How to Use the OARS Technique to Build the Coaching Relationship | College of Executive Coaching
Coaching Article

How to Use the OARS Technique to Build the Coaching Relationship

By Jeffrey E. Auerbach, Ph.D., MCC

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We all know that good listening skills, being empathetic and giving advice only sparingly, are key elements in strong coaching presence. But what are some best practices in doing this well? One effective method to have strong coaching presence is the effective use of the "OARS" technique to communicate empathetically which has multiple positive benefits to the client and the coaching relationship.

When we communicate with clients in an empathetic, non-judgmental manner, we create conditions where a client can identify their own hesitancy to change—and the costs this ambivalence may have. The following principles can help coaches increase a client's awareness about one's natural hesitation to change and help increase motivation to take constructive action.

How to Use the OARS Technique to Build the Coaching Relationship

What is OARS?

There are four important micro-skills we engage in when interacting with a client in an empathetic, supportive manner and they are called "OARS." OARS is an acronym used to describe some of the micro-skills involved in expressing empathy with clients. "OARS" stands for Open-ended questions, Affirmations, Reflective listening, and Summarizing. In my twenty years of training coaches, we have found that effective coaches use OARS in a conversational style in their coaching interactions.

O   Open-ended Questions
A   Affirmations
R   Reflective Listening
S   Summarizing

These four micro-skills lead to the client experiencing you as an empathetic supportive coach. By expressing empathy, you are using reflective listening to convey an understanding of your client's perspectives and underlying drives.

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Within the container of an empathetic coach-client relationship, we can increase a client's readiness to change and motivation to take constructive actions by:

  • Developing the discrepancy between the client's deeply held values and their current behavior.
  • Managing ambivalence, by responding with empathetic understanding, rather than confrontation.
  • Supporting self-efficacy, by helping the client recognize their internal and external resources, including their strengths, to help them move forward.

Express Empathy Using OARS

When the coach utilizes empathy well the client feels that the coach can see the world as the client does, understand things the way the client perceives them and feel the way the client feels. It is as if the coach is sharing the client's experience. This skill of using empathy is a critical element in coaching because when clients feel understood and supported, they are better able to open up to their own ambivalence and possible self-defeating behavior. When the coach listens deeply and empathetically to the client, the client feels validated, which helps the client share their world view, and their situation with the coach. When the coach-client interactions are characterized by an empathetic relationship, the coach then can draw out the client's own goals, identify what strengths the client may need to dial up or dial down, and what new skills they may benefit from learning. As a result of the empathetic relationship, clients' defensiveness is disarmed, and they are more open to honest self-reflection and often become more open-minded to possibilities and actions they can take that will make a difference in their lives.

How You Can Use OARS in Your Coaching Conversations:

Open-ended Questions
When coaching a client, ask open-ended questions, which usually will begin with "what" or "how." Ensure you are asking questions in a way that allows your client to open up.

Affirmations
Make comments that help your client feel valued and appreciated. Appropriate praise for constructive behaviors often leads to positive reinforcement of goal related actions.

Reflective Listening
Reflect back what your client says occasionally and then check to make sure you are hearing how your client feels accurately.

Summarizing
Occasionally, and briefly, summarize what you have understood in terms of the content of the conversation.

Once we have communicated in an empathetic manner we have likely created a bond with our client. This supportive relationship can create the conditions where we can help a client see discrepancies between where they are now and where they want to be without feeling judged or put down.

Identifying Discrepancies

Coaches often help their clients develop awareness of the discrepancies between their current behaviors and ideal behaviors. Once clients see these discrepancies more clearly, and feel supported by their coach, it is easier for the client to adopt attitudes which enhance their motivation to initiate new, constructive actions in line with their goals.

The coach can use motivational rulers to bring discrepancies to the surface. For example, we can ask the client to rate their readiness to take a particular step they have identified on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being "not at all interested in taking this step," and "10" meaning "I have already taken this step." This motivational ruler can help the client talk honestly about their motivation and what might contribute to staying where they are and what might help them make valuable changes.

The empathetic, supportive relationship the coach created with OARS helps these type of honest coaching conversations flow naturally.

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