Managing Mmmm: 3 Ways to Increase Your Nonverbal Awareness - International Coaching Federation
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Managing Mmmm: 3 Ways to Increase Your Nonverbal Awareness

Posted by Rebecca Dorsey Sok, MA, PCC | September 4, 2019 | Comments (20)

“I don’t really know you, so I’m not sure you intend this interpretation, but why do you say ‘mmmm’ when your client answers a question? You sound very negative,” offered a peer who was listening to a session. I sat on the other end of the call stunned, my jaw suddenly gaping wide open. Negative? I knew I was enthusiastically positive the entire session. What in the world was my colleague picking up on? In frustrated desperation, I turned to my coach mentor for help.

“You make a lot of nonverbal noises. Each emphatic ‘mmmm’ or contemplative ‘hmmm’ assigns value to what your client just said,” my mentor commented. I slapped my forehead as it finally clicked. I thought I was communicating, “I hear you, I’m here, keep going,” without interrupting my client. I thought I was neutral. Without realizing it, my automatic inflections interjected my views onto their answers. My words worked with me, but my subtle response noises betrayed me. With so much focus on the words themselves, I wasn’t in tune with my nonverbal responses during, and following, a client answer. Worse still, what I meant to convey was not always received how I intended.

Everything We Do Communicates

As coaches, everything we communicate assigns value or judgment to what our client just said. The position of influence we hold as a professional coach also means our clients may be listening for value or judgment we don’t intend. Their stress, fears or anxiety over the topic of discussion could easily lead them to conclude we meant something we didn’t with that long, drawn out hmmm. I may have genuinely meant nothing more than, “I hear you. Keep going,” but they may have heard, “That was a stupid thought. Try again.”

Be Intentional. Communicate on Purpose

It’s a bit ironic actually. I see it instantly in my clients, but I’ve missed turning the mirror back to myself. I’ve spent years focused on hearing what the client is really saying (and not saying). I’m in tune with the change in their tone, their subtle responses through noises, or shifts in posture, but am I as aware of my own? I’m highly aware of each word I form, but I’ve noticed it is much harder to harness my nonverbal noises. At least, that’s been the case for me until recently.

A winning moment for a coach is the silence of contemplation that follows a powerful question. But what do we do in the space following their powerful answer? In non-coaching conversations, an enthusiastic nod or an energy-filled mmmm may go unnoticed, but as a coach, everything we say or mumble impacts the coaching. So when choosing to communicate through mmmm, do it on purpose.

But How? Limit Your Non-input Input

Increase your awareness of your own nonverbals with these three simple steps.

1) See Yourself

Watch what you do while coaching. If coaching on the phone, set a mirror in front of you. On video chat? Focus on your own video feed and not just the client’s. In person? Either watch your reflection on your notes page or glance down and look at your posture every few minutes.

Trick to try: Nod in your mind, not with your head. Use visualization techniques to respond in a way that only impacts you.

2) Hear Yourself

Listen and pay attention when you react audibly. Increase your awareness and catch yourself in real time by making a tally mark on your notes each time you make a reaction noise (hmmm, mmmm, ohhh, huuuhhh).

Trick to try: Listen back to a session and tally how many times you inserted an audible reaction. Compare your two tallies. How aware were you in real time?

3) Hold On To Yourself

Literally. Find a tactile habit to keep your unintentional mmmm and hmmm inside. Figure out your response triggers (what did the client just say or do that made you respond nonverbally?) and develop a habit to stop your unintentional input.

Trick to try: Press a finger or a fist over your mouth while listening, or rest your mouth and chin on the palm of your hand to remind yourself that anything coming out of you will assign value.

Use an Mmmm to Make a Difference

A well-placed and purposeful mmmm can be a powerful tool we use in coaching. In a constantly changing and digital world where we communicate so much through written forms of communication (emails, texts, chats, images, tweets, etc.), I wonder how much more our clients read into an audible response or a posture change we make? What kind of an impact does my reaction noise have now (versus ten years ago, for example) when so few of our current interactions are absorbed audibly and truly in real time? Making an mmmm on purpose may be the coaching equivalent of using a photo instead of saying a thousand words.

Rebecca Dorsey Sok, MA, PCC

Rebecca Dorsey Sok, MA, PCC, is a Leadership Transition and Team Development coach based in Knoxville, TN. She helps great people do extraordinary things. Whatever transition stage you are in, she believes that every day really can, and should, be awesome.

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Comments (20)

  1. I loved your article, and of course will much attention to my non-verbal answers to my clients. Counting on how many mmmm(s), hmmm(s), ohhh(s) and uhuu(s) I am still using will be for sure trick to try.

    Thank you

    • Rebecca Dorsey Sok says:

      I’m so glad the tricks to try are helpful to you! They have transformed my own awareness of just how often I mmmm along in support, and have helped me become much more intentional when I use it on purpose.

    • Adeyanju says:

      Thanks Rebecca,
      Quite an interesting piece. Whilst I am a bit mindful of my non-verbal inputs, I find I communicate with my eyes and I find my clients reacting much the same way as the ‘mmmms’.
      How can I hold onto my eyes and expressions ?



      • Rebecca Sok says:

        Adeyanju, yes – I know what you mean! A tip to try to amplify your awareness to your eye communication is to bring your pointer finger to the outside of your eye/temple while folding the rest of your fingers under your chin. I find this appears most “normal” by also crossing your other arm over your abdomen with your wrist propping up your elbow on the pointer arm. Try placing your hands/arms in this position and make an expression with your eyes. You will be amazed at how much you feel the movement! I hope this trick helps!

  2. Rebecca says:

    I recall reading a reaearch article many years ago about memorization, using old fashioned flash cards. The subject was instructed to read aloud each shown card. The researcher was instructed to say hmmm in response to several but not all cards. Asked later to recall the words on the cards, subjects were significantly more likely to remember those to which a hmmm was said. Pow.

  3. says:

    interesting !thanks for the awareness

  4. N K Venkatnarayanan says:

    Great perspectives. I tend to say hmmm to with exactly the same intent as you. Thanks

  5. Yassir Islam says:

    Thank you for this! It’s an excellent reminder. We might think that the energy behind our vocal expression will be conveyed to the client but from your example that is not always the case. I like the idea of using sounds very judiciously and if we want to acknowledge the client we can do so in the words when appropriate rather than through vocal sounds. Great tip!

  6. Shailesh Lambe says:

    Interesting and informative indeed! Listening to own recorded session (of course with clients permission) improves our performance certainly.
    Thanks for sharing!

  7. Deborah Bennett says:

    Really interesting article, especially for someone like me at the beginning of their coaching and mentoring journey.

  8. Martin says:

    Hi Rebecca!

    What an insightful and encouraging read. It’s true that, “…everything we communicate assigns value or judgment to what our client just said.” Something definitely to be mindful about during coaching sessions. Good stuff!


  9. says:

    Every time I say “mmmmm” in response to a client, I think of a satire video I saw several years ago on YouTube from 2012 posted by “The Self Love Revolution” (while over-the-top, it’s also often cringe-worthily accurate). You’d think that would have broken me of the habit, but no – I still find myself doing it more than I should. Thanks for your article reminding us all why it’s important to reign it in!

  10. Such an interesting article! Congrats! It makes me think about how aware we are about our general influence, including verbal, non verbal, gestures and the whole image over the client… Thanks

  11. Rebecca, you have highlighted one of the most common observations that I make as a mentor coach when listening to coaches.

    Eager to be sure that their clients feel heard, many coaches add non-words to cue the coachee that the coach is listening. Linguists call these ‘discourse markers’, ‘filler words’, or ‘filled pauses’.

    Most of us tend to use these in social conversations to show courtesy to the person who is speaking. It’s a form of politeness. The challenge in coaching is that these ‘filled pauses’ do exactly that, fill the pauses. The problem with that is that silences are an integral part of the coaching experience. It is in this space that coachees can ‘hear themselves think’ and speak without fear of judgement.

    As you have so aptly put it Rebecca, “everything we communicate assigns value or judgment to what our client just said”. As coaches, it is critical that we become comfortable being silent when listening. You share some excellent tips on doing just that!

    Thank you.

  12. Rebecca Sok says:

    Great question, Anne. A couple of thoughts come to my mind, the first is that while we may intend a word to be “neutral” we never know how it will be perceived by our clients. It is easy to build a narrative that does not exist because of our own fears, wounds, expectations, etc., while being coached. So while likely the occasional “ok” is just fine, and we do not want to be paralyzed as a coach wondering how to respond, what if instead you considered the following:

    What if you directly communicate to your clients early on in the engagement, I am going to let you think and talk without interrupting you. Sometimes that may mean a long pause where you do not hear me respond. Always know that I am 100% dialed in and listening, but I do not want to interrupt you. Then, while coaching, if you feel the need to fill the gap in some way try saying something more direct, instead of relying on a nonverbal response. For example, “I hear you,” or “what else?”

    The main point I was trying to make is that it is those little noises or fillers we use that we intend as neutral that may not be taken as neutral. Trying to be as clear as possible, without being cumbersome, is ideal.

  13. says:

    very subtle topic.. but very impactfully written.. glad I read it. thanks Rebecca

  14. Jill Perrin says:

    One of my challenges in a coaching session is keeping my nervous energy in check so that I am fully present and do not interrupt or use filler words. I do most of my coaching over Zoom. Here is my trick — while I am sitting at my desk in the call I often pinch my thigh or push on my knee to let the energy out / but keep it under wraps. This helps me stay centered and calm and fully engaged.

  15. says:

    Thank you Rebecca
    This is so common , we miss it always.
    Will remember this next time i use the expression , put my say in words and say a silent ‘Thank you’ to you everytime.

    Ajit Kulkarni

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