Just like the previous blog about asking questions was applicable beyond the context of coaching, so is this blog on listening. In fact I would suggest that effective listening is one of the most important skills anyone can develop but, in many cases, we learn bad listening habits from our earliest days. Given we have two ears and only one mouth one might think we would be good at listening. But according to Julian Treasure – see video clip on TED below – “we spend roughly 60 percent of our communication time listening, but we’re not very good at it. We retain just 25 percent of what we hear”.

But why do we listen? The helpful Mind Tools site gives four reasons – to obtain information, to understand. to learn and for enjoyment. But for the coach we listen primarily so that we can help the client come to understand him or herself better.

Active Listening

There are numerous ’10 (or more!) steps to better listening’ (often labelled as active listening) that have a general consensus about what really matters. There are some simple things we can do to enable ourselves to listen better, some of them very obvious and some less so, but most of them not as well used as they should be. Essentially the bottom line is to ‘listen to someone else as you would want him or her to listen to you’ – basically the golden rule.

Keep the following points in mind and your listening will improve:

Ensure the speaker knows you are listening – use a mixture of verbal and non-verbal communication:

  • look at the speaker
  • maintain eye contact
  • smile and make other appropriate facial expressions
  • adopt an open posture
  • encorage the speaker by nodding or saying ‘yes’ or ‘uh huh’ etc

Ensure you stay focussed on the speaker – he or she is the client!

  • avoid distractions, in your own mind or around you
  • keep re-focussing on the speaker if your mind starts to drift
  • observe the speaker’s body language

Ensure you provide regular feedback – as a coach / listener, your role is to understand what is being said. Don’t allow your preconceptions or values and beliefs distort what you hear.

  • reflect back what you have heard (eg what I think you are saying is …)
  • ask questions to clarify where appropriate
  • try and keep the conversation going (but don’t be afraid of silence – see below)
  • summarise from time to time
  • wait until the person has finished before asking questions
  • encourage use of emotional labels (eg it sounds like this makes you really frustrated …)
  • use probing questions to to draw a person out or go deeper
  • validate what the person has said

Ensure you do not interrupt or judge – show respect for the speaker

  • do keep an open mind
  • don’t judge
  • don’t question
  • don’t fix
  • don’t try to think of answers
  • don’t interrupt

Ensure you allow for silence – and here is the biggy

But for me, one skill is the most neglected – silence! In her recent blog Lolly Daskal sums it up nicely. She says that it is a basic human need to understand and to be understood. However, she claims that most people do not listen; they listen with the goal of responding and to respond is to react, and to react is not to listen. The art of listening, she says, is through silence, and points out that ‘silent’ is an anagram of ‘listen’!

Don’t be afraid of silence. Embrace it and use it to reflect on what you have heard. Even use it by pausing to create emphasis or allow the speaker to think about what he has just said.

The old adage from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus that “we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak” is just as true today as it was in the first century AD. It is a lesson that all good coaches have learned.

The next post in the coaching series will be on helping your client move out of his Comfort Zone.

With acknowledgement to: