Eye Contact. VS Ear Contact…… The Case for Coaching by Phone

By Kathy Poehnert, M.Ed. Psych., PCC

Most of us (of a certain age!) have been led to believe that face to face interaction is far superior to phone interaction.  After all, physical presence often feels more “real,” more “authentic and genuine” than a disembodied voice over the phone. This may not bode well for us in the current age where probably 80% of interactions never see an eyeball, only texted words on a screen: just ask anyone under the age of 30.

As executive coaches, most of us are coaching people who are most likely over 30 and well into their professional careers.  They, as well as we, have learned that 70% of communication is nonverbal… which may lead to the belief (perhaps limited) that phone coaching is somehow “not as good as” or “less successful than” in person coaching.  So let us examine this premise.

Obviously when speaking on the phone, there is less data to process, but the positive reframe is …there is less data to process!!  In other words, when we are listening via telephone and we do not have to process the physical data, we are more able to focus on the data that IS available.  It is similar to a person who may have lost their sense of sight: their other senses become highly attuned, sensitive, and focused.   Slight nuances, such as a sigh, a quick giggle, an increase in volume or pace is more likely to be noticed and used by the coach to initiate questions, gain insight, or have an intuitive hit.  The coach can even have closed eyes while listening, to better focus; not something that would happen in person (hopefully not, anyway!)

There has been a lot of attention paid to unconscious bias these days; this bias may also be more likely to occur when we are seeing someone in person.  Our brain tends to take snapshots of visual information and then fills in with expectations, biases, socialized beliefs, etc., which can interfere with the coach’s ability to be as unbiased as possible.  This is also one reason why many coaches do not want a lot of information about their clients before they actually meet them.

Key Point #1

When a coach is not distracted by the physical, more focus can be placed on what and how something is being said or not said, and bias is reduced.

Because clients often share very intimate details of their lives with their coach, building trust and creating a safe space for this to happen is imperative.  Phone coaching allows for more anonymity, that may help a client to share more deeply.  If you have ever tried to get your teenager (mostly boy teenagers) to share something, you know that they are more likely to do so while riding in the car or at night in a dark room (no eye contact!)

Key Point #2

Phone coaching allows for a bit more anonymity, which may allow for deeper sharing and more honesty.

Most coaches use some form of note taking with clients, especially if your client list is long; these notes may be brief, and only contain a few words that stand out and will jog memory or may be more involved.  Taking notes while sitting across from a client can be very disruptive for both parties.  As a coach, it can feel awkward to have to break eye contact and concentration to jot something down.  For the client, it can cause undo angst, as they may be wondering “what did I just say that my coach thinks is so noteworthy?”  Phone coaching eliminates that and allows the coach to take as many notes as they want.  Ultimately, what helps the coach, helps the client.

Key Point #3

Note taking in a telephone coaching session is likely to be more comfortable and effective for the coach, which is  more beneficial for the client.

Several studies have shown the effectiveness and success of coaching via telephone, and several large corporate coaching firms offer it is an important part of their services. Studies that have looked at phone counseling have found this form of service delivery greatly reduces dropout rates (NorthEastern University, Joyce Ho), and a 2006 study out of the Journal of Counseling and Development indicates 58% of clients experiencing both forms of service delivery, preferred telephone.  While this is counseling, the same premise discussed in this article applies.

Most coaches use a hybrid of in person and phone coaching, and, while these three points offer the case for phone coaching, it is ultimately up to the client to determine the best fit for them.


Contact Kathy for a consult …. via phone …  to test the theory!