Underwear or Overcoat: Telephone vs. In-Person Coaching

Posted in General Articles on Monday, 01 August 2011.

by Scott Rozman © 2011

Virtually every piece written about the difference between telephone and in-person coaching is business-like.  My take is more anecdotal.


I got there 15 minutes earlier than our 2:00pm appointment and choose a table for two in the far corner, furthest away from the other three chatty customers seated on the red couches by the big bay window with views to the street.

I ordered a cappuccino, got settled, and then watched the front door, wondering if the next person who entered was Sabina, my new coaching client.  When she entered, two people later, she looked me directly in the eyes, smiled, and we each nodded, before taking a deep breath.  We shook hands.  She nervously put her gray pocketbook and black overcoat on the empty chair and went to the counter to order a chai tea.  When you meet in-person, travel time, weather, and overcoats are all considerations.  We talked, worked, and laughed for an hour occasionally interrupted by the whir of the espresso machine, the servers’ stares or obligatory, “Can I get you anything else?,” if not the loud patrons who thought they were the only ones there.

When meeting in-person, where you meet is important.  I prefer to choose an outside location so as not to create an imbalance in the relationship and a feeling of being on “my turf,” something common in therapy where clients sit in waiting rooms and some still use a couch making the client physically lower to the seated therapist.  Meeting at a “neutral” location, however, often brings the constraints of noise, lack of privacy, or interruption.  Sabina and I, thankfully, were in a zone as if we were the only ones in our neighborhood coffee café.

Being face-to-face I was able to see and read her body language; when she delayed, when she sat forward.  I noticed when she smiled or seemed saddened.  Her eyes sometimes looked up and to the left suggesting a deeper reflection and a search for an answer.  Sometimes they looked down, suggesting some shame or a lack of assuredness.  Being across the table, I could see her reactions when I asked a specific question about her business, or feel her energy when she spoke of finances or past relationships.

Most people are surprised and taken aback to hear that most coaches don’t meet face-to-face anymore.  “I really would prefer to meet in-person though,” Sabina explained, “I’m more of a people person.”  Others often add, “It seems like it would be better for such an in-depth and personal thing.”  But that’s not the case.  Most, if not all, the benefits of in-person coaching are present with telephone coaching.

Pauses and breaths, big and small, over the telephone are similar to body language, often showing what’s going on at deeper levels and spurring further exploration and follow-up.  “I noticed a delay there.  What is the apprehension about talking with your husband?”  I’m trained as a certified coach to hear not only what’s said, but also what’s not said.  While looking someone in the eyes has the advantage of being able to see subtleties, by not having to look another human being in the eyes, often a person is more likely to open up and say something they might not say otherwise if a live body was in front of them.  While we think it’s safer to be in the company of another person especially when sharing intimidate details about our lives, most often the reverse is true. The telephone acts as a safety net at some level, allowing and facilitating an opening up and honesty that a client might be embarrassed about or uncomfortable with face-to-face.  Reactions to questions or understanding energy while seen when meeting face-to-face, are strongly felt with telephone coaching, provided the coach is properly trained.  Tone, inflection, and voice provide clear signals and clues about energy and beliefs.  So, the greatest benefits of in-person coaching really are not disadvantages to telephone coaching, but strongly, if not equally, applicable, plus telephone coaching has many additional advantages.

Telephone coaching provides the great benefit of being able to work with a client/coach who lives anywhere in the world.  I am proud of my work with my Canadian clients even if we differ on favorite hockey teams.  I love my work with my European partners, the biggest challenge simply being time differences.  An east-coaster, born and bred, I thrive from my work with those on the left side, middle and southern part of the States.  Telephone coaching clients have a wide net to cast in attempts to find a good fit, no longer needing to limit their prospective coach to those who live nearby.  The world opens up, just like their lives are about to.

Similarly, telephone coaching allows clients the ability to speak from a place where they feel comfortable and a time that fits with their daily life.  Since coaching is about implementing tools and processes that practically fit into your life, the coaching process should do the same.  Calling at lunch from a job you’re ready to scrap, or after dinner and a cognac, clients can call at a time most convenient for them.  They don’t need to dress up, go out, and can even call in their underwear, if they so choose.  Being comfortable precipitates more openness and sharing, and ultimately better results. Finding the time is easier.  Travel time is eliminated.  Getting dressed is even an option.

Six months after our work together I ran into Sabine at the same neighborhood café; she was walking out as I was walking in.  “Sorry I didn’t return your email – I’ve just been so busy.  My business is booming and I love my job and my life,” she told me enthusiastically as she hugged me with her chai tea pressed against my back and a smile and energy that just about knocked me over.  “I’ll call you later in the week - I’m late for an appointment.  I want to schedule a telephone coaching session with you to move to the next level and work on business and personal goals for the coming year,” she said as she hurried down the street.  As she turned to wave, I couldn’t help but notice her new red overcoat and her new openness to telephone coaching.