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Listening: A Foundational Coaching Skill

cover_smaller.jpgMy book, The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation, is now available!

This week I'm sharing excerpts of it. Today's selection comes from Chapter 8, Listening and Questioning.

From The Art of Coaching:

LISTENING IN TRANSFORMATIONAL COACHING

Take a moment to reflect on listening. When was the last time you felt really, truly listened to? Who was listening to you? How did you know you were being listened to? What did it feel like? What did this allow you to think and feel and do?

Now think about a time when you were sharing something and were not listened to. What was that like? What was the impact on the relationship?

And now, take a moment to reflect on how you listen to others. Do you listen in order to find a connection and be able to share some information about yourself? Do you listen in order to find a point with which you can argue? When you listen do you notice yourself feeling judgmental about what the other person shares? Do you listen to offer suggestions for fixing a problem? Do you find yourself spacing out, drifting onto other ideas? Of course, we all do this at times. Listening is a skill; you can train yourself to do this and you will get better with practice. Deep listening is hard to do. At first, it can feel very strange, uncomfortably empty and quiet, unlike anything you've ever experienced. But it is the most effective tool you'll use in coaching. When you are deeply listening, you stop thinking--your own mental chatter is quiet. When you are listening very deeply to another person, your own thoughts and concerns quiet down, your ego naps in a corner of your mind. This creates a tremendous space for your client to explore her own issues. You can support and guide that exploration through the questions you ask. By creating a clear, safe, non-judgmental field, there is plenty of space for clients to wander around their own mind, exploring their beliefs, their blocks, their goals, and how to fulfill them.

And another selection from this chapter:

What Does Listening Look Like, Feel Like, and Sound Like?

Next time you are in conversation with someone, pay attention to your own listening: what is the chatter in your mind saying? Mine often sounds like this: "Oh, that's a good point...I agree with that...When that happened to me...Why did you say that? I never would have said that...Ok, that make sense..."

When we are listening deeply, it is like we have joined the coachee in her own world, and are sitting next to her, listening from her perspective. We understand or "get" what it is like for her, where she is coming from. It can sound like this: "I hear that...that sounds really hard...I'm sorry you experienced that...Do you want to say more about that?" At some point we'll begin to ask more questions to push the coachee's thinking, but broad, open-ended listening often comes first--this builds the client's trust, ensures that we're hearing and understanding what our client is saying, and helps us identify the questions we might ask to provoke deeper reflection.

Active listening is a strategy for a speaker to convey that she's listening, and also to ensure that she's hearing precisely what the other person wants to share. We can repeat back or paraphrase what the other person says. It can sound like:
• In other words...
• What I'm hearing then...
• It sounds like you are saying...is that correct? Did I miss anything?
• I'm hearing many things...
• As I listen to you I'm hearing...

Although it can feel awkward at first to paraphrase, it is a surprisingly effective way to build trust with a client and demonstrate a coach's intention to listen deeply.

How can we show that we're listening? Recall a time when you were sharing something personal and you felt that the other person was not listening to you. What did you notice? Often the clues are subtle, but when we're taking a risk by sharing something important we are supremely attuned to another person's every movement. We will notice a glance at a clock, a comment that feels slightly disconnected, a question about something that we already shared, squirmy feet, or a stifled yawn. A coach must be mindful about how her body and words demonstrate attention; maintaining eye contact, inclining slightly towards the listener or mirroring his posture, mindful that our body communicates our full presence. Start paying attention to what your body does when you are engaged in conversation or listening--you might be unconsciously moving or positioning yourself in a way that communicates an emotion or judgment that you were unaware of.

And a last selection from this chapter:


Intentional Listening

When a coach listens deeply, her mind is not blank and vacuous. We listen for what the client is saying as well as assumptions, interpretations and underlying beliefs. For example, a teacher might say, "My principal came into my room when I was teaching. He looked around, scowled, and left without saying anything. I know he's trying to get rid of me." A coach could form an opinion like, "She's paranoid," or could think something like, "I hear an assumption and interpretation to explore. I'm going to note that comment and come back to it."

We also listen for what is not said: for what lurks below the surface--feelings, thoughts and beliefs, and for the gaps in a story. A client might not share something, not because he doesn't trust the coach, but because he's not aware of these holes. When we listen deeply, closely, and over a period of time, those holes become glaring. Frequently, they are areas or concerns that as coaches, because of our experience working in schools, we know others in similar situations often have. When we address them, clients can experience great relief, perhaps even a breakthrough.

In order to help a client change beliefs and behaviors, a coach must listen carefully to understand someone's patterns of thinking. In order for this to happen, we need to let people talk and talk and talk. Initially, this experience can feel overwhelming, but if we just sit back, empty our minds and let it all in, there will come a time when we start to notice the patterns, hear the unintentional meanings behind words, see the distortions, and most important, understand where our client is on his learning trajectory and where he is emotionally. We cannot be effective as coaches if we don't have a clear picture of this terrain. A coach's action and speech must emerge after a period of stillness and silence.

My book is peppered with quotes relevant to the content. Here's one from this chapter that I love:

Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Dr. Karl Menninger

There's a lot more on listening in my new book. Let me know what you think!

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The opinions expressed in The Art of Coaching Teachers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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