspection-related, is important to them. The client may not care that the electrical panel is fine, they expected that; instead, they want an open floor plan and need to know if a particular wall is a bearing wall.

Through listening to their words and watching the body language, I can see what is important to them, and simultaneously figure out the best means of presenting information. For some, bluntness is best. Others need to be led to the information in baby steps with supporting data at each point.

Similarly, when I am coaching with the junior high kids, listening and watching are mandatory. With the kids, all their emotions write themselves across their faces and their posture. Also, because they're pre-teen/early teens, those emotions flutter faster than a hummingbird's wings, the process never stops.

In one of Neely's responses to me, she mentioned that her dad started by coaching 13 year-old her like she was a college athlete. Her answer reminded me of coaching my own girls. I quickly understood I couldn't treat them the same way I did myself. Our motivations, expectations, and fears weren't the same.

Relentless positive reinforcement works. Bashing them doesn't and the athletes simply check out. Presentation counts. Kids don't like backhanded compliments, they need the truth straight up, with zero snark. Joking and humor work, but running people down, even ones that aren't on the team, makes them think about what you're saying about them when they're not around. Once you've destroyed that trust boundary, you might as well quit. When I work with the kids, I focus on what they're doing right. We build on that, one baby step at a time.

I also look for the triggers that influence them.

One young lady would get nervous to the point of hyperventilating while standing at the start line. The solution that worked was to get her to the line just in time. Her warm-ups we did off the course, with friends. Once they dropped into that easy getting-going rhythm, they'd chat about a dozen things, none of them race-related. When she got to the line, there was no time to panic.

This is the antithesis of my warm-up and thought process. I operate very differently, with long warm-ups and visualizations. A couple of the kids work the same way, but most don't. By watching them, and listening to the emotions below the words, I could see and feel her concern. As Neely Gracey said to me, "Just like actual coaching, communication needs to be individualized and adjusted based on need. Creating an environment for confidence is so critical . . ." 

In one simple statement, Neely hit on a point that everyone can learn from. Most people, when considering communication, talk about talking. How to present yourself, highlight your ideas, how to convey your instructions, how to modulate your tone to influence. All of that focuses on one-way communication. Sadly, this often leaves the speaker talking to themselves.

Good communication is a two-way process and constantly adapting on the part of all the participants. Average coaches can tell you what you need to do; great coaches listen, adapt, and lead.

For those interested in getting coaching from Neely Spence Gracey, visit her at her website. Neely is incredibly approachable and open, and has been through the running wars.