Congratulations on taking action to improve your coaching skills!
I firmly believe that coaching is a core leadership and life skill and that everyone can take action towards improving their coaching skills in small practical steps. This piece focusses on one of the critical coaching skills: effective listening.
Listening with more intention will help you to understand others (and yourself) better, create trust and engagement on a deeper level and therefore change your personal and professional relationships.
We use listening skills in conversation every day but we often listen at a very shallow level. We’ve all experienced talking to someone who is checking messages on their phone or distracted with something they are doing. We can find this frustrating because we are not being heard. Sometimes when listening we may also have found ourselves losing the thread of a conversation because our mind wanders and we are focussing on our thoughts rather than what’s being said.
Below I explain the 3 levels of listening and suggest 2 exercises that can help you to further explore and develop this skill.
Understanding how we listen
Level 1 – When the listener is focussed on self
You are tuned into your own inner dialogue, thinking about yourself, your thoughts and assumptions. This is the most common level of listening. During the conversation you may be thinking
- I’ve got to leave in 5 mins to make my meeting on time
- I mustn’t forget to call my mum this evening
- I know what x needs to do, I’ve had this problem
- x has called me for help, what advice should I give?
When coaching, this is the level where you are most passive and most likely not to hear what the individual is saying. The other person is least likely to feel heard.
Level 2 – When the listener is focussed on the other
At this level you have turned your attention more fully to the other person. We don’t often listen at this level without a specific intention to do so. You may be noticing the following during the conversation
- What is said
- How it is said and rapport (tone, pace, words, volume, body language etc)
- ‘Visible’ emotions being expressed
- How the individual is responding to the conversation
As a coach you use this richer, more comprehensive range of information to determine how to respond in ways that will most support the individual. At level 2 the individual is much more likely to feel listened to and will engage with the flow of the conversation.
Level 3 – When the listener is focussed on whole body listening
At this level you use all of your body, senses and your intuition to listen to, interpret and explore what someone is saying. It is the most active level of listening.
It takes practice to listen at this level and often some kind of professional training. You may be noticing
- What’s going on in the wider environment and how it may impact on the conversation
- What insights you are having about the individual’s values, purpose and needs
- What’s not being said
- Feelings: including emotions that are present but not necessarily ‘visible’
This level of listening provides the coach with a richness of information that goes beyond the words being said. Drawing on their experience and intuition, the coach helps the individual to explore issues on a deeper, more fundamental level. This helps to create new awareness of a situation or problem beyond what is immediately apparent. It is taking action on this new, deeper, insightful awareness that makes coaching so powerful for the individual.
Coaches usually operate at levels 2 and 3. The more time they can spend at level 3 the more likely the coaching client is to experience a transformational change.
Developing your listening skills
These practical exercises can help you to be more mindful of how you listen in different contexts and how you might improve your listening skills.
Listening practice 1 – individual
Think about common conversation(s) you have (daily, weekly etc.) For example a work review with a team member or a conversation with your partner when you arrive home. After having the conversation reflect on
- What inner dialogue was going on for me? How much did this distract me?
- How much time did I spend listening vs talking? Is that a pattern?
- What assumptions did I make about what the other person needed from me? How helpful was that?
Note down your reflections and choose one area you want to improve the next time.
Listening practice 2 – team or group
Identify a time when you ask a team or group of people to make proposals or provide comments or inputs. For example during a team meeting or a project review. Try a more structured process to ensure everyone listens and is heard.
- Communicate what it is you’re asking each person to comment on, contribute to etc. and why
- Set a time limit for each person to speak and keep to time, say 2 mins
- Ensure everyone has a turn, in turn, even if they don’t use the whole time (some encouragement may be needed)
- Set a rule where everyone talks uninterrupted and comments are allowed at the end
- Be a role model in how you listen to each individual. Think about how you can convey you have listened (summarising or reflecting back for example)
This can take a bit of practice if it’s not how the team usually works, so give it a try more than once.
After each meeting note down your reflections on
- How it felt for you managing the discussion. What did you notice?
- The impact this process had on individual members of the team. What was different?
- The impact this process had on the contributions made. What was different?
Choose one area you will commit to improving the next time
I hope this resource helps you to understand how we listen and to develop your listening skills.
You may be interested in developing other coaching skills, in being coached or in helping your colleagues to use coaching as part of their management toolkit. If you would like to discuss how I can support you or you have any questions please contact me.
Exercise adapted from Kline.N., 2014, Time to Think. Listening to Ignite the Human Mind.