Our strapline at Kissing With Confidence is “How you communicate determines the effectiveness of your life”. When I’m working with groups on some type of communication skills training, listening – and its perceived importance – always comes up. Ask people if they think that they’re a good listener and you’ll usually get a couple of people whose hands go up confidently. Yes, they proclaim. I am a great listener. Of the remainder of the group, the majority grimace and wave their hands, palms down, as if to say, sometimes but not always. And then a couple of people at the other end of the spectrum who say bashfully that they are not great at it, and really know they need to be better at it.
The truth is that every single one of us needs to work on our listening skills. Research shows that when we meet someone for the first time, we try to convey through our behaviour messages of a) warmth and trustworthiness and b) strength and competence. One of the quickest and easiest ways to persuade people that you have both? Develop your listening skills.
“We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.” Zeno of Citium
How can a coach listen effectively?
As a coach, listening (70% of the time you’re with the client, versus 30% when you’re talking) is integral. When you’re not listening, you’ll be doing a number of things – feedback, challenge and most importantly asking fantastic, powerful questions – that we’ll get to later in this blog series. But a number of things can get in the way and it’s important to know what those might be:
- You – you’re tired/hungry/unwell/distracted by work and or personal “stuff”; you’re thinking “I’ve heard this all before”. Etc etc. If it’s any of these you need to question why you’ve allowed yourself to get in that situation; you’re the one responsible for keeping the coaching process on track and you’re doing your client a disservice if this is how you’re feeling
- Them - something about their appearance/voice/mannerism. The problem is still yours. You need to listen non-judgmentally and get past those initial impressions. Time, practice and conscious effort and reflection are the way to go here.
- Importantly, you have to be really “present” and with them every step of the way. That’s why getting to level three listening is so important.
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Steven Covey – The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
Levels of listening
As well as listening non-judgmentally (in order to understand what the person is saying) you need to get to deeper levels of listening as a coach. So this means not pretending to listen (smiling, nodding, making “uh-huhs” of pretend understanding). You’ll get caught out. Not operating at level one where you’re more focused on what’s happening in your own head (“What do I say next?” “Is this really working?” “What’s for lunch?”). It means working towards level two – focused on them, pushing away intrusive thoughts and trusting that the next thing you need to ask will come from what they’re telling you. Practise this often enough and eventually you’ll get to level three when you’re completely in the moment and there’s a natural flow to the whole thing. It’s tiring – and we don’t do a lot of this in everyday life – but hugely important to the client and beneficial to the outcome.
What are you listening for?
Loads of things. Emotions. Facts. Themes that the person keeps coming back to again and again. Stuff that’s important to them. That makes them happy/sad/angry/confused. Things that help with your next question. But that’s not all. You also have to….
Listen with your eyes as well as your ears
Body language is important; sometimes people are saying one thing verbally and another altogether non-verbally. That can form the basis of an important and illuminating question for them to consider.
How else to show you’re listening
Reflecting those themes/emotions eg “I can see that you’re angry about that”; “You’ve mentioned that several times today – it sounds important to you”. Summarising what you’ve heard – throughout the discussion, not only at the end of it. This helps people reflect and think further. We’ll come back to these and their importance later in the series.
“You're short on ears and long on mouth.” John Wayne
CASE STUDY: What happens when it goes wrong?
We worked with a senior Director who was baffled by feedback from his team that he didn’t seem to like, care for or be interested in them and their work. They thought it was all about him and what he needed to say. He professed otherwise. Observation of him at work showed that when people sought him out, he’d continue whatever he was doing at his computer. He wouldn’t stop, slow down or make eye contact. He claimed that he was multi-tasking. Feedback from an independent source confirmed however that despite his best intentions to listen to one thing and work on something else, the effect was exactly as described by his team. He committed to managing people’s visits more effectively, stopping whatever he was doing and focusing on them properly and showing that he was listening by his body language, his questions and his reflections on and summaries of what was being said. Result? His feedback evaluations and his relationships improved wonderfully over a period of six months. He’s now long on ears and short on mouth.
SKILLS AUDIT: Are you a good listener?
Ask yourself the following questions and label your answer “never”, “rarely”, “sometimes”, “often” or “always”. Feeling brave? Ask someone you know and trust for their impression of you as a listener and see how well they match yours.
- When someone else is talking I’m properly focused on them, their agenda and what they want to say
- I enjoy listening to other people
- I show that I’m listening through my words, my tone and my body language
- I put any preconceptions to one side and “listen without prejudice” (as George Michael would say)
- I try to be in the moment. I’m not waiting. I’m listening.
Do yourself – and someone else – a favour. Next time you’re talking to them, focus properly and give them the gift of your listening. You might even find that you enjoy it. As Raquel Welch said (rather brilliantly):
“You can't fake listening. It shows.”
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about the author
Nicky Denegri is our Senior Consultant. If you would like to know more about this subject, drop her an email and we will be in touch.