By Jenn Turvey, Improvement Practitioner and Coach
Listening as a coach means tuning in completely to what the other person is saying. A skill which doesn’t come easily to us humans.
The average human is deeply distracted by other thoughts. We are programed to listen on the most basic level – what does this mean for me? Focusing on what it means to the person who is talking is essential if, for example, you want to be a productive contributor in meetings at work.
In coaching, listening extends beyond receiving information to a deeper awareness of the signals the person is sending. How the coach’s responses are received by the other person, and utilize engaged responses to move the conversation forward.
Some people are naturally better listeners than others. Fortunately, listening is a skill which can be improved through practice.
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” – Stephen R. Covey
Listening refers to the act of receiving and interpreting information. Whether we know it, or not, we are always receiving information from others in multiple ways:
- Spoken words
- Body language
- Facial expressions
- Sound (pitch and level of the person’s voice)
- What is not said
And we’re interpreting it too. Information coming from another person is like signals, and the listener is like a receiver.
The listener picks up some, but not all, of what is being sent because of interference. Static, so to speak, takes a variety of forms, and is both inside and outside of the listener.
Externally, static may take the form of an enticing object such as an ice cream cone, or the noise of traffic. Internally, it may take the form of thinking about cleaning the garage.
“Listening means taking a vigorous, human interest in what is being told to us.” – Alice Duer Miller, Poet
In everyday conversations – even important meetings at work – we’re used to getting distracted and missing part of what the other person is saying.
Three common distractions include:
- Inner chatter
- Simultaneous processing
- Taking things personally
Let’s take a closer look at each one.
1. Inner Chatter
Inner chatter has a purpose: helping us navigate daily life.
But it is often happening when we’re supposed to be listening.
It sounds a little like this:
- “I’m going to have a heck of a drive home tonight, in rush hour, because of that extra meeting.”
- “Pizza! Did she say pizza? I sure could use a slice of pepperoni right now.”
- “Holy cow, that woman looks like my mother.”
- “I wonder if I can get my neighbor to help me paint the house this weekend.”
“Knowing what to leave out is just as important as knowing what to focus on.” – Warren Buffett
2. Simultaneous Processing
Wow. Your brain is such an incredible machine.
You’re able to:
- Plan – think about what you’re going to say next – while the person is speaking
- Multitask – listen to them and get something else done at the same time! Move an appointment using your phone or skim the article they passed out at the beginning of that meeting
- Ponder – delve into a brilliant tangent somewhat related to what the person is saying – while they’re talking
- Text – don’t be a fool – texting falls under the category of not listening at all
“You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” – M. Scott Peck
3. Taking Things Personally
In discussions with others, we’re used to thinking about what we would do.
Our inclination is to take things personally:
- What are the implications for me?
- What would I do if I were in that situation?
- How have I dealt with similar situations in the past?
Like inner chatter, this kind of listening is useful to us as beings in the world because it helps us navigate everyday life. All from an understanding of ourselves related to what’s going on around us.
Totally helpful if you’re working on your own projects and your own challenges. But not as useful when the goal is to form a picture of what’s going on from another person’s perspectives.
As a coach you are charged with understanding the problem solver’s perspective. And that requires listening at a deeper level.
This deeper level of listening is a central coaching aptitude. It means:
- Pausing that inner chatter – putting aside what it means to you personally
- Focusing on all the signals the person is sending out
- Understanding what the person is saying in the context of a particular situation
- Choosing which part of the conversation you will respond to
- Sustaining an awareness of how your responses land with the other person
“The art of conversation lies in listening.” – Malcom Forbes
This deeper listening allows a coach to respond in a manner which is much more engaging than other conversations or discussions. A goal is to move the problem solving effort forward and guide it in a desired direction.
A coach sees the big picture because they’re positioned outside of the action. Providing an engaged response, from an outside vantage point, can be enormously helpful to the problem solver.
Four engaged response techniques are:
- Big Picture
Let’s take a closer look at each one.
“We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.” – Bill Gates
A problem solver may run out of steam with their thought process. A coach can repeat back to them with a summary and encouragement.
Reflecting is the process of paraphrasing and restating both the feelings and words of the speaker. It provides a chance to allow the problem solver to ‘hear’ their own thoughts and to focus on what they say and feel.
A coach needs to decipher the emotions behind the words and create a better understanding of the message. Then you can restate and clarify how you understand the message.
One example could be: “You have talked about the main issue as . . .”
“The ear of the leader must ring with the voices of the people.” – Woodrow Wilson
When things have gotten unfocused, clarifying allows the coach to bring them back into focus by adding more specifics.
An example could be: “It sounds like you feel . . .”
It’s important to remember that clarifying is an act of synthesis in which the coach attempts to create a coherent picture. Be sure to verify with the problem solver that both of you are on the same page.
“A scientist’s aim in a discussion with his colleagues is not to persuade, but to clarify.” – Leo Szilard
Articulating is similar to clarifying, and uses similar language, but it has a different goal. Rather than helping them find their way back when they’re off course, articulating puts together what the person has already assembled, and connects all the dots, to help them move forward.
Reminders of statements previously made can be useful when articulating.
One example could be: “You said your goal is to . . .”
Comparable to clarifying, a coach needs to ensure each person is thinking the same thing.
4. Big Picture
The view from 5,000 feet can be very helpful when the problem solver is stuck in the weeds.
A few possible engaged responses include:
- “Let’s step back and give it a larger frame”
- “How could we look at this differently?”
Listening to another person means receiving and interpreting information in the form of words, body language, facial expression, and more.
When listening, humans are prone to distraction and understanding what is said in their personal context.
Skilled listeners are able to listen to what a person says in terms of the other person’s perspective and other contexts.
Listening as a coach means being laser-focused on the problem solver.
This deeper level of listening enables the coach to respond in ways which move the problem solver forward in addressing a problem or issue they own.
About Jenn Turvey
Jenn is a leadership coach, writer and instructional designer. She has her Lean and Six Sigma Green Belt, and previously worked as an improvement and operational planning practitioner for the State of Colorado. Jenn studied spiritual and religious experience in her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and considers herself a perpetual student of human development and personal growth.
She enjoys snowshoeing, eating, homebrewing, and drinking a craft beer while reading a good book.
Co-Active Coaching: The Proven Framework for Transformative Conversations at Work and in Life by Henry Kimsey-House, Karen Kimsey-House, Phillip Sandahl, and Laura Whitworth
Active Listening Techniques from Personal Coaching