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 is able to correctly capture those elements and reflect them back to the Client. He sees the elusive connectedness. This paper strives to understand the nuances of listening as distinct from hearing, factors which 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 on 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! In fact 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?
Clearly, 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 own rightness, our own 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. Actually, we are not listening. We often come up with inappropriate responses as we ignore surface feelings.
2. Selective listening – listening only to 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 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. 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 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 centred, 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 – focus is on 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 own problems. Active listening in order to be effective must be in sync with the values of respect else it will appear as sham. When we listen, we are actually 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 client’s. Re-phrasing and paraphrasing are effective tools of listening.
Benefits of listening
- Research indicates that listening is a 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 relationship which is life changing.
- On a tangible basis, listening enhances morale which spurs greater productivity.
- Studies conducted by University of Michigan on impact of morale and productivity at “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 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? Obviously, 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”.