Are you hearing what I hear? (The importance of listening in coaching)

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Coaching Skills Series

This is one of many articles I intend to post this year considering the range of principles, skills and experiences you’ll need to be an effective coaching manager for the people in your team.

Here we consider the art of listening. Next time we’ll move on to how all of these coaching attributes give the coachee the ability to find their focus.

ListeningI’ll assume here that your hearing is not impaired in any physical way and that your listening faculties are basically intact. How well do you listen? When people talk to you at work do you become oblivious to everything else or do you still partly monitor other conversations or watch what else is happening? Do you patiently wait while the speaker rummages in their mind for just the right word to describe their thoughts or do you finish their sentence for them; impatient to move on?

Listening is without doubt the key skill of the effective coach. In fact, it is the key skill of any professional engaged in helping others, from marriage guidance councellor to careers advisor. It is however a skill often deployed quite poorly because it is confused with hearing which we do all the time, and not recognized as a skill which needs attention and practice. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that when we talk of listening we are not talking about one thing. There are modes of listening or levels of listening if you prefer.

Level One is superficial

We hear the words of the other person, but the focus is on what it means to us. This brings about the problem that happens when coaching around an understanding of the current reality. That is, we worry about forming our own reality as coach, rather than allowing the coachee to explore and understand their own.

Level Two is passive

Here we tend to listen more carefully but are more concerned with content than feeling; we remain emotionally detached from the conversation. Useful for minute taking, essential if recording the content of a disciplinary interview, but not much use in a coaching conversation where it is just as important to demonstrate that we are listening as it is to listen in the first place.

Level Three is active

Hearing that picks up emotion, body language, and the context of what is being said.

Levels one and two listen primarily for words. Level three picks up everything else including all of the sensory data as well as mood, pace and energy.

For many of us the ability to operate at level three has dulled over time, but the good new is that it can be honed again quite quickly. Try to practice level three listening in situations other than coaching and see what happens to the quality of exchange. Try encouraging speakers by using verbal and non-verbal prompts. Nodding, raising eyebrows, smiling, using ‘I see’, or ‘Do go on’ are all ways to help you concentrate on your listening and encourage the speaker to continue. Summaries and using the speaker’s own words also serve to reinforce rapport and demonstrate that we are truly listening.

I sometimes think that coaching is like being a potter: you can do nothing without any clay. The clay in a coaching conversation is high quality thinking and its your listening that will really draw that out.


Matt Somers

Matt Somers

Matt Somers is the UK’s leading trainer of managers as coaches. His coaching skills training programmes, books, articles and seminars have helped thousands of managers achieve outstanding results through their people.

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