Three Levels of Listening

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Participants practise their listening skills
Participants practise their listening skills

If we’re going to put so much effort into framing coaching questions in the right way then it follows that we should be equally concerned with really listening to the responses we get. We need to employ the skill of active listening.

Listening happens at 3 levels:

  • Active
  • Conversational
  • Superficial

The bottom level, Superficial, is what we do when we’re hearing but not listening. We might have a conversation at a party trying to take an interest in what another guest is saying but really having our attention elsewhere, perhaps on some other conversation we suspect would be far more interesting.

The problem is that we are only hearing what the other guest is saying, not listening, so we often get confused, lose track of the conversation or end up having to ask them to repeat what they just said.

In a coaching session this would be extremely damaging. If we’re only hearing superficially because our mind is elsewhere, it will be reflected in our body language and the person being coached will know immediately. This will destroy any trust in the coaching relationship and make it unlikely that the coaching will result in any useful outcome.

The next level, Conversational, is the sort of listening that most of us do most of the time. In conversational listening, we listen while our partners talk and vice versa. However the danger here is that while the other person is talking, we are concentrating on making our next point, rather than truly focusing on what the other person is saying.

This is quite a challenge when you start coaching, as it can be hard to keep the questions flowing when you’re not used to it. It’s better to pause and think of the next question when the person’s finished speaking rather than dwell on it when they are in full flow.

We must also watch out for the habit of finishing other people’s sentences for them. Invariably we do not pick the words they would have chosen for themselves and all we’ve ended up doing is disrupting the flow of their thinking and making them feel hurried.

So we need to work hard to reach the top level, Active Listening. Put simply active listening is about clearing our minds of all other distractions and really tuning in to what the other person is saying with as much focus as we can muster. This is easier said than done and takes a lot of time and practise to develop but is well worth the effort.

On a practical level it means we should try not to coach when we’re in a hurry or preoccupied with something else. Neither should we run a coaching session in a noisy environment or one that is likely to get to hot or too cold. It’s impossible to actively listen in such circumstances.

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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