Speak less, listen more

Two of my favorite things learned during coach training were that I sucked at listening and that I was capable of change. Before this, I considered myself to be a good listener. Then again, I also considered myself to be a go-with-the-flow, non-anxious person and I now know I was so wrong about that (my daughters are, no doubt, trying to control their laughter as they read this). Coming to terms with your lack of self awareness when you had always thought self awareness was your superpower is a serious blow but not a fatal one. We can grow and change and improve if it’s important enough to us.

Listening to Hear

Once listening was on my radar from a coaching perspective, I committed to changing on a much grander scale. I began to realize how often thoughts crept into my mind while someone was speaking to me, how often a thought occurred to me and I blurted it out, interrupting the speaker (because I was afraid I’d forget the thought if I didn’t share it in the moment or I was just excited about what I thought the other person was about to say), how often I was crafting my response well before it was my turn to speak. I know I’m not the only culprit.

Two of the skills we learn and practice in coach training are presencing and other-focused listening.  Presencing means putting aside distractions to stay focused throughout the coaching session. It means being in the moment with clients in order to truly hear their words, and to ask questions in order to understand the emotional meaning and energy behind their words. When coaches are present, they listen and inquire. Other-focused listening is about consciously putting aside the personal beliefs and past experiences through which we often filter conversations with others. Providing a judgment and assumption-free space makes more candid and interesting conversation and connection possible. 

When we’re “listening” to others, many of us are not actually listening to hear. We start formulating a response rather than focusing entirely on what’s being said. This is especially common in a conversation between two people who think they know each other. One person often anticipates what the other person is going to think, do or say. The thinking is along the lines of, “I know where you’re going with this. Let me respond.” This sense of “already knowing” can get in the way of truly hearing what’s actually said. And maybe what we think we “already know” is actually wrong. Splitting focus to hear just enough of what someone is saying while we formulate a response can be hard work. It’s also disrespectful and sometimes leads the “listener” to unilaterally take the conversation in a direction not intended or agreed to by the speaker. 

Mindful Listening

Coaches use mindful awareness in order to be fully present for the client. Mindful awareness in this sense means paying attention on purpose, without judgment, and inhabiting the present moment with curiosity, an open heart and an open mind. A mindfully aware coach is able to notice when thoughts outside the coaching session and client creep in so she’s able to dismiss them. Presencing and other-focused listening help clients feel fully understood and supported. It also feels good to know the person we’re speaking to is listening to and hearing what we’re saying.

These skills are crying out to be transferred to everyday conversations by all of us. Isn’t it time we heard them? If we can be present enough to bring ourselves back to listening when our minds wander and stop speaking long enough to hear someone else, we just might interact differently. By differently, I mean better. By applying presencing and other-focused listening to all of our conversations, we might end up having more meaningful conversations. We can give someone else the space to say what’s on their mind and give ourselves the space to exercise curiosity. It’s a win-win. If you don’t like the conversation, you can always end it. But if you choose to stay, then stay present. Can you hear me now?

Something to think about: “We have two ears and one mouth and we should use them proportionally.” – Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

Something to try: Spend a day with listening on your radar. Enter each conversation that day with a commitment to practice presencing and other-focused listening whenever someone else is speaking. Stay present, bring your mind back if it wanders, avoid judgment and assumptions, don’t plan a response. Just listen wholly and then reply. How does it feel? Is it hard to stop yourself from interrupting?

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