Last week I taught a coach training class where I demonstrated a live coaching exchange with a student who asked about the value a coach brings over other professional helpers like psychotherapists or lawyers (the student’s examples).
As coaching is a key component of my livelihood, I could have responded by offering a number of reasons why someone would engage the services of a certified coach. I didn't. I listened and stayed curious. It made all the difference.
It is a natural and an intrinsic reaction to feel the need to move into a solution-oriented or defensive mode.
Suggested reading: Embracing Conflict Management
Additionally, when someone questions something that you believe in, it can test your values and beliefs. A default reaction may be to become defensive and challenge the other person's thinking.
When you feel emotionally triggered, it can create a scenario where you stop listening to the other person. In my experience, when listening ceases, the conversation quickly devolves.
Expert listener, Julian Treasure shares in his 2011 TED Talk that we spend 60% of our time listening but retain only 25% of what we hear. He believes that we are losing our ability to listen.
Suggested Video: 5 Ways to Listen Better
So how do you keep the conversation on a positive track?
My answer: Actively Listen.
Sounds easy enough, right? Perhaps not.
3 Levels of Listening
We engage in three levels of listening:
- The “ME” level – I’m listening to get information I need (e.g., directions)
- The “WE” level – I’m listening to you, but not deeply. I’m listening while I’m formulating my response to you. In fact, I may interrupt you just to get my thought out as quickly as possible.
- The “YOU” level – I’m listening to you and bringing my full presence to what you have to communicate. I’m listening for the essence and meaning behind what you share. I stay curious, open, and engaged in your words and nonverbals.
When you feel emotionally triggered, practice active listening.
How to Practice Active Listening
Active listening involves bringing your full presence to the other person. You listen for the essence of what they say. Active listening is also known as nonverbal attending.
In conversations, 93% of what is communicated is non-verbal. As a result, we need to be mindful of body language, eye contact, and the use of silence.
In action, active listening means paying attention to your body language so that you are relaxed, but attentive.
Another tip is to maintain an appropriate level of eye contact so that you’re looking at the person speaking while not staring at them and creating an awkwardness or uncomfortable situation.
Did you know that if you rearrange the letters in the word, “LISTEN” it spells the word “SILENT”? Yes, active listening involves being aware of the use of silence.
If you need help remembering this tip, try keeping a sticky note next to your phone or laptop with the acronym “W.A.I.T.?” (Why Am I Talking?) written in big letters on it.
If you truly want to have the other person feel heard...talk less and listen more. It may sound simple but it is not always easy to execute, especially if you want to share a relatable experience, feel tired, or if you are emotionally triggered by what they’ve said.
In class and in my workshops, I ask people to partner up and provide the instruction that one person speaks for two minutes while the other person is in active listening mode only.
The feedback from my students and workshop participants is resoundingly similar:
- “It is hard not to want to respond” or
- “I wanted to share a similar experience” or
- “It felt awkward and hard not to jump in with ideas, feedback, or a solution”.
Being silent is a form of non-verbal communication that helps you develop curiosity and an open mind. These days, we can only benefit from both. Final tip here is that it feels more awkward or uncomfortable for you to remain silent than it does for the person speaking.
Quiet the Ducks
“What ducks?”, you may ask. These ducks are the inner thoughts that are quacking in your head when someone is speaking. You don’t need to be emotionally triggered to lose your ability to actively listen especially when your thoughts are quacking loudly.
When this happens and you feel distracted, tell yourself, “Shut the duck up”.
Be careful how you pronounce this phrase if you say it aloud as it could easily be misinterpreted.
In the next blog post, I’ll share more tips on active listening through the use of reflecting and asking open-ended questions.
In the meantime, if you have questions, please email me at [email protected]
Israel, T. (2020). Beyond Your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide, Skills and Strategies for Conversations that Work. American Psychological Association.