‘No, that’s not really what I meant’. The fatal knell of a speaker’s response, once you’ve neglected your duties as a listener with a blundered question or comment. You can probably salvage the visage of the conversation itself, but it sounds like the speaker doubts your understanding. The trust you built may have been undermined. Perhaps you didn’t listen attentively enough. Perhaps you missed opportunities to clarify along the way. Or perhaps you worded your question clumsily. On the surface, this isn’t a catastrophic error in your day; you have hundreds of conversations, it’s difficult to be perfect in each of them, and I’ve obviously catastrophised this example.
But, heck, we’re all good listeners, right? We teach, we lead, we collaborate, and all of those roles require a sensitive ear and at least a smattering of emotional intelligence. As I’ve learnt on my coaching journey, though, it’s not enough to just think you’re a good listener. It’s not enough to be curious, or engaged. We can be engaged and yet make all sorts of incorrect assumptions about what we’re being told, or interject needlessly with our golden advice that turns out to be at best disempowering and at worst incorrect. Listening is a skill that takes practice. It is deliberate. Nuanced. And worthy of study and reflection.
I find that our aim or motive going into a conversation can play a big role in how effectively we listen within them. Consider some of your interactions today, and your motive for listening. Were you simply waiting to hear the information you needed? Were you allowing the speaker time to feel listened to? Were you genuinely engaged in what you were hearing? Did you want to help the speaker? If so, how? Through direction or coaching? On how many of those occasions, today, were you the best version of your listening self? How many of those people you spoke to felt empowered and heard?
Burt (P3, 2019) suggests that, especially in a coaching context, listening can be the ways a listener becomes aware of what a speaker is experiencing and expressing in a given moment. When we feel as though we are being listened to, it can have a profound effect on us; as David Augsberger said: ‘being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable’. The positive feelings allow our brain to work in a safe environment; we don’t have to expend energy and thoughts holding back or guarding ourselves, which allows the liberation to pursue an idea. When you couple this with the listener’s inquiry questions to help deepen their understanding of the issue, or to prompt further thinking in the speaker, we have a pretty potent force (in essence, this is coaching!).
But, this is difficult to perfect every time, and often something goes awry:
- Lack of focus or distractions – in a busy environment, not giving someone our undivided attention can often occur
- Perceived lack of time to listen properly
- Perceived weakness that listening means we aren’t leading with ‘strength’
- Good intentions, poor interventions – often, we are keen to help those we are listening to. We’ll interject with advice, assumptions about the situation or the person. It might validate our sense of worth or competence to do so, but is that helping the speaker feel heard, valued, or trusted to talk through their own ideas?
An article from the Harvard Business Review carried out research to find out the habits of effective listeners, with some findings indicating that they created safe environments, asked questions, and offered feedback and suggestions as they went along. The key in their studies was that those who were rated as poor listeners stayed mostly silent during the conversation, and then gave feedback or advice at the end; those rated good listeners were involved in the conversation throughout, and therefore their advice was welcomed.
Burt (2019) outlines 4 modes of listening to bear in mind; things that we perhaps do automatically, but could be more consciously aware of while we are listening:
- Attention: concentration and focus on the speaker and conversation
- Inquiry: the skill to respond and explore the speaker’s account, helping both parties deepen their awareness / understanding
- Observation: noticing and understanding non-verbal cues
- Resonance: the sensitivity and awareness that allows someone to notice how they are being impacted by the speaker, and how to show that response to the speaker.
In other words, to listen effectively, we need to focus, engage, ask pertinent questions, observe our speaker’s non-verbal cues, and to reflect on how the speaker feels, but also to evaluate how we are making them feel.
Again, it is easy to think of a conversation as questions and answers. You ask questions, they give answers, repeat. But there are other techniques we can use to not simply mine information, but to help the speaker feel heard, and come to greater awareness of their own thoughts. Here are some other key listening skills I have picked up recently from coaching courses, books, and research, which are often referred to as active listening skills:
- Replaying: playing back certain words or phrases to the person you are listening to, in order to see what hearing back their own wording provokes. Sometimes it affirms their views, and other times hearing the words aloud allows them to clarify or alter that idea. ‘Oh, now that I hear that, actually what I meant was…’
- Paraphrasing and summarising: it can be useful to sum up or paraphrase elements of what we’ve just heard; this has the twofold benefit of demonstrating our listening and understanding, while also helping the speaker hear what their key points may have been. I find a useful way in to this, adopted from Christian van Nieuwerburgh, is ‘So, it sounds like you….’
- Clarifying: asking questions to check if your understanding is correct. This helps convey your engagement and determination to understand, as well as helping you make sure you are fully abreast of the situation.
- Asking how they feel about something: it’s easy to go through a conversation and ask about details, facts, events, options, plans, etc. But how often do you ask about how someone feels? ‘How does that option make you feel? ‘If you achieved that, how would you feel?’.
As I said earlier, I do consider (like most) myself to be a good listener. And yet, practising these techniques during both coaching and other professional conversations is pushing my brain to the limit. I am not yet unconsciously competent, as it were, which means I’m almost mechanically churning through the gears to listen actively and competently. I’m optimistic that, with practice, and making this my daily method to listen and converse, I’ll improve.
While these are all excellent principles of coaching, I don’t see them as being confined to coaching conversations. If you’re interested in reflecting about not only how to ‘listen better’, but to help develop and empower the person you are listening to, try out some of these ideas in your daily chats. I’m a big believer in the ‘coaching approach’ being utilised informally in corridors, offices, classrooms in a spontaneous fashion; good listening doesn’t need to be exclusive to a purposely scheduled meeting.
Enjoy your listening this week.
Sources and inspiration:
Buck, A (2020) The BASIC Coaching Method. Cadogan Press
Burt (2019) The art of listening in coaching and mentoring. Routledge, London
Van Nieuwerbrugh, C (2017) An Introduction to Coaching Skills. Sage, London.
Whitmore, J (2014) Coaching for Performance. NB Publishing, London.