I'm a great listener...aren't I?
Updated: Apr 27
Deciding what to write as my first post was hard – I have so many thoughts and ideas about things I know I need to write out and reflect upon, but I also want to set this blog up on a firm foundation, something that will ground me and my thinking every time I come to write. So it made sense to start at a skill – and for some it is a way of being - that is so crucial to being a good coach: listening.
Now when I started as a coach I thought this was something I had down, and I felt I had plenty of evidence to back this confidence up. People regularly sought me out to think out loud, and told me explicitly that they found talking to me helpful. They left our conversations happy, and being helpful made me feel great. Then shortly after I became a coach, things started to change. I realised that when I had my coach hat on, my conversations with people didn’t end with that zing of satisfaction, and my confidence started to wane. I also attended Cognitive Coaching training and discovered that the #listening I had been doing all these years wasn’t about others, it was about me. Whilst the realisation was slightly horrifying and I was keen to flip this the right way up, changing my habits was another thing entirely. I still slip up, but these are the mantras I keep when I feel my footing come loose.
Listening is not about me developing a connection with the coachee.
Say what? Truth be told we are hard-wired to find connections with others, and we do this by seeking out the similarities between us. When a colleague tells me about a tough lesson where little Sarah elbowed their plans out of the room with her behaviour, I might find myself sifting through my mental rolodex of classroom experiences, pulling a card out to show I have shared a similar experience (“I know how that feels! I once had this kid do the same thing.”). I might even try to put a silver lining on things, finding a card that one-ups their experience (“Well, they could have thrown a chair out of the window: I had that happen once and it ended up in an all-out riot!”). Whilst my intentions might be honourable, each scenario turns the moment from being about the colleague to being about me.
Acknowledging the feelings being shared is a simple and caring way to show I am truly hearing what I am being told, deterring me from hijacking the direction of the conversation with my own experiences.
Listening is easily derailed by my desire to offer solutions.
I will harp on about this another time, but schools are inherently solutions-based environments (despite the obvious philosophical conflict), and as a society we value people who are quick to come up with new ideas or ways to move things along (and sometimes fix things). We only have to look to job descriptions to find terms like ‘solutions-oriented’, or sit in meetings where an idea is offered and accepted with relief so we can ‘move on’ to see this value in action. Solutions, when accepted, make us feel good because we are acknowledged as being right (and maybe because we helped, too). And then we look smarter. You see where I’m going. This is still all about me.
Avoid offering advice, unless invited to do so and I think the coachee doesn’t have the resources to pull from to work it out for themselves. Remember those frustratingly quick conversations with a distracted friend (partner (!) or colleague) where they offer a solution and I just needed a place to think out loud? Honour the coachee’s experiences and thinking by keeping my desire to solve their situation in-check.
Listening means me waiting, and then waiting some more.
Silence is hard. Silence is almost always excruciating for me. And yet without it, how can I be sure that people have really finished sharing? Resisting the urge to fill the silence, or an even more cringe-worthy habit I have had to try and bust, talking together with someone (which sounds a lot like talking over someone) takes a huge amount of willpower, and while I’m making fun out of it here, is mostly about connecting with people and running with them on their thinking. Thing is, again, it is all about me.
Allow that silence to happen, and then wait for a breath. It’s amazing how often someone isn’t finished and continues talking, allowing me to get to the heart of a conversation quickly and respectfully.
Listening is a gift and I should give it often.
The qualities of the best gifts are just like those of listening in coaching. They reflect an investment of time, where the wants and needs of the Receiver are put before the Giver and done so without judgement; they demonstrate care and appreciation, and most importantly they leave the Receiver feeling valued, which we all know makes people feel more capable of doing the things they find hard.
Isn’t that what I want out of the coaching relationship?
And there is that cherry sitting proudly atop this ‘gift’ analogy: giving makes the Giver feel good, too.
These are just my ‘notes to self’…Feel free to share your listening mantras here, too!