The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them. (Ralph Nichols).
Coaching Conversation is essentially creating a trusting space between the Coach and the Client.
How do we demonstrate the trusting space? It is through our ability to focus on what the other person is saying without being distracted. It is being present in the moment of our conversation. The ability to hear and process not only what is said but more importantly what is unsaid. This could be in the realm of underlying beliefs, mental blocks, and all that is not easily discernible. To the Client, this is the “aha moment” when the Coach can correctly capture those elements and reflect them to the Client. He sees the elusive connectedness. This paper strives to understand the nuances of listening as distinct from hearing, factors that facilitate or inhibit listening, the impact of listening, and the ways and means by which we can enhance our ability to listen actively.
What is listening?
Listening is not just a concept which we can define. It is felt when practiced. Listening is one of the most important skills we can have. How well we listen has a major impact on our job effectiveness and the quality of your relationships with others.
- We listen to obtain information.
- We listen to understand.
- We listen for enjoyment.
- We listen to learn.
Given all the listening we do, we should and would think we’d be good at it! Most of us are not. Depending on the study being quoted, we remember between 25% and 50% of what we hear. That means that when we talk to our boss, colleagues, customers, or spouse for 10 minutes, they pay attention to less than half of the conversation. This is dismal!
Turn it around and it reveals that when we are receiving directions or being presented with information, we aren’t hearing the whole message either. We hope the important parts are captured in our 25-50% recall, but what if they’re not?
Listening is a skill that we can all benefit from improving. By becoming a better listener, we will improve our productivity, as well as our ability to influence, persuade, and negotiate. What’s more, we’ll avoid conflict and misunderstandings. All of these are necessary for workplace success!
In this context, I am sharing a quote from “William Strange Fellow” which provides great insights.
Listening is a rare happening. You cannot listen to that word another is speaking, if you are preoccupied with your appearances or with impressing the others, or trying to decide what you are going to say when the other stops talking or debating about whether what is being said is true, relevant or agreeable. Such matters have their place but only after listening to the word as the words are being uttered. Listening is a primitive act of love in which a person gives himself to another’s world making himself accessible & vulnerable to that word.
This resonates with so many of us. We are filled with our rightness, our autobiography. We want to be understood. Our conversation becomes collective monologues and we never really understand what is going on inside another human being. Listening is not a passive activity but a highly active one with every muscle engaged especially the brain.
Listening Vs Hearing
Steven Covey categorizes listening into the following categories. This gets manifest in the way we respond.
1. Pretending – normally accompanied by sounds like yeah, uh-huh, right. We are not listening. We often come up with inappropriate responses as we ignore surface feelings.
2. Selective listening – listening only to a selected portion of the conversation. We partially communicate surface feelings and often our response is mechanical.
3. Attentive listening – focussing energy and attention on the words being spoken. We communicate a primary surface feeling and the essence of the content.
4. Empathetic or active listening – listening with the intent to understand. It captures the underlying feelings. Pretending and Selective listening falls more in the realm of hearing while the other two are in the genre of listening. The essence of Empathetic listening does not mean agreeing with someone, it means understanding the other emotionally and intellectually. Covey states that when you listen with empathy to another person, you give that person psychological air and after that vital need is met, you can then focus on influencing or problem-solving. This is because 10% of our communication is represented by words we say, 30% “I guess it is kind of disappointing when you make an effort to be friendly and it is not accepted.”
d. Empathetic listening – listening with the intent to understand. Captures the underlying feelings when we communicate by the accompanying sounds and 60% by body language. We listen not only with our ears but also with our eyes and our hearts. Covey calls this as “Seek first to understand.” What distinguishes an empathetic or active listener is that he is client-centered, has no active desire to express and desires only to understand and not critique. Body language is maintaining eye contact and having a posture of sitting forward. He/ She would ask open-ended questions, paraphrase, acknowledge feelings, will not judge and be quiet.
Some examples will illustrate the above more succinctly.
Example 1: Executive A communicating to Executive B about a new executive.
“The harder I try to get along with the new executive, the more I feel that he just wants to be left alone.”
a. Ignoring even surface feelings – example of hearing
“ If the writing is on the wall why don’t you just leave him alone. Don’t butt in where you are not wanted”
b. Partly listen and communicate surface feeling – example of hearing albeit at a deeper level.
“That’s too bad.”
c. Attentive listening – the focus is on the primary feeling. Captures the essence of the content when we communicate.
Why do we require to listen?
We require active listening for development, adjustment, and integration of individual employees’. It is active because the listener has a very definite responsibility. He does not passively absorb the words which are spoken to him. He tries to grasp the facts and the feelings in what he hears, by his listening, to help the speaker work out his problems. Active listening to be effective must be in sync with the values of respect else it will appear as a sham. When we listen, we are conveying that we respect the other person.
Listening is demonstrating respect. Listening is contagious and hence when a Coach effectively practices listening, it rubs off onto the client leading to greater self–awareness. Listening happens when as Coaches we see the world of our clients. Re-phrasing and paraphrasing are effective tools for listening.
Benefits of listening
- Research indicates that listening is the most effective vehicle for individual Personality changes and group development. It brings about a change in People’s Values and philosophy. People listened to become more democratic and secure in their beliefs. This leads to them being more inclusive and caring.
- Builds deep positive relationships that are life-changing.
- On a tangible basis, listening enhances morale which spurs greater productivity.
- Studies conducted by the University of Michigan on the impact of morale and productivity at the “Prudential life insurance” company support the contentions.
- Enhances Creativity.
- Customer Centricity.
Ken Blanchard in his book “Leading at a higher level” shares the example of how deep listening has a beneficial impact on customer service. His colleague, Tom Cullen, was having dinner with a family that included a 13-year-old son and 2 younger kids at a fine gourmet hotel restaurant in New York City. When their waiter gave each of the three children the children’s menus, the older boy was upset. adult menu. The two younger boys ordered macaroni and cheese from the children’s menu. When dinner came, they played with the macaroni but didn’t eat much. When Tom tasted it, he thought it was something to die for – it was the best macaroni and cheese he had ever tasted. When the waiter asked the kids if something was wrong with their meal, they said.” it’s yucky! It’s not Kraft! “The waiter responded,” If you come here tomorrow night, I guarantee I‘ll have Kraft.” Where do you think the kids wanted to eat next night? The same restaurant. When the family appeared at the hostess’s desk, the waiter from the previous night spotted them and came over to the kids. “I was hoping you would come back. I got Kraft for you .” With that, he went to the kitchen and returned with a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese.
Ken Blanchard brings out two key learning’s from the above example viz;
- Listening to customers and then taking action ensures their complete loyalty. The waiter was certainly a great listener. He also had the other quality of being adaptable to the chef to make the restaurant a differentiator.
- Listen without being defensive.
- Listen for understanding. Reflection of that is when we ask “Tell me more”.”Can you be more specific”.
What helps listening?
a. Thinking before speaking
- Requires great deal of self discipline.
- Listen not only when we do not talk but also listen when we talk.
- Quality of listening is reflected when we speak.
b. Listening with respect
Marshall Goldsmith in his book ”What got you here won’t get you there” (pp 149) cites the example of Bill Clinton.
Every fibre of his being, from his eyes to his body language, communicated that he was locked into what you were saying. He conveyed how important you were, not how important he was.
c. Reflecting and asking whether the response is worth it.
It forces us to consider what the other person will feel after hearing our responses. It engages us in thinking beyond the discussion to consider:
- how the client person regards us
- what will the client do afterwards
- how the client will behave in our next interaction. We see this very often during interactions in meetings and at work place.
- Ability to make the client feel he/she is the most important person through complete focus. It is the discipline to concentrate.
- Be as unobtrusive as possible. Do not take centre stage.
- Calming down by creating “stillness“ within. Stillness helps us to remain focussed. It also enhances our awareness. How do we create Stillness? Listening to silence awakens the dimension of stillness. As Eckart Tolle puts it across, “when you look at a tree and perceive its stillness, you become still yourself. You connect with it at a very deep level. You feel a oneness with whatever you perceive in and through stillness.”
- Mirroring, repeating back in own words not just the thought but also the feelings behind. This is also called “reflective response” and it works because often we do not wish to spell out our underlying feeling. This captures the feeling element in a conversation. It takes more time initially but is a sure shot success.
- Paraphrasing, a concise response to the speaker which states the essence of the other’s content in the listener’s own words. This indicates listening with understanding.
- Seek first to understand. Ask “tell me more. Can you be more specific?”
- Listen to non verbal signals. Eg. When we touch our nose, we often attempt to conceal our innermost thoughts. The stress caused by this attempt to conceal causes tension in the nasal tissue that prompts us to rub or squeeze our nose. Also, during moments of tension males often adjust their cufflinks.
What hinders listening?
- Superficial interest in the Client as demonstrated by our inability to capture the essence of what the client is trying to convey.
- Our world view which stops us from being open to alternate views. This makes us conform to our stated positions and reject w/o even trying to understand the other position. The other extreme position is complete understanding and agreement with the other as witnessed in the Stockholm Syndrome. Coaching is neither of the two extremes.
- Not willing to put in the hard work which would engage every muscle and the brain.
- Rush for action propelled by our competitive urges where we have to make ourselves visible at all costs.
- Our own emotions which at times becomes a barrier to effective listening. More involved and invested we are, less likely are the chances for us to listen because in those situations we find it necessary to respond to the needs of another.
These emotions could express as:
- Defensiveness - we listen less on a subject about which we are very dogmatic.
- Resentment of Opposition - we tend to listen to ideas similar to ours.
- Clash of Personalities - Ego battles choke our emotions.
- Inability to listen to Ourselves - impedes being in sync with our own emotions and blockages.
Daniel Goleman in his book “Social Intelligence” brings the concept of attunement. He says attunement is the attention that goes beyond momentary empathy to a full, sustained presence that facilitates rapport. This happens when we offer a person our total attention and listen fully. We seek to understand the other person rather than just making our point.
During moments of genuine connection, what we say will be responsive to what others feel, says, and does. When we are poorly connected, however, our communication becomes verbal bullets: our message does not change to fit the other person’s state but simply reflects our own. Real listening requires being attuned to the feelings of the client, allow the client to say what he has to say, and allow the conversation to follow a course that both determine. Most of the effective conversations are agenda-less. Listening well has been found to distinguish the best managers, teachers, and leaders. Among those who are outstanding performers in the helping profession, like physicians or social workers, such deep listening numbers among the top 3 abilities. Not only do they take time to wished me to discern,” he reflected. listen and attune to other person’s feelings, they also ask questions to better understand the person’s background and not just the immediate issue at hand. Full listening maximizes physiological synchrony, so that emotions align. Listening carefully, with undivided attention, orients our neural circuits for connectivity and puts on the same wavelength. This increases the possibility of rapport. While attunement is one end of the spectrum, the other end of the spectrum is “Asperger Syndrome”. People who suffer from this disease find it difficult to understand and read people’s emotions. Their intuition is not developed which hinders their reading facial expressions but they have an uncanny gift in recalling factual information.
Listening – parable(s)
Back in the 3rd Century AD, the king Tsao, sent his son Prince T’ai, to the temple to study under the great master Pan Ku. Because Prince T’ai was to succeed his father as a king, Pan Ku was to teach the basics of being a good ruler. When the prince arrived at the temple, the master sent him alone to the Ming Li forest. After one year, the prince was to return to the temple, to describe the noise of the forest.
When Prince T’ai returned, Pan Ku asked the boy to describe all that he could hear.”Master,” replied the prince,” I could hear the cuckoos sing, the leaves rustle, the hummingbird’s hum, the crickets chirp, the grass glow, the bees buzz, and the wind whisper and holler.”When the prince had finished, the master told him to go back to the forest to listen to what more could he hear. The prince was puzzled by the master’s request. Had he not discerned every sound already.
For days and nights on end, the young prince sat alone in the forest listening. But he heard no sound other than the sounds he had already heard. Then one morning, as the prince sat silently beneath the trees, he started to discern faint sounds, unlike those he had ever heard before. The more accurately he listened, the clearer the sounds became. The feeling of enlightenment enveloped the boy.
These must be the sounds the master wished me to discern,
When Prince T’ai returned to the temple, the master asked him what more he had heard.”Master” responded the prince reverently, ”when I listened most closely, I could hear the unheard-the sound of flowers opening, the sound of sun warming the earth, and the sound of grass drinking the morning dew”. The master responded approvingly.”To hear the unheard”, remarked Pan Ku” is a necessary discipline to be a good ruler. For only when a ruler has learned to listen closely to the people’s hearts, hearing their feelings un-communicated, pains unexpressed, and complaints not spoken of, can he hope to inspire confidence in his people, understand when something is wrong, and meet the true needs of his citizens. The demise of states comes when leaders listen only to superficial words and do not penetrate deeply into the souls of the people to hear their true opinion, feelings, and desires.”
Second parable – Osho – Sound of One Hand Clapping A small boy, just ten or twelve years of age, lived in a Zen monastery. Every day he would see many seekers coming to the master to ask for help, methods, techniques, guidance. He also became attracted, so one day he also came in the morning in the same way a seeker comes to a Zen master. With deep reverence, he bowed down seven times.
The master started laughing:
”What has happened to this boy?” And then he sat in the way seekers should sit before a Zen master. Then he waited, as seekers should wait, for the master to ask, ”Why have you come?” The master asked, ”Toyo” – Toyo was the name of the boy – ”why have you come?” So Toyo bowed down and said, “Master, I have come in search of the truth. What shall I do? How should I practice?” The master knew that this boy was simply imitating because everybody he heard came and asked the same questions, so just jokingly the master said, ”Toyo, you go and meditate. Two hands clapping can create a sound. What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Toyo bowed down seven times again, went back to his room, started meditating. He heard a geisha girl singing, so he said, “Right, this is the thing.” He came immediately, bowed down. The master was laughing. He said, ”Did you meditate, Toyo?” He said, “Yes sir, and I have found it: it is like a geisha girl singing.” The master said, ”No, this is wrong. Go again, meditate.” So he went again, meditated for three days. Then he heard the sound of water dripping, so he said, ”Right now, this is the thing – I have got it.” He came again, the master asked… he said, ”The sound of the water dripping.” The master said, ”Toyo, that too is not it. You go and meditate.” So he meditated for three months. Then he heard locusts in the trees, so he said, ”Yes, I have got it.” He came again. The master said, ”No, this too is not right.” And so on and on. One year passed. Then for one year continuously he was not seen. The master became anxious: ”What happened to the boy? He has not come.” So he went to find him. He was sitting under a tree, silent, his body vibrating to some unknown sound; his body dancing, a very gentle dance, as if just moving with the breeze. The master didn’t like to disturb the boy, so he sat there waiting. Hours and hours passed. When the sun was setting and it was evening, the master said, ”Toyo?” The boy opened his eyes and he said, ”This is it.” The master said, ”Yes, you have got it!” This aum is that sound. When all sounds disappear from the mind, then you hear a sound. The Upanishads have made that sound the symbol of the whole, because whenever the whole happens to the part, it happens in that music of aum, in that harmony of aum.
The role of listening is the key to any Coaching conversation. Reflective listening mirrors the underlying feeling and when as a client we are in touch with the feeling, we know the “why “of what we say and do. The “aha “moment would come as the client would find his/her solution. The conversation would truly be one of “dancing with insight”, paraphrasing David Rock. Having stated that, I would like to conclude by saying that listening is not a passive activity.
It is very intense and it stretches every sinew and muscle of our brain. Hearing the unheard and the unspoken is not something that comes easy. It is the silence from within which makes us listen and we need to cultivate that because when we listen to others fully we are also simultaneously listening to our selves,
“7 habits of highly effective people” by Steven Covey.
“What got you here will not get you there” by Marshall Goldsmith.
“Leading at a higher level” by Ken Blanchard.
“Social intelligence “ by Daniel Goleman.
“ Stillness Speaks” by Eckhardt Tolle.
“Competence at Work” by Spencer and Spencer.
The Tao of coaching- Max Landsberg
“Tell-Tale brain” by VS Ramachandran.
“People Watching” by Desmond Morris.
“Vedanta: Seven Steps to Samadhi” by Osho