Thanks for Listening

This month we begin a series that will provide a short reflection and comment piece on each of the various subcomponents of the 3 Pillars of the GCI Coaching System.

Those who have participated in some the coaching skill development programs that GCI offers will be familiar with the 3 Pillar Model. We suggest that a platform that provides a good foundation for effective coaching needs to be built on the 3 Pillars which include:

1.A coaching conversation framework: We argue that the 8 dimensions of the GROWTH model provides such a scaffold 

2. Foundational interaction skills. Infusing the structure of the conversation that such a framework provides are the fundamental interpersonal skills of – building trust, being present, listening actively, clarifying, empathising, questioning, giving feedback and being succinct

3. Emotional Intelligence (EQ):
including the dimensions of Self Awareness, Self-Management, Relationship Awareness and Relationship Management. In total there are twenty sub components of these 3 Pillars and over time - in no particular order, and not in consecutive months - we will devote selected newsletter feature articles to exploring new insights and tips related to each component.

This month we begin with listening, a much underrated skill. It can sometimes seem like listening is a somewhat passive skill and that when we listen we are not actually doing very much. In fact, it is quite the opposite; good listening can contribute as much, if not more, to the quality of any coaching interaction than anything else we do.

Professor David Clutterbuck, in a keynote at Positive2012, suggested that there are 5 different types of listening:

  • Listening while waiting to speak
  • Listening to disagree
  • Listening to understand
  • Listening without agenda/intent
  • Listening to help the other person understand

In a coaching context it is easy to see how 1 and 2 don't belong. We can probably see the value of Levels 3 and 4 in coaching and leadership contexts but it is # 5 Listening to help the other person understand that can have the most impact in a coaching context.

It is important to note that this kind of listening is about listening to help the coachee understand their world and better navigate through it.

In some ways it does not matter too much whether I, as coach, completely understand the coachee's situation. We need to challenge that subtle assumption: we do not need to completely, deeply understand the coachee's challenge to contribute towards their movement and progress.

In fact 'listening to understand', while it is relationally positive, supportive and very 'coach like' can seduce the coach into a diagnostic mindset that says," I need to get all the facts before I can be of value as a coach." By overly focusing on 'Listening to Understand' the underlying message can potentially draw the coach into the expert position and the coachee into a more passive – 'someone will work this out for me' position.

It is more helpful that we focus as coaches on helping those we coach better understand themselves so that they can 'own the issue', develop clarity, explore options and move to action.

So if Listening to help the other person understand is an important listening focus how might we bring more of that kind of listening into our coaching conversations?

Consider the following suggestions adapted from concepts in a recently published coaching resource (Cooper & Castellino, 2012)…
  • Pay close attention: it goes without saying that a high level of focus and concentration is important for listening this way. The focus really does need to be on what the coachee is saying and how they are saying it – not the next question that the coach might be thinking about asking.
  • Use the coachee's words: In listening to help the coachee understand using the coachee's exact words helps them stay more easily in their own world. They feel heard through the repetition of their own language and clarity emerges through the different perspective of hearing their own words used by someone else. In some ways coaching is helping the coachee have a prompted, clarifying conversation with him or herself. Using the coachee's language helps begin this process.
  • Take notes: If you are paying close attention and trying to catch the coachee's words taking notes can really help this to happen more easily and more accurately.
  • Monitor the amount of eye contact: This seems to go against the commonly held view that good eye contact – at least in western cultures – is a positive relational building skill. In a coaching interaction though, while rapport is important, it helps if the coachee talks more to clarify for themselves not to explain something to the coach. Too much eye contact can draw the coachee into seeking to engage or please the coach. It is more helpful if they continue to stay in their own world exploring more thoroughly their own thinking.
  • Leverage the silences. Silence can be uncomfortable for some coaches – it is not how free flowing regular conversations work. Silence can draw the coach into comments or questions that might be helpful but can also be distractions or redirections that can interrupt the flow. Going with the discomfort of silence can often lead to harder thinking work and deeper insights.

Learning to listen well is a lifelong journey. The good news is that almost every interaction we have provides an opportunity to keep getting better at it.

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  • Cooper, L.& Castellino, M.( 2012). The Five-Minute Coach: Improve performance-rapidly. Carmarthen, Wales: Crown House Publishing.

About the author

John Campbell BADipEd, MAppSc (Comm Mgt), MAppSc (Psych Coaching) FAIM

John Campbell is Managing Director of Growth Coaching International Pty Ltd, an Australian based consulting organisation that provides coaching and coaching services to school leaders and teachers across Australia and now in the UK, the Middle East and the Asia/Pacific region.

John has been a high school teacher, a curriculum consultant and over the last decade has led leadership and coaching skill development workshops for thousands of educators across Australia and internationally. In addition to his teaching degrees he holds a masters degree in the psychology of coaching from the University of Sydney.

Connect with John: LinkedInTwitter

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