By Julius Ordoñez, MCC, ACTC
*As published in the ICF Global Magazine “Coaching World” in July 2023
When we think of great communicators, we usually think of those who speak very well, have an impressive command of the language, and write eloquently. I found from my long years of teaching, coaching and mentoring leaders and coaches, however, that the most effective communicators are actually the best listeners. Listening is an essential skill and a fundamental aspect of communication, and effective listening can significantly improve the quality of our relationships, both personally and professionally. Unfortunately, listening is the most forgotten skill in today’s society – it is often undervalued and underutilized despite being so important.
As coaches, probably the most difficult part of what we do, and definitely the toughest habit to shake off when we begin our training, is to just listen to our clients and refrain from providing solutions. It is difficult to shift from being the source of knowledge and solver of problems to being fully present and engaged in the moment with our coachees, understanding that they are creative, resourceful and whole on their own. It takes effort and discipline to shut off our ego and focus fully on the coachee, allowing them to take the reins of their own development and thinking process, even when the “answer” is already staring them in the face.
To listen more effectively, we need to cultivate our coaching presence. It involves creating a safe and supportive environment where the client feels heard, seen and understood, and the coach is fully attentive to the client’s needs, goals, beliefs and emotions. This requires a mindset change from being task-focused (which we have learned from work) to being person-focused, and also requires a non-judgmental attitude, emotional awareness, enough flexibility to shift the coaching approach to meet the unique needs of each client, and empathy and compassion as the client undergoes different challenges throughout the course of the coaching engagement.
Here are some tips for developing your coaching presence so you can listen more effectively:
- Always remind yourself that coaching is about the coachee/client. Do not make the session about you or your opinions, and instead focus on the client’s needs and goals. The sincere desire to help the client naturally makes you interested in finding out what their aspirations and goals are, as well as how they see themselves and the world around them. This leads to authentic presence and listening. Genuine concern for the well-being of a person means you are willing to sit with them where they are, just be in the moment and trust that they can determine the answers and arrive at the solutions themselves.
- Be comfortable with silence. When your coachee is silent, it usually means that they are thinking or reflecting, and what usually comes out of it is a realization or a mind shift. You do not need to fill up this space with words just because you are not comfortable with silence or you want to feel like you are leading them somewhere. When you do, you interrupt their thought process and take away the opportunity for them to reach an “Aha” moment. While in silence, stay fully connected with your coachee and avoid tuning out. Your presence and silence will give them the safe space and time to think and introspect, without feeling pressured to provide an answer right away. Patiently wait for them as they sort things out in their mind as this might lead to a breakthrough for them.
- Stop analyzing and overthinking. Overthinking and analyzing the client’s situation takes away your presence, because you are no longer listening to the client but to your own thoughts, to yourself. And when you thinking of a solution, you are more likely interrupt because you want to share what you have in mind. Make a conscious effort to listen to your client without interrupting. Open all your senses to receive the person so you see, hear, feel, sense, and understand what they are saying and not saying. You can then notice emotional shifts through changes in their tone of voice or facial expressions. With deep listening, you get to understand their thought patterns, aspirations, beliefs, values, assumptions and fears. All of this can only be done when you are truly present and “in the zone” with them, NOT thinking and trying to figure out the solution to their concern.
- Be aware of your own biases: Recognize that you may have your own biases and opinions that could influence your coaching. These could be based on your own upbringing, religious or political beliefs, educational background, exposure or experience to certain concepts, and various other factors. When you have biases and judgements, your listening becomes selective and even your questions become suggestive and leading. For example, you are coaching someone who works long hours and you are biased against it. You may conclude your client does not have work-life balance and lead the conversation towards the topic, asking questions like “Do you feel you have work-life balance?”, or “Are you taking a vacation once in a while?”, when it may have nothing to do with the client’s concern. Once you catch yourself having biased opinions and resisting what your coachee is telling you, stop and remind yourself that it is not your responsibility as a coach to impose your values nor influence how they should live their lives. Focus instead on the client’s desires, goals, needs, wants, and what they want to resolve within themselves.
- Clear yourself before any coaching conversation. How can you help your client achieve clarity when you yourself are distracted? You need to prepare yourself emotionally and mentally by letting go of your distractions before engaging in a coaching session. Condition yourself to be in your best emotional and mental state before you coach so you can be fully present. You can do this by practicing some clearing techniques like deep breathing, grounding/centering, talking to someone, taking a walk, stretching or doing any activity that can help you release whatever baggage is pressing on your mind. And if you feel like you can’t be in your element, it is better to postpone your coaching session because proceeding with it would be a disservice to your client.
While these techniques work, ultimately, the desire to develop your coaching presence so you can listen effectively is driven by your love and genuine concern for the client, knowing that this is the best way for them to grow. So, love them and be truly interested in and committed to helping them.