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Coaching Fundamentals Part One: Listening

Are you a good listener? Do you get constant feedback how you always offer a sympathetic ear and a compassionate presence? Do your friends and acquaintances come to you with their problems and moans, safe in the knowledge that they will get a warm welcome, good hearing and no challenge?

If so, you are probably not ready to be a coach.

If you equate listening with being silent, not disrupting the status quo, not interrupting another person’s monologue, not challenging their view of the world… you’re not ready to be a coach.

If you always agree, accept what you’re being told unquestioningly, unfailingly, unequivocally… you’re not ready to be a coach.

If you present yourself as a blank slate to be filled with someone else’s thoughts, ideas, and opinions… you’re not ready to be a coach.

What is a coach then if not a good listener? Or – to put it more precisely – what kind of listening is useful in coaching? And how does it differ to what is colloquially described as “being a good listener”?

Listening in coaching is a powerful, dynamic and difficult act. It goes beyond being merely silent, and not interrupting with one’s own ideas, suggestions and advice. It goes way beyond “being a mirror” – a cold, hard, unfeeling, unblinking surface that supposedly captures the reality of someone else’s worldview.

It is powerful because, when done properly, it is the biggest gift we can give to another person: a gift of our full presence and attention of mind, body and spirit. It is dynamic because it does not rest in silence, acceptance and unconditional positive regard; rather, it starts there, but then it goes beyond into a dance, a dialogue, a co-creation of new insights, new thoughts, new worldviews. It is difficult because it takes practice – years of attentive painful mistake-laden practice – to find the place where we are fully present but not interfering.

How do we find that place? A good start would be to acknowledge that we are all occasionally a bit rubbish at listening; that our minds wander to our own more interesting ideas; that we make judgements about the other person, what they should or shouldn’t do, should or shouldn’t think or feel. That we even occasionally just want to shake them up and say: no, look at it this way, and all will be well!

It is in those moments that we have truly engaged our most potent listening capacities, because we have started to listen to ourselves fully, and pay attention to where our thoughts intervene. And it is only by listening to ourselves – and I define listening here as “being fully engaged and aware” – that we can offer the same courtesy to others. That we can understand where they end and we begin, and what happens in that space in between, where neither one of us have tread yet, the space of connection, possibility and innovation.

When this feels like a difficult but ultimately rewarding place to be, then you’re ready to be a coach.

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