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Active Listening: how often as coaches and leaders do we reflect on our listening skills?

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The term listening and especially active listening can easily be bandied about without consideration of the actual ingredients, let alone the complexities of delivering it consistently within the coaching environment. It can be difficult to maintain listening with intent during the coaching session, instead we can experience mental interference, a need to fix it and instinct to offer advice. In this blog post I offer my thoughts on active listening based on research I did.

Levels of Listening

There has been much research in to the levels of listening with The International Listening Association (ILA, 2012) describing listening as, “the process of receiving, constructing meaning from and responding to spoken and/or nonverbal messages”.

Carl Rogers was instrumental in researching in to levels of listening; one level he identified was active listening. He noted the benefits it can have aiding communication between two or more people. Rogers talks of his discovery of the importance of listening with understanding. This can help build trust and create an environment of understanding rather than an impulse to react, evaluate or judge either approvingly or disapprovingly to what another person is saying.

The coach’s role is to create a trusting partnership and a safe environment where the coachee can explore their own behaviours and beliefs to better their own self-development and performance. Listening is one of the essential techniques which are indispensable to any coach. It is interesting to consider that active listening contributes most to the coaching environment as a significant building block to building trust and rapport for a successful coaching session.

Active Listening

There are many descriptions of active listening with varying components. Part of this is hearing the words of what is being said with an awareness of vocal changes in tone, speed and pitch. Other techniques, which are not purely based on listening with our ears, include visual responses from the listener by nodding or subtle verbal responses such as uh – huh and eye contact. Further elements comprise of observing the speakers body language, awareness of their reactions to words they are speaking.

On top of this is our own awareness as the listener of our body language and how we ‘show up’ and interact with the coachee. This includes refraining from judgement. Our own internal dialogue may start based on what we think of the content and although we may not share verbally, it can be shown through our body language or facial expressions. We are all human and have our own belief and value system, the importance is to focus on the dialogue rather than our interpretation and judgement of the content. It is essential that the coach has an acute sense of awareness both of themselves as well as the coachee. These might appear to us as simple components and yet it is important to make them authentic.

The common theme is the need for the listener or coach to understand both content and feeling of the speaker and at the same time not show judgement. Research has identified this as telling the speaker they are worth listening to.

Active listening is an integral part of coaching, being at a deeper level and offering many benefits to a dyadic relationship. Some view the importance for the listener to identify both words and thoughts as well as what the coachee is feeling. The process can be aided by the use of questions to encourage further talking by the coachee.

Newkirk & Linden offer 5 techniques to develop the overall impact of active listening, these being;

  • Paraphrasing – the coach using their own words to explain what they think the coachee has said.
  • Reflection or echoing – the coach shares their interpretation of what the coachee is feeling. This can also be associated with showing empathy.
  • Neutral technique – eye contact, head nodding or subtle verbal responses such as uh-huh.
  • Clarifying technique –asking for further clarity around the coachee’s words with questions such as ‘tell me more about that?’
  • Summarisation – summarising the coachee words into a concise statement.

Research (1) suggests that individuals, who received active listening felt more understood, produced rewarding and positive outcomes as well as building stronger relationships. It is interesting to consider if negative results and unsatisfying relationships would be the outcome of poor or ‘not’ using active listening skills.

Complexities of Active Listening

Active listening appears far from an easily learned skill due to the complexities of the interaction of each element within the coaching conversation. It requires more concentration to be able to show the coachee that you have an understanding of the content, their feelings and underlying beliefs and values without judging them. By managing our own personal responses to the coachee’s words can enable us as the listener to show empathy authentically.

It might be said it [active listening] is a conduit to building trust, creating a safe and honest environment for the coachee to share their thoughts and feelings and reflect on their beliefs and behaviours as a catalyst for change. Rogers & Farson (1987) identify that active listening takes more awareness and is not an easy skill to develop. Take for instance now whilst reading this page, are you ’listening’ to the words your mind is reading or to something that is not on the page. By placing yourself in front of a coachee and listening to them speak you may encounter internal interference. This could be distracting and might impact negatively on your ability to listen actively.

Mullender, hostage negotiator talks of listening elite level and challenges concepts by stating the mind cannot refrain from making mental judgements. According to Mullender we are all making judgements based on our values and beliefs that will impact and cloud out thoughts. This internal conversation can continue and may include filters or assumptions about what the coachee has said. During a dialogue, should the listener use active listening skills to encourage the speaker, show empathy and understanding; this can lead to greater understanding and appreciation of each other. By making judgement, evaluating or commenting by approval or disapproval will impede the flow of conversation as well as the level to which the speaker will share their true thoughts and feelings (Rogers et al, 1991 / 1952). There appear to be many inter-related aspects of active listening.

Different Coaching Environments

Another consideration is how we use active listening in different coaching environments. Certain aspects of active listening are much easier in face to face sessions where you can absorb visual clues from the speaker. When you are coaching over the telephone it may heighten the listening experience and you notice the changes in the voice more readily and yet you have less opportunity to witness the speaker’s expressions. It is interesting to consider when you are coaching over the telephone and have less visual cues how do you know when the coachee needs verbal re-assurance or needs quiet space to think? This is probably most critical early in the relationship when you are trying to build rapport and trust.

By understanding that listening is far greater than hearing the spoken word but also picking up on subtle verbal and non-verbal cues, a reflection might be how we become more aware as coaches to identify these. This leads on to the importance of being conscious to the coachee, an awareness of being in the moment.

Preparation is Key

How we prepare for each conversation can greatly impact on the quality and outcome for the coachee. Personally I need to create space for me so that in turn I can offer mental space to the coachee. The use of mindfulness as preparation and centering prior to a coaching session has proved invaluable. This enabled me to be present for the coachee and avoid personal assumptions. This has also been ignited further following working alongside two wild ponies where being present and understanding subtle non-verbal cues are essential to build trust and rapport.

Preparation is important for future coaching De Haan (2014) emphasises the need to listen is the base function a coach should be offering before any intervention verbally and staying attentive to the coachee. It is very humbling to consider that according to De Haan (2006) even experienced practitioners feel that they still have a lot to learn when it comes to listening.

A reflection might be to consider the Conscious Competence Model by A Maslow; a good model to reflect upon during a coaching journey.

  • Cube 1. How good are my listening skills?
  • Cube 2 – Better understanding of any short comings
  • Cube 3 – Practicing active listening more consciously
  • Cube 4 – Further practice, reflect and ask for feedback to lead to an unconscious competence.

The challenge is to become consciously aware and focussed on the coachee. This will enable further practice and development of listening skills so that it becomes an unconscious competence.

Reference List

  • Bodie, G., St. Cyr, K., Pence, M., Rold, M., & Honeycutt, J. (2012) Listening Competence in Initial Interactions I: Distinguishing Between What Listening Is and What Listeners Do. International Journal of Listening, 26: 1-28.
  • Bresser, F., & Wilson, C. (2010). What is coaching? Passmore, J (Ed.) Excellence in Coaching (2nd ed).
  • De Haan, E. (2006). Fearless Consulting. UK, John Wiley & Sons Ltd
  • De Haan, E. (2014). Back to basics lll: On inquiry, the groundwork of coaching and consulting. International Coaching Psychology Review Vol. 9. No 1.
  • Goleman, D. (2006) Social Intelligence: the new science of human relationships. London: Hutchinson.
  • International Listening association (ILA, 2012)
  • Lloyd, K., Boer, D., Kluger, A., & Voelpel, S. (2015) Building Trust and Feeling Well: Examining intraindividual and interpersonal outcomes and underlying mechanisms of listening. International Journal of Listening, 29: 12-29
  • Maslow, A – Conscious Competence Learning Model
  • Mullender, R. (2105) When did you last listen? Really listen? [Masterclass]. Henley Coaching Forum, Henley Business School.
  • Newkirk, W., & Linden, R. (1982) Improving Communication through Active Listening. EMS Volume 11, No 7 November / December Management
  • Rogers, C, (1951) Client centred therapy. London: Constable.
  • Rogers, C., & Farson, R. (1987). Active Listening. Excerpt Communication in Business Today
  • Rogers, C., & Roethlisberger, F.J, (1991). HBR classic – barriers and gateways to communication. Harvard Business Review, 69(6), 105-111 (reprinted from Harvard Business Review, July-August 1952)
  • (1) Weger, H., Bell, G., Minei, E., and Robinson, M. (2014). The Relative Effectiveness of Active Listening in Initial Interactions. The International Journal of Listening, 28, 13-31.
  • Wong, Q (2013). Structure and Characteristics of Effective Coaching practice. The Coaching Psychologist, Vol 9, No 1.

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