Search for something

Listening beyond yourself

Art swirling colour pink purple

Mary is a participant on this year’s programme, which is all about developing the developer to be able to support clients in a coaching relationship. 

About ten years ago I was attending a leadership development programme along with a number of other people from the same organisation as me. The programme was based on ‘whole person’ principles, and one important element was learning to give and receive feedback. Although it seems odd to say this now, this wasn’t something we were used to in our work environment at that time, but we were there to learn how to be to better leaders and expected to be challenged, so we gave each other permission to be open and honest and actively sought feedback.

I was paired with a colleague that I’d worked with for quite a few years, but it came out of the blue when she told me that she’d always felt that I wasn’t really listening to her; she could see it in my eyes. And the uncomfortable truth was, she was right! I knew exactly what she meant. When she talked, my thoughts constantly ran ahead to what I was going to say or do next, often unrelated to what she was talking about.  I was ashamed so since then I have been conscious to listen more actively and attentively to what others are saying. I believe that I have certainly improved.

Then last year I joined the Oasis programme Coaching and Mentoring with Head, Heart and Soul. On the first module one of the facilitators said something that has stuck with me…“all you need to learn is how to shut up and listen!”

I realised then that in a coaching situation, being able to really listen properly was on a whole new level beyond what I thought I’d been doing. If you are anything like me, with a busy mind constantly re-running experiences and situations that have happened, or planning ahead to what I’m going to do next, listening well can be quite a challenge. In normal day-to-day life, it may not matter too much if your attention momentarily wanders or you misunderstand what’s been said to you. But in a coaching situation it can be really problematic because you cannot hope to help someone else to think deeply if you can’t listen well enough to enable you to hear and sense the meaning behind their words and ask incisive questions that will really help to unlock their thinking.

In her excellent book The Coaching Manual[i], Julie Starr has identified a number of different levels or states of listening. There’s the ‘cosmetic’, where someone looks like they are listening, but their mind is somewhere else; the ‘conversational’ where you take turns to speak, listen, think and respond, but still occasionally lose the thread of the conversation. In ‘active’ listening, you are paying closer attention to gathering information, maybe checking your understanding, and mentally or physically making notes for later. Then there’s the ‘deep’ listening state where the listener is much more focused on the speaker than on themselves. Julie Starr describes this as ‘unlike any other, in that it goes beyond what it is logically possible to achieve by listening to someone’. It’s a highly perceptive level of understanding which allows intuition to play a powerful role.

Understanding these listening states has given me a way to notice and check that the quality of my listening is right for the situation I’m in. More importantly, in my coaching practice, it has helped me to actively shift my focus away from what I’m thinking and intentionally listen with a deeper focus on the other person.

This has had some surprising and encouraging effects. I have found that when I’m really listening deeply I feel more at ease and naturally myself. I am able to live more comfortably with silence, giving the person more time to think. Of course, whilst listening I am still thinking, but now my thoughts are channelled on how to understand the meaning behind what’s being said, and working out exactly what effective question will help my client right now and how best to frame it.

Sometimes an idea has popped into my mind that I instinctively knew would be right in that moment. On one occasion, I suddenly thought to ask my client to describe the colour of their feelings, which they later told me triggered an emotion and really made them stop and think. I believe I could only have done this because I’d properly heard the tone and expression in their voice, and felt that I’d begun to understand more about their world and who they are.

This aspect of listening really intrigues me because in the world beyond coaching I hear lots of people talking, but very little evidence that they are really listening to each other. We could all do with learning to listen better.

[i]The Coaching Manual by Julie Starr, published by Pearson Books 4th ed. 2016