We are pleased to share an article entitled “You are such a good listener…” written by Ruth Pearce
“You are such a good listener…” That is something a coach loves to hear from a client. Coaching is mainly the art of listening. Listening leads to insights, to further questions to help the client, to clarity, and to purpose.
But when a coach is being a good listener, what is going on?
I often think of it as being the sorting hat in the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling.
A Listening Outline
One place we can turn for clues is the International Coaching Federation (ICF) Coaching Competencies. Consolidated from the previous 11 competencies to 8 in 2021, an ICF-accredited coach commits to:
Demonstrating ethical practice
This covers a multitude of considerations from confidentiality, to record keeping, to the platform we use for coaching, to the relationships we hold in and around the coaching relationship. It also relates to us knowing when coaching is OK and when something else should be explored with the client. We need to stay in our lane. For example, clients sometimes ask, “Is it therapy?” and the answer is “No” it is not therapy, we are not looking for root causes, we are looking for ways forward. But coaching often is therapeutic. Having a safe place, and an interested but dispassionate listener can be the best thing in the world.
Embodies a coaching mindset
This encompasses another host of considerations from curiosity when it serves the client, to ongoing learning and development. We want to be proficient in Social, Emotional, and Motivational Intelligence. We want to be empathetic but not too involved and interested without being vested. And more than anything we need to believe in our client. They’ve got this! For example, as a coach, it is not my job to lay out your journey. You know where you came from, you have the clearest picture of where you are going, and you know what you are willing – and not willing – to do. While I may have solutions that have worked for me or worked for other clients, they are just possible solutions in a world of many solutions.
Establishes and maintains agreements
Whatever is agreed upon at the start of the coaching relationship, the coach keeps track of. This relates to everything from contracts to penalties for late cancellation, to defining the overarching agenda and the session-by-session agenda as well as the measures of success. And although this is about maintaining the agreements, we also want to be flexible. Needs change and so do our clients as they travel their journey. For example, when a client comes for coaching around a career change, but at each session seems to want to talk about their relationship with their spouse it is the coach’s role to check in – how does this topic relate to the original, how do they feel about the original agenda item, where do they want to focus their attention?
Cultivates safety and trust
This seems like common sense, but it is not always easy to cultivate safety and trust. It takes time, and in a short coaching engagement, it may not feel like there is time. However, if the client is going to share thoughts and feelings about subjects important to them, they must feel safe in doing so. Again, we want to show empathy, but not get mired in the emotions of our clients, we want to be open to hearing about feelings – even uncomfortable ones. This may be the only place the client gets to say out loud what they are really thinking and feeling. As part of this aspect of coaching, we want to find out about the client’s context, identity, and values and not just find out but demonstrate respect for those values and identities. For example, holding the silence as a client struggles with a difficult emotion, or acknowledging that the client is finding a relationship or situation difficult to navigate.
For most clients, this is the most important aspect. We need our coach to be in the (virtual) room, fully engaged, immersed in us and our story, and yet objective enough to change the angle of our perspective. Throughout the coaching session, we want to be the center of the coach’s universe. For example, when I am coaching, it feels as though the rest of the world recedes into the background. There is just me and the client, deep in conversation.
And here we are back at being a good listener. We aren’t just listening for what is said, but what is not said. We aren’t just listening to words, but the tone, energy, and themes within and across sessions. Words that show up often and patterns of thought and behavior. For example, some of the most insightful moments for clients come when themes from two sessions are linked together. When the coach can point out that something that is coming up today has come up before. Very often the client is the last to spot a pattern of thinking or beliefs.
In some ways, this is like being the sorting hat in the Harry Potter stories by J. K. Rowland. Except that we are sorting information, themes, stories, viewpoints, emotions, worries, and opportunities. Clients will share a host of ideas and thoughts and the coach needs to contemplate which themes and sharing relate to the topic at hand. Sometimes even the awareness that there seem to be many topics of relevance, and asking the client to choose their focus helps them recognize that they want to focus their attention and take one opportunity or problem at a time. For example, at the start of the session, in setting the day’s agenda, the client may have three or four topics to explore. Job 1 is to help the client articulate the importance of each topic, understand what the benefit will be of exploring each topic, and finally prioritize the topics. Just setting the agenda is often clarifying for the client!
Facilitates Client Growth
All this culminates in the growth or change in the client. Maybe they adopt new behaviors, establish new habits, learn about new topics, and meet new people. For example, the result of coaching one of my clients was to seek and get a new job. For another, it was moving to a new location that felt more like home. For another it was signing up to study for an MBA, for another it was creating a new health regime. For yet another, it was the realization that life is pretty good as it is and that they were being hustled into choices they did not want by the well-meaning people around them.
What does all this look like inside the coach’s head?
As of now, the coaching profession is not regulated and there is a lot to be said in favor of that. At the same time, it means that anyone anywhere can call themselves a coach. And not everyone has the capacity to be the sorting hat.
The second wonder of coaching
I am always happy to hear when clients feel listened to, seen, heard, and valued. That is what coaching is all about. I am a professional and committed listener.
When I stop to consider what it takes to be an effective coach, I think the other wonder is that we can coach more than one person a day. How many people do you know that can give such undivided attention?
How many people can you listen to deeply in a day?
Knowing our limits is vital to being an effective coach. My optimum is four sessions a day. More than that I risk being too tired the next day to focus properly. Fewer than four is a missed opportunity for someone to move their goals forward or talk through something on which they want to achieve clarity and direction.
What could you get from working with a coach who can do all this and more?
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