Have you ever been talking on the phone or in a meeting and your mind starts to wonder? You start thinking about something on your to-do list, you get distracted by your pet who suddenly wants your attention or you quickly check your inbox out of habit?
We’ve all been there. We’re hearing what the person is saying but we’re not really listening. Sometimes we get away with it - after all we don’t know what we may have missed. You may even pride yourself on the art of multitasking during a quick catch up!
But when there is an important subject matter on the table, the skill of active listening is key and provides a more meaningful and effective exchange.
What is active listening?
One of the most important skills we develop as coaches is not just listening, but active listening. This means taking into account how you feel and what you see, hear, think and focus on when you’re listening to someone.
There is so much that you pick up on other than the words they use. Watching their body language, feeling the energy they give off, noting facial expressions, being aware of changing intonation in their voice and highlighting what is not being said can often lead to a big transformational moment.
Based on observations and feeling a coach may trust their intuition and ask the client, ‘what are you holding back?’ They may even just state it feels like something is not being said. These can be powerful moments that help a client to confront what is really going on or to create an opportunity to understand something deeper that they may not even have been aware of.
This becomes more than just a conversation of comments and responses, but a series of interactions and revelations that stretches beyond the words that are being said.
John Sutherland, former Met Police commander and writer, talks about the ‘lost art of listening’ on The IAB UK Podcast. In the podcast, he refers to the Chinese symbol for listening, a symbol beautifully demonstrating the different facets of what it involves:
He references Albert Mehrabian’s theory that ‘up to 90% of what we communicate with one another is non verbal’ to highlight the point that we cannot ‘just listen.’
To listen well it should be intentional. In a world where everything moves so fast, Sutherland argues we should be taking moments to pause. We should feel happy to take a moment, reflect on what is being said or not said and clarify our understanding when needed. These are all skills in active listening.
Why active listening is the secret to success in coaching
‘You’d be a great coach because you’re good at giving advice!’ There’s a myth about coaching that it’s all about giving advice and solving people’s problems. This simply isn’t true. In fact, active listening is a much more important skill.
Coaching isn’t about giving advice but about listening to people, beyond just the words that they are saying, and being able to decipher their true feelings, thoughts, worries and wants.
This allows the coach to further explore these issues using open questions to facilitate development and the person's own ability to problem solve.
Coaching can offer you the time and space to be truly listened to in a judgement free space.
What is it that you want to be heard on? What chaos is going on in your own head that you want to voice and make sense of? Is there something bothering you but you’re unable to put your finger on it?
A coach may be able to help you, even if you can’t put these feelings perfectly into words.
Test your own skills in active listening
Before a coaching session I try to get myself in the zone to truly actively listen. I try to remove any distractions, clear my mind to avoid thinking about ‘to do’ lists or what I need to do later and try to be present and fully attentive to my client for the next hour.
Try it yourself. Before your next big meeting or an important chat with a friend, get yourself in a space to actively listen. These days, life can be distracting so set an optimum environment to be able to listen. Remove any barriers such as phones, external noise or pets/children!
Try to pick up on changes in body language as they talk. Are they bored? Excited? Distracted? Passionate? Does the energy change at any point? At what point did the energy change? What could that be telling you?
Afterwards, reflect on whether it made a difference to your understanding and how you felt during and after the call? Did you pick up more from the conversation other than what was said? Did it make the call richer? Let me know how you get on!