I’ve never been listened to like that before

When we’ve been in a powerful coaching session, as either coach or coachee, we recognise that the conversation worked in a particular way – it was conducive to deep reflection and creative thinking. People often come away from such a conversation very much aware of how it was different to other conversations. Frequently we hear something like “I’ve never been listened to like that before”. What is happening in a coaching conversation that leads people to come away with this feeling?

In this article, Margaret Barr, GCI Lead Associate Scotland, looks closely at the power of listening to generate new thinking within the coaching conversation…

If I am your coach, my role is to help you think. I need to create the optimal conditions that support your thinking. I need to be a really good listener – not only paraphrasing and summarising, but also at a deeper level of listening, with the connection between us freeing up your thinking, so that you can generate ideas, identify solutions and decide what to do.

Various authors have described that deeper level of listening; for example Hawkins and Smith (2006: 214) describe ‘generative empathic listening’, as the ability to play back the thoughts and feelings that are on the periphery of your awareness. The experience of the coachee can then be significantly enhanced. This level of listening aligns with the concept of ‘Attention’, one of the ‘Ten Components of a Thinking Environment’ described by Nancy Kline (1999: 36), who observes that if a speaker knows they have the listener’s undivided attention and will not be interrupted, they can do their finest thinking. A fascinating 10-minute read is Linda Aspey’s (2011) article on neuro-leadership, describing how new pathways in our thinking can be generated by skilled listening and components of the Thinking Environment such as Attention, Equality and Appreciation.

What can we do, and how can we be, to help our clients, coachees or colleagues experience such powerful listening? How can we hold the space within that micro-environment between speaker and listener where the best thinking will happen, and the other person gains insights and clarity about the actions they will take now? I’d like to offer some suggestions – practical things first…

  • Building a trusting and safe relationship. How can we create safety and ‘a bubble of trust’*? In fact, how can we demonstrate that we can be trusted, especially if coaching someone new? ‘Contracting’ together gives us a shared understanding and agreement about how we will work together. For example, we can clarify confidentiality issues, the level of challenge, whether information will be shared, and whether the conversation is a facilitative coach-like conversation or a two-way dialogue, and so on. Even if the two people already have a trusting relationship, this initial contracting conversation is valuable.
  • Creating Ease (another of the Ten Components) gives a freedom from any sense of urgency that could limit clear thinking. We can create ease through our body language, calm and warm demeanour, genuine fascination about what the speaker is saying, and non-judgemental stance.
  • Ensuring the speaker knows we will not interrupt. The shared understanding that there won’t be an interruption allows better listening and better thinking. However, nonverbal feedback (nodding, smiling) is helpful to encourage the speaker. If our conversation is dialogic rather than facilitative, we will respectfully take turns to speak, knowing that we will not be interrupted.
  • Embracing silence as a welcome side-effect of giving the speaker thinking time. Silence is not a ‘tool’ or a specific intervention – it is a by-product of us giving the speaker our easeful attention and interest while they are doing the thinking work. We can cover this in the contracting discussion. If the listener can see that the speaker is clearly thinking about what they are about to say next, the listener will not interrupt that silent thinking, any more than they would interrupt speaking. However, occasionally the speaker is really ‘stuck’, which leads to the next suggestion.
  • Considering our questions, and whether to offer information or a suggestion. We consider carefully how (and whether) to ask questions. First, we mentally check that asking the question would be more helpful to the speaker than not asking it. If we are confident that the question would be helpful, we ask it succinctly and incisively. Then we ‘get out of the way’, continuing to give our attention unobtrusively while the speaker does the work. We use similar professional judgement before offering information (which we believe the speaker might need to know, or to help them become ‘unstuck’), or before offering a suggestion, even tentatively. Our professional judgement is our guide – are we confident that offering the information or suggestion would be more helpful to the speaker than not offering it? If so – we offer it.

What else?

  • Equality. The speaker and listener are equal, and they can co-create the conditions that lead to powerful listening, thinking and subsequent action.
  • It’s not about me – it’s all about you. Listening and giving attention in this way is a privilege, with learning for both speaker and listener. As the listener, our intention is not to manipulate the speaker, but to be of service. Sometimes we need to be comfortable with not knowing or understanding what the speaker is thinking, as they try to articulate the narrative going on in their head - we don’t need to interrupt with a question for our own benefit. While respectful curiosity is helpful, our questions should aim to help the speaker’s understanding. This does not mean that we collude, or affirm unethical behaviour – we can still challenge, as discussed during our contracting. And we can still ‘notice’ when we believe it will be helpful.
  • Teams and organisations. This deep level of listening can be experienced in team meetings (Kline, 1999: 100) as well as one-to-one. For example, facilitating a team meeting with a combination of Thinking Environment principles and GROWTH or other coaching conversational framework gives everyone the opportunity to be listened to, and to contribute to a shared solution.
  • Coaching way of being. The behaviours and principles proposed above harmonise with the ‘coaching way of being’ described by Christian van Nieuwerburgh (2017), the elements being humility, confidence, belief in others, respect, integrity, empathy and intercultural sensitivity.

One last thing to share:

This short video by Otto Scharmer about generative listening includes an example of what he calls ‘leading by listening’. The conductor Zubin Mehta’s deep listening to the tenor Placido Domingo, is a conduit to the orchestra, generating a synergy of performance. If you have only a minute to spare, start watching at 3:52. Wow.

And finally, two invitations:

  • What is your response to the above suggestions? What would you add or change?
  • Please consider an upcoming professional conversation. What can you do (both in advance and in the moment) to create a micro-environment between you and the other person, where your presence, your attention and your listening have a tangible impact on their thinking? The aim is that their experience of ‘never been listened to like that before’ generates new thinking that gives them insights, clarity, and intrinsic motivation about their next steps.


* Thank you to my GCI colleague Anne Gibb for the descriptive term ‘bubble of trust’.