Coaching comprises a number of qualities and skills. To start with you need good observation skills, the ability to ask powerful questions, give constructive, yet honest, feedback, and possibly the most important skill of all, the art of listening. This post outlines what makes listening an art and how to improve your listening skills.

The Value of Listening

I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t want to feel heard and seen. Some people desire it more than others. Yet, everyone needs to feel that their existence matters. Listening is the tool that allows someone to truly feel heard and seen.

When you feel someone is truly listening to you, you experience a sense of worth and feel valued. Having someone gift you with their attention is one of the most valuable gifts available.

Attention is the currency of love. The more positive attention you put on a person or thing, the more loved people are likely to feel. Being truly present with someone and hearing what they have to say is possibly the greatest gift you can give someone.

When someone feels valued and heard, they are more likely to want to make a positive contribution towards your success. People who feel valued are also less likely to resign, which greatly benefits organizations. In fact, many people (if not most) will gladly work for less money if they feel their voice matters.

Listening simplified

The skill of listening is, however, a rather complex topic. The concept of listening, although complex, can be simplified into two core aspects. The first being attention, the second impact. Together these two form an alchemical recipe to transform any resource you touch into gold.

Listening = Attention + Impact

Attention is your choice of focus. Choosing to focus your attention on what someone is saying allows them to feel seen. It tells them they matter. That they are needed to complete a bigger picture. Attention gives you the opportunity to receive someone.

The other core aspect of listening is what we do with what we received. When there isn’t some form of evidence or behavior change to show the impact of listening, people will most likely not feel heard.

Many people are good at listening with attention, but this is only half of the recipe of the art of listening. When the outcome of listening results in positive action, it becomes an art. Without action there’s no evidence or feedback that what someone said was heard.

There are also deeper layers that turns hearing into the art of truly listening.

Levels of Listening

Like an onion consisting of layer upon layer, so too we can look at listening as a layered skill. We start with hearing the words as facts, then add depth to the message layer by layer to include more and more stimuli from the person and the environment. First we might focus only on the words, then we might add the tone to give more meaning to the message. The next layer of listening adds body language, followed perhaps by picking up slight nuances. Each new layer of listening gives us a deeper understanding of the message.

According to Kimsley-House there are three main layers of listening, each briefly described below.

Internal Listening

The first level of listening is internal listening. At this level you internalise the words you hear. While the person might be giving their full attention, they apply their personal beliefs and opinions as an overlay on the message. At this level of listening the listener will likely give you advice or opinions on how to solve your dilemma.

Focused Listening

Focused listening is the second level of listening. At this level you focus your attention on the person and what they are saying as well as their body language. This added perspective gives you more information to make sense of the message.

Listening at level two adds empathy and compassion to a conversation. In these conversations the coach will tend to ask more open questions and refrain from giving advice or sharing opinions as in level one listening.

Global Listening

Global listening, the third level of listening, brings an intangible layer to hearing. At this level of listening you take in more than just the words (what is being heard), and behaviors (body language). The person is seen as part of a bigger environment and all the different sensual stimuli are included.

You take in the words, you notice micro-expressions in the body, and you also add your intuition. At this level listening becomes an art. By identifying patterns of behavior and identifying emotions within the other person, you are able to discover underlying beliefs.

This level of listening is non-judgmental. You simply receive information and use it as clues to uncover limiting beliefs or touch on a vulnerability with the purpose of moving through the blocks. At this level of listening you don’t sympathise with the person or get drawn into the experience, you simply hold the space with compassion and drive the conversation forward towards resolve.

What Stops People From Listening

We all have the ability to listen deeply, yet few people do. What stops most people from listening are distractions and ego. It’s hard to listen to someone when you’re surrounded with all kinds of distractions around you that calls for your attention.

But even more common is the voice of your inner critic. Your ego – attempting to keep you safe, but in the process also cuts you off from others – stops you from your ability to hear someone. An ego can be seen as the inner protector that kept you safe when you were a child. From early on a child learns to behave in a certain way or find meaning in behaviors they don’t understand. This forms an overlay onto any interaction with other people later in life, ultimately stopping you from receiving someone else fully.

For more on my perspective on ego and why it is not a bad thing but rather a phase that each person should go through to appreciate its value, read my post The Ego Blindspot and How to Find Joy.

So how do you dissolve the barriers introduced by the ego?

The Art of Listening

Transforming your level of listening is a process. The first step is to develop presence, the second is to focus your attention, next you identify patterns, then repeat or refrase what was said, and finally, action.

Step 1: Presence

Although being present is one of the most natural things for us, in today’s world it is extremely hard. There are so many distractions around us that it takes mastery to be present. It takes discipline and commitment and continuous practice. For me, meditation is a practice I find extremely useful to practice presence.

To be fully present with someone is to put all your focus on the person. While they are speaking you intentionally silence the twitter in your mind, and attempt to take in as much as possible.

If you struggle with being fully present, consider switching off your phone, closing your laptop and removing any distractions around you. A notebook is also a handy tool to allow you to write down urgent to-do’s. By writing it down you give yourself permission to free it from your mind. Or make an appointment in your schedule to worry. This approach works amazingly well to silence the internal worrier.

When you are committed to presence, focus your attention on the person in front of you.  Each time you catch yourself thinking about something else, simply bring yourself back to the present and what the other person is saying.

When you’re fully present you naturally relax and this in turn relaxes the other person.  I feel drained when I have to split myself between different things screaming for my attention. When, however, I am present, I feel energized by an interaction.

Step 2: Attention

The second step is to choose what to focus your attention on. You can’t possibly take in everything that is being said and happens. Having a focal point thus greatly increases your ability to perceive more information. The coaching topic is an excellent tool to use as focus for listening.

A good coach focuses on the person and not the story. For example, the coachee might tell you about a challenging situation at work. When your attention is focused on the story, you might as more detail about the situation. You might as questions such as “What happened next?” or “What caused it to happen?”.

When, however, your attention is focused on the person, you will ask questions that elaborates the impact on the person, with no need to go into detail of the story.  Possible questions might be “How did it make you feel?” or “What did it mean to you?”.

Step 3: Patterns

The third step of learning to listen as an art is to identify patterns. Is the person saying one thing in one situation but something else in a different situation? Are what they say  congruent with what they do? Do they tend to avoid specific topics or use powerless vocabulary like “should”, “that’s the way it is…”, or “I don’t know.” regularly or in specific situations?

It is important to note that it can only be considered a pattern if it happens at least three times in different contexts. Also, it is worth considering that not all patterns are useful to explore. It is incredibly important to remove judgement and refrase what you heard to confirm your understanding, as explained in the next step.

Step 4: Repeat & Rephrase

While the previous steps mostly focused on the perception part of communication (or taking in information), the final two steps focus on the processing of the received information.

One of the fundamental tools used in NLP and other influence methods is to repeat back what someone said to confirm understanding and build rapport. In clean language (a trauma resolution technique also used in business and education) and NLP the exact words are repeated back to allow the person to feel validated. Sometimes, however, it is more useful to rephrase the message to clarify understanding or uncover a limiting belief.

Whether you repeat the exact same words or translate it to something more accurate or concise, it is extremely important to give evidence to the person in front of you that what they said was heard without judgment.

Step 5: Action

How many times have you been disappointed when someone promised you something but never followed through? Words without action is meaningless. This final step is where the true power of listening lies. During this step the message is translated into meaningful action.

The meaning will be different for different people, and typically happen in one of two ways, depending on the relationship. Either it involves asking permission to act, or clarifying action and facilitating an action plan.

In a coaching relationship the power typically lies with the coachee.  In this peer relationship, the coach is a facilitator and enabler. They will ask questions to elicit action and commitment from the coachee. The goal is to empower the coachee. Therefore, the action is initiated by and acted upon by the person being coached, not the coach.

In an employer-employee relationship, however, the power typically lies with the boss, not the employee. To empower the employee, the more powerful person might ask what they need. They might ask something like “Do you need me to do anything about this?” or they might propose something more specific, like “Do you want me to speak to John about this?” or possibly “Do you need some time off to deal with this?”.

The key is to ask permission or get consent before taking action on behalf of someone else. Give them the option to take action first, or ask before you act.

Listening as an art

Listening is one of the most valuable tools any leader has access to in order to strengthen relationships. Artful listening requires an increase in perception and then followed by action. It requires presence, focus, and non-judgment.

How deep do you listen?

With more than 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate better and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.