I said, are you a good listener?

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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.

In this post we return to the matter of listening; a most vital coaching tool. It helps to create a climate of empathy which we’ll consider more generally in two week’s time

listeningI’ve explored the importance of listening many times, but it is such a vital component of effective coaching and such a key skill for the effective coach that I want to offer some more guidance here. We spend roughly 70% of our waking hours in some form of verbal communication but few of us have ever had any formal training in the art of listening. We need to be open to any suggestions that might help us improve. So here goes.

Never rule out any topic of discussion as uninteresting. As a coach always be on the lookout for new information. While the content of the conversation may be dull (to you) there is always something to be learned, especially about the art of communication.

Accept the coachee’s reality. This is not an exhortation to believe almost anything anyone tells you. The point is to suspend judgment during the immediate experience of listening. In initially accepting what the coachee says you’re not confirming things as ‘true’, you’re simply acknowledging exactly what the speaker is saying – right or wrong, good or bad, true or false. This capacity for total acceptance frees the mind to listen for other clues.

Listen for the whole message. One estimate has it that 75% of all communication is non-verbal. Beyond the words themselves is a host of clues as to what the speaker is communicating. What do you notice about the posture the coachee has adopted? Is it rigid or relaxed, ‘closed or open’? When the coachee answers your coaching questions what can you tell from their facial expression? Specifically, does it support the words? What about their hands? Are they clenched, open, relaxed, tense? Does the coachee maintain eye contact? Does the tone of voice match the words? What do you notice about the coachee’s movements? Are they intense or relaxed, congruent – in keeping with the content of what’s being said – or conflicting? Do all three things combined – the body language – suggest that the whole speech is “staged”? What you’re looking for here are inconsistencies between with is said and what is really meant, clues that tell you the spoken message isn’t really genuine.

Don’t get hung up on the coachee’s delivery style. Above and beyond what was outlined above, there are also factors that simply reveal unease in delivery rather than any attempt to mislead. The key is being able to distinguish between the two. It’s easy to get turned off when someone speaks haltingly, has an irritating voice, or just doesn’t come across well. The key to good listening, however, is to get beyond the manner of delivery to the underlying message. In order for this to happen, you have to resolve not to judge the message by the delivery style. It’s amazing how much more clearly you can “hear” once you’ve made the decision to really listen rather than to criticise.

Avoid structured listening. Structured listening refers to the idea of adopting a format for listening, either in the form of posing mental questions e.g. “What is the coachee’s main point? What are they really saying? or by monitoring for key words, e.g. problem, solution, future, past. The problem with this approach is that it creates a dialogue in the listener’s mind which we can recognise as internal interference. I think it’s better to keep an open mind and receive the information just as it comes, without any attempt to structure or judge it.

Tune out distractions. Replace them with a focus on the speaker. Poor listeners are distracted by interruptions; good listeners tune them out and focus on the speaker and the message. This is easier said than done of course and we know from looking at focus earlier on that even when it’s achieved it’s easily lost. Try to maintain eye contact with the coachee; lean forward in your chair; let their words settle in your ears; and turn in your chair, if necessary, to block out unwanted distractions. Put your mobile in a drawer, pull the blinds, do whatever you need to do to focus on your coachee.

Be alert to your own prejudices. We all have them and we need to think specifically about the impact of our prejudices on our ability to really hear what’s being communicated. Often, we are unaware how strongly our prejudices influence our willingness and ability to hear. The fact is: any prejudice, valid or not, tends to obscure the message.

Resist the temptation to argue. Why is it that, when we hear someone saying something with which we strongly disagree, we immediately begin mentally formulating a counter argument? There are many reasons of course, but one of the most common is our natural tendency to resist any new information that conflicts with what we believe. Bear in mind that you can always put forward an argument later, when you’ve heard the whole message and had time to think about it.

Take notes but…..only if it helps. There’s a scale of opinion when it comes to the place of note taking in effective coaching. At one end, is the argument that coaching is about thinking and note taking simply creates interference. Others contend that copious notes and detailed action plans are an absolute necessity. I’m personally ambivalent about note taking. If you can listen and take notes at the same time, great. If you can’t, do without note taking or record key words only (or even key images/doodles) or pause every now and then for summary notes. Experiment and find what suits you best. One strong feeling I do have is that we should not ask the coachee to take notes during the session – they should be free to think – but that it’s ok to ask them to record a summary afterwards.


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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