Research Paper By Kunnath Chandran
(Executive Coach, India)
Listening is cited as the most important component of effective communications.
Eckhart Tolle in his book, “Stillness Speaks” says,
True listening goes far beyond auditory perception.
He terms it as
a space of conscious presence where words become secondary.
Instead, listening becomes
a unifying field of awareness in which you meet the other without the separative barriers created by conceptual thinking.
The other person is no longer the “other” says Tolle, but both are
joined together as one awareness, one consciousness
– an apt description of a true coach-and-coachee relationship.
The heart and soul of all coaching are communications, and the attribute of powerful listening is essential for a successful coach. Plutarch, the Greek biographer, in his famous essay on listening almost two thousand years ago wrote,
Learn how to listen and you will prosper even from those who talk badly (Essays, 1992).
Can a coach then learn to be a competent listener ‘come what may’ to be effective with a client? This paper examines the impact of a coach’s attitudes on his or her development as a powerful listener.
‘The International Listening Association’ defines listening as the process of receiving, constructing meaning from, and responding to spoken and nonverbal messages (www.listen.org, 1996). Little was known about the process of listening until recently. The word ‘listening’ was often used interchangeably with the term ‘hearing’ which essentially is a physical sequence of the three stages of receiving sound (by the ears), registering the sound in the brain, and auditory association. Thus, while hearing is mostly physiological, listening is a psychological act. Although the mechanics of hearing are a prerequisite to listening, moving from mere hearing to effective listening requires a conscious and deliberate effort, and it starts with looking inwards.
Listening is ‘Action’
The philosopher Immanuel Kant traces human behavior back to underlying thoughts or beliefs in an interesting sequence: Perception → Belief/Thought → Feeling/Emotion → Behavior.
When we think or feel something, we act this out, (‘Underlying Beliefs’, ICA Module, Level 2.)
Our beliefs and attitudes are reflected in our behavior or actions, and the results obtained relate directly to those actions. ‘Powerful listening’ viewed within this paradigm thus becomes ‘action’ emanating from attitudes such as respect, care, and compassion for the client and hence leading to ‘Effective Coaching’ which is the desired result.
One of the main points Ralph Nichols made in his early book ‘Listening is a 10 Part Skill’ was that a listener should concentrate on the ideas and thoughts of the speaker and not get distracted by his own ‘monologues’ or interior noises (www.listen.org.) A positive psychological disposition and the “willingness” to listen are crucial for competent listening while anxiety and stress interfere with this ability (Brownell, 2006.) Stephen Covey in ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ states that effective listening requires emotional strength and involves ‘highly developed qualities of character.’ The listener’s authenticity and the confidence level of the speaker should lead to opening a ‘soul to soul flow.’ In his book ‘Emotional Intelligence’ Daniel Goleman also points out that the power lies in ‘hearing the feelings behind what is being said.’
Michael Purdy, author of ‘Listening in Everyday Life’, listed the characteristics of competent as well as ineffective listeners after studies conducted in the 1990s. These could be tabulated either as ‘skills’ or ‘attitudes’ as below:
It is therefore essential that apart from learning the ‘skills’ as listed above a coach needs to consciously develop and internalize appropriate attitudes at the grass-root level to bring powerful listening into his practice.
Attitudinal Barriers to Powerful Listening
Listening habits are patterns that come from the way our brains work, our physical traits, practice behaviors, and psychological make-up, and hence we are never isolated from our past. (Brooks, 2011) It becomes incumbent upon listeners not only to be aware that the past permeates one’s thinking but instead be consciously in the present.
There are, nevertheless, barriers that crop up in adopting appropriate attitudes for listening. Self Perceptions and Personal Biases are the most prevalent and include anything that gets in the way of understanding a speaker’s message. Some typical examples are egocentrism, personal interests, biases/dogmatism, defensiveness, apprehension, or a know–it–all attitude. These can stifle the comprehension of an opposing point of view. In his work, Carl Rogers (1962) writes eloquently of the need to recognize meaningful differences in active listening behaviors. Abandoning any egocentric perspective is a prerequisite for powerful listening. Relevant attitudes that impact listening in the context of coaching are examined below:
The value system subscribed to by a coach is a major influence on the attitudes that permeate the process. A coach risks becoming judgmental and evaluating a client as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ based on his/her ingrained values, and, consequently, even becoming prescriptive. In extreme cases, a coach may go as far as expressing anger, disgust, disappointment, or condemnation causing irreversible damage to the relationship between coach and client. Essential is the notion of empathy, a feeling in which the coach identifies with the other, or, in other words, “one feels with and for that person” -Hobart and Fahlberg (1965).
This is a state in which listeners rely heavily on preconceived notions, sometimes even failing to listen to their environment, which then adversely impacts the listening process – Langer (1989) and Brownell (2006). Being ‘mindful’ – the only way a coach ought to listen – is an attitude of ‘being in the moment’ and preventing interference by distractions. The result obtained is enhanced attentiveness which helps in getting whole ideas rather than partial details, discerning fact from opinion, keeping an open mind, and avoiding snap judgments. Effective listening is thus always mindful.
Another attitude that may detract is the inclination to appear ‘profound’ before a client. The urge to impress, or respond with intelligent or knowledgeable answers, can lead the coach to get mentally busy framing ‘smart’ responses even as the client is yet speaking – a result of the ‘Thought-Speech Differential’ (the mind functions four times as fast as the speed at which speech takes place) Brownell (2006). When the mind is allowed to ‘do its own’ even though the coach is outwardly silent and appears to be listening, then significant parts of the meaning and nuances of the client’s statements could be missed out. While awareness of this phenomenon is the first step, its prevention happens primarily when respect for the client rides high in a coach’s mind.
‘The Process is Inviolate’
Undue focus on the coaching process can be another hurdle in the listening of a coach. The coach’s attitude reflected here is that ‘being correct’ is more significant than the central theme of ‘making a difference’ to the client. On the other hand what must remain supreme in the coach’s mind is the ownership of the outcomes that can be created for a client, an attitude which will in turn reflect his/her care and sensitivity for the client.
Short Span of Attention
Another phenomenon that detracts from listening is the short span of attention of human beings in general. Attention can dip sharply within 5 to 8 minutes and a coach needs to be vigilant that in-attentiveness does not occur under any circumstances. The level of integrity desired in the profession demands that the listening of a coach throughout each session comes from an attitude of total commitment to being fully ‘present in the moment’ and a firm belief that he/she is an involved player in the sequence of events despite the hazard of short attention spans.
Effective listening can also be impacted by impatience, which is behavior stemming from insensitivity, or an unforgiving attitude. A client needs encouragement to be fully self-expressed and be able to examine issues fully. This is unlikely to happen unless the coach consistently manifests patience. Conversely, if insensitivity shows up in the feedback because the coach did not go beyond the spoken word, then the client may run for cover and withdraw into a shell. Instead, an attitude of acceptance that ‘to err is human’ creates an environment of forgiveness even when a client is disclosing the gravest of indiscretions, and that leads to empowerment and motivation to find a way forward.
Differences in culture, language, religion, and so on, can be causes for diminishing relatedness between coach and client – particularly in the beginning. The conviction that relatedness is the touchstone to good coaching is the attitude that needs to be nursed from the start and created early in the engagement. A coach will do well to prevent prejudices from playing into his or her thinking as the client and the coach get to know each other. Such a coach strongly believes that there will always be commonalities on which to base conversations and will actively spot them thereby creating comfort, trust, and relatedness.
Practices to Sustain Attitudes for Powerful Listening
Routines and practices for coaches to cultivate and internalize attitudes that contribute towards powerful listening are described below.
It is essential that after every session the coach goes over the experience and recollects as much of the details as is possible. During such reflection, the coach can identify the occurrence of any of the phenomena described above and pinpoint the ‘patterns of thinking’ in the mind of the coach. Over some time the coach finds this developing into a habit and can ensure that only supportive attitudes and what makes a difference to the client are brought into each session.
A major discovery that a coach makes with experience is that despite the effort by most people to achieve perfection, human beings are imperfect one way or the other. That notwithstanding the effort to achieve extraordinary goals by ordinary human beings must be encouraged without exception. A coach is best endowed to do so when he or she learns to be comfortable with imperfections and still believe that great outcomes can happen for all clients.
A coach needs to approach each session with faith in both the process as well as his or her own ability to bring forth great results. The coach remains awake to and prevents any cynicism about the client that may creep in to destroy success that is waiting to happen.
When a coach creates a positive response in his mind to the question, “Who is X (the client) to me?” a powerful affirmation is provided for a great outcome from an engagement. The coach can create empowering answers to the question when he begins to see the client as a winner-in-the-making, one whose positives work towards the win happening.
A peaceful disposition assists in the coach achieving great results with a client. Developing the ability to listen powerfully is further nurtured by investing some time regularly and on an everyday basis –even as little as 20 to 30 minutes a day – on meditation. Any type of meditation is as effective as any other to bring about calm and composure in the attitude of a coach in the long term.
Effective communication is the cornerstone of successful coaching, and the major component within that is competent listening. Miracles happen through the listening that a coach brings to the coaching sessions. Creating empowered clients is the outcome when a coach’s paradigm shifts to ‘seek first to understand’ (Covey). The level of trust and comfort of the clients is substantially enhanced and a crucial difference in their journey of life then becomes visible.
Powerful listening begins to show up only when a coach looks beyond just ‘skills’ –important, but the easier part – and carefully develops attitudes such as genuine care, compassion, and sensitivity for the client. Also, merely ‘knowing’ that attitudes have a major impact on effective listening is not sufficient either. A coach must be strongly committed to developing the desired attitudes, and practice them with regularity to become a powerful listener – a ‘must’ for successful coaching.
Tolle, Eckhart (2009.) Stillness Speaks. Mumbai, Thomson Press.
Plutarch (1992.) On listening to lectures. Essays. Translated by Frank C. Babbitt, New York: Penguin Books.
‘The International Listening Association’ (www.listen.org, 1996).
Immanuel Kant as quoted in the International Coach Academy Study Module Underlying Beliefs, iE LL-2. (2010)
Nichols, Ralph, ‘Listening is a 10 Part Skill’ as quoted on the website of the International Listening Association, (www.listen.org)
Brownell Judi (2006.) Listening: Attitudes, Principles, and Skills. 3rd Edition, Boston: Allyn & Bacon, Inc.
Covey, Stephen (2004). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Pocket Books SELF-HELP/BUSINESS, UK.
Goleman, Daniel (1995). Emotional Intelligence. Bloomsbury Publishing, London
Michael Purdy, Deborah Borisoff (1997) Listening in Everyday Life: A Personal and Professional Approach - 2nd Edition: University Press of America.
David Brooks’ January 17, 2011 article, “The Social Animal,” in The New Yorker.)
Rogers, Carl (1972). On Becoming a Person. New York, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Hobart, CW, and Fahlberg, N. The measure of empathy, American Journal of Sociology, (March 1965.)
Langer, Ellen J. (1989) Mindfulness. Addison-Wesley Pub Co,