Active listening is as much about silence as anything else. Silence is golden. That includes in your role as leader coach.
Silence allows the thinker to think. So, get comfortable with silence.
And when the thinker does speak, pay attention. Notice what they are saying, but also how they are saying it, and what their body language is doing that mis-aligns with the words.
The aim is for the thinker to feel fully heard, in a way that they may never have been heard before. Deeply.
How do they know they have been deeply heard? It’s more about your presence than anything else. Are you giving them your full attention?
Yes you can nod, yes you can “aha” or “mmm” to show you are listening, but those can get in the way if they are over-used. The continuous nod can be interpreted as an agreement with everything they are saying. That’s collusion and doesn’t help them to question their own assumptions. The non-word “ahas” and “mmms” get in the way of the silence and may stop them in their thinking tracks.
It can help the thinker if you summarise what you have heard (using their words) or paraphrase (using your words or using a metaphor that springs to mind). Those reflections back can help the thinker to hear what they said, which they may not have heard when they said it themselves. It helps they to go on to clarify their thinking. But again, don’t over-use this. Less is more. Sometimes, repeating back one word can keep them in flow, moving on to their next thought about the subject.
As you practice active listening, you’ll also know what the next question might be that will help them to move forward with their thinking. You are listening for their headlines – what seems to be rising to the surface as important for them – and the assumptions they may be making. Your job is to raise their awareness of these headlines and assumptions so that they can work with and through those.
But you can listen too hard to the detail, to the content. Instead, listen to their agenda. Where do they want to go with their thinking? What will help them to move forward in a way that resources them?
Listen also to your intuition. What is your gut telling you? You can offer this, without attachment of being right, as something for the thinker to consider. For example, “May I offer something that is going on for me…my chest is feeling really tight. I’m wondering whether that might offer you any fresh thinking?” Or “As you speak, I’m getting a picture of a hot air balloon. Does that shed any light on the issue for you?”
The best advice I can give you around active listening though is to create more space through silence. Silence leads to more thinking on their part. As Peter Hawkins says, “Use silence, unless a question is necessary”.
Less is more.
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