By Jennifer Turvey, Improvement Practitioner and Coach
The average human is deeply distracted by other thoughts. We are programed to listen on the most basic level – what does this mean for me? Focusing on what it means to the person who is talking is essential if, for example, you want to be a productive contributor in meetings at work.
In coaching, listening extends beyond receiving information to a deeper awareness of the signals the person is sending, how the coach’s responses are received by the other person, and utilize engaged responses to supportively move the conversation forward.
Some people are naturally better listeners than others. Fortunately, listening is a skill which can be improved through practice.
- Spoken words
- Body language
- Facial expressions
- Sound (pitch and level of the person’s voice)
- What is not said
And we’re interpreting it too. Information coming from another person is like signals, and the listener is like a receiver.
The listener picks up some, but not all, of what is being sent because of interference. Static, so to speak, takes a variety of forms, and is both inside and outside of the listener.
Externally, static may take the form of an enticing object such as an ice cream cone, or the noise of traffic. Internally, it may take the form of thinking about cleaning the garage.
“Listening means taking a vigorous, human interest in what is being told to us.” – Alice Duer Miller, Poet
Three common distractions include:
- Inner chatter
- Simultaneous processing
- Taking things personally
Let’s take a closer look at each one.
1. Inner Chatter
But it is often happening when we’re supposed to be listening.
It sounds a little like this:
- “I’m going to have a heck of a drive home tonight, in rush hour, because of that extra meeting.”
- “Pizza! Did she say pizza? I sure could use a slice of pepperoni right now.”
- “Holy cow, that woman looks like my mother.”
- “I wonder if I can get my neighbor to help me paint the house this weekend.”
2. Simultaneous Processing
You’re able to:
- Plan – think about what you’re going to say next – while the person is speaking.
- Multitask – listen to them and get something else done at the same time! Move an appointment using your phone or skim the article they passed out at the beginning of that meeting.
- Ponder – delve into a brilliant tangent somewhat related to what the person is saying – while they’re talking.
- Text – don’t be a fool – texting falls under the category of not listening at all.
3. Taking Things Personally
Our inclination is to take things personally:
- What are the implications for me?
- What would I do if I were in that situation?
- How have I dealt with similar situations in the past?
Like inner chatter, this kind of listening is useful to us as beings in the world because it helps us navigate everyday life. All from an understanding of ourselves related to what’s going on around us.
Totally helpful if you’re working on your own projects and your own challenges. But not as useful when the goal is to form a picture of what’s going on from another person’s perspectives.
This deeper level of listening is a central coaching aptitude. It means:
- Pausing that inner chatter. Putting aside what it means to you personally.
- Focusing deeply on all of the signals the person is sending out and understanding what the person is saying in the context of a particular situation.
- The ability to choose which part of what they say you’ll respond to.
- Developing and sustaining awareness of how your responses land with the other person.
Lets take a look at some of these engaged response techniques:
Reflecting, Clarifying, and Articulating
An observer sees the big picture because they’re positioned outside of the action, and that’s where the coach is. Sharing information from that vantage point can be enormously helpful to the problem-solver.
Reflecting: When the problem-solver loses steam with their thought process, repeating what they’ve said back to them with a summary or a simple rephrasing says “I heard you. I’m interested in what you’re saying. Keep going!”
Clarifying: When things have gotten unfocused, clarifying allows the coach to bring them into focus by adding more specifics.
- “. . . is that right?”
- “It sounds like . . .”
Articulating is similar to clarifying, and uses similar language, but it has a different goal. Rather than helping them find their way back when they’re off course, articulating puts together what the person has already assembled, and connects all the dots, to help them move forward.
Reminders of statements previously made (or written by the person in their project documents) can be useful when articulating.
- “Weren’t you saying . . .?”
- “Didn’t you say your goal was to . . .?”
Important: Remember that clarifying and articulating are acts of synthesis in which the coach attempts to create a coherent picture, and that might be off track, so verification is critical. Check with the person you’re coaching!
This is the view from 6,000 feet. It’s helpful when the problem solver is in the weeds, and is stuck in the way they see the situation.
- “What if we step back and give it a larger frame/context. What would you say then?”
- “I’m noticing a lot of struggling here. How could we look at this differently?”
When listening, humans are prone to distraction and understanding what is said in their personal context.
Skilled listeners are able to listen to what a person says in terms of the other person’s perspective and other contexts.
Listening as a coach means being laser-focused on the problem solver.
This deeper level of listening enables the coach to respond in ways that move the problem-solver forward in addressing a problem or issue that they own.
About Jennifer Turvey
Jenn is completing a one-year professional coaching certification. She currently coaches clients and works as a freelance writer and instructional designer.
She has her Lean and Six Sigma Green Belt and previously worked as an improvement and operational planning practitioner for the State of Colorado.
Jenn studied spiritual and religious experience in her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and is a perpetual student of human development and personal growth.
She enjoys snowshoeing, eating, homebrewing, and drinking a good beer while reading a good book.
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