Communication skills within coaching conversations: Are we listening effectively?

Recently, I have been delivering some training with coaching and Advanced Practitioner groups in different colleges and the topic of listening skills has provoked some interesting discussion. We have been talking about the need for high quality, active listening skills within a coaching conversation and feeling our way to what this really means. Here are some of the areas we have touched on.

It can be challenging to listen effectively

We are aware of the issues of having our own mental chatter going on during a coaching session, our own views of what the best course of action might be for the coachee and our own pet methods. The coaches I have met are aware that this can mean that we steer the conversation along our own path and add suggestions when the coachee really needs space to think it through for himself/herself. It can be hard to switch off or dial down the advising side of ourselves, especially when we feel a desire to help the coachee within a time-constrained process. Sometimes we do not listen with the depth and focus and respect for the individual that would enable us to follow the coachee’s train of thought more authentically.

If we are rushing from one thing to another in our working day and dash into coaching with our minds hectic and fast-paced, we sometimes do not create the reflective space in which useful, deeper thoughts can surface. I think one of our roles as the coach is to help create a space in which the teacher can think resourcefully and with insight. Our questions and rapport can support this process, but our listening skills are important here too. We need to be calm and focused enough to listen hard and notice details and I find this is about personal state management and preparation.

Some of our own listening habits could be unhelpful in coaching conversations

Some people are more concise in communication style; some people need to go around a topic to find the nugget in the middle. As coaches we need to be aware of how we react to these different styles and how that affects the quality of our listening.
We discussed the issue of sometimes feeling impatient when someone is perceived to be ‘rambling on a bit’ and the dangers in interrupting them, breaking their flow of thought and possibly the rapport between you. It was noted that sometimes, this circuitous thinking aloud can yield a very insightful final point or action. We need to manage ourselves and our listening skills during dialogues with any coachee, I think. As a coaching conversation is about facilitating deep reflection and precise action planning, we need to harness and calibrate our listening skills to that end. It isn’t just the everyday kind of listening you do in a social context – it has a specific purpose.

There is also something about listening for content versus listening and watching for emotions, energy and values. I think coaching requires us to venture into both areas, without stepping over into counselling/therapy style dialogue for which we are not equipped or qualified. In colleges, coaches are sometimes faced with teachers who are angry, resentful, demotivated, deflated or demoralised after a poor observation report or being ‘sent to coaching’ as part of a performance management process. We need sensitivity, empathy and care in how we work with these teachers to find a point of contact and connection. Listening and observing carefully and respectfully without inflaming the situation further is an important skill, so teachers can feel heard and begin to make a relationship with the coach. In my experience you may need to listen well for several meetings before starting meaty work to tackle classroom practice, as coachees need to be open to that process for it to have genuine effect.

Body language, volume of speech and energy can sometimes leak a very different attitude to the words that someone speaks so we need to both listen and observe, in order to decide on the most useful next question in the conversation. So listening and other communication skills need to combine well for effective coaching interactions, I feel.

How can coaches listen well?

Some useful personal techniques came out of my recent conversations with coaching groups, so here they are:

1. Get back on track with the coachee before the session: read your notes; think about where you left things with the coachee; plan a few questions or pick out a coaching tool you might use. This preparation puts you in a more coachee-focused mindset before you start.

2. Between coaching sessions, email a few reflection questions to your coachee with an invitation to bring thoughts to the next meeting. This helps the session begin from their point of view and reduces the likelihood of the coach becoming over ‘helpful’ with too many suggestions. It helps put the ownership with the coachee.

3. Try to manage your time and your own mental state so that you go into the coaching session calm and attentive. If a bit of deep breathing or meditation works for you, go for it! Consciously dial down your mental chatter so you can concentrate on the conversation in hand.Getting into the coaching room before the coachee can also help you get focused and ready to listen quietly.

4. Be aware of the need to monitor and also develop your listening skills as a coach. This may be through a reflective log, a peer observation by another coach or using a video camera to watch back a coaching conversation with a coachee.

5. Be brave and ask a coachee or a peer coach to give you feedback on what your listening skills are like! Then pick up one or two key areas to work on gradually. Start to develop a feel for how you might listen differently in a range of situations, with differing effects.

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