One of my clients, who was nearing the end of her work with me, kindly shared how valuable coaching had been to her. “I’ve never been seen and heard and understood like this in my life.” And while I would love to sit here and say, see- that’s the magic of coaching with Ashley! What I said in response, after thanking her, is that how I show up as a coach, in particular the way I listen, is a skill. It’s a skill I tapped into decades ago, that I’ve continued to develop and refine. And the beautiful thing about a skill is that it can be learned. Whether it’s my client, you, or someone else, everyone can develop the skill of listening and give the people they lead and interact with daily the gift of being seen, heard, and understood.
Listening as a Skill
Early on, I don’t think I would have listed listening as one of my skills, or a skill at all. And when you think about the act of listening it’s easy to see why. Barring any impairments, we’re all born with the ability to hear. But hearing and listening aren’t the same. We typically aren’t taught how to listen well when we’re young. There weren’t classes being offered on how to listen, at least there weren’t in my school. Because we have the ability to hear, it’s assumed that we know how to listen. But like all skills, if you want to do this one well you have to invest time and energy to understanding and practicing.
Problem Solving is Not Listening
All too often, when someone shares something with us, we feel compelled to react, problem solve, compare, or make better. We all do this, so please refrain from going down the, “I’m a terrible person” shame hole. While we generally do these things with good intent, the impact is disconnection or minimization. In fact, psychologist Leon Seltzer says, “Not feeling that others really know us can leave us feeling hopelessly estranged from the rest of humanity.”
When I say, “I had a conversation at work that went sideways and I feel terrible about it.” And you say, “I’m sure it couldn’t have been that bad!” Or, “Why don’t you just make amends tomorrow?” I immediately feel as though you’re trying to sweep my feelings up and move on. It feels like what I’m experiencing isn’t important to you. Not to be harsh but, if I wanted some solutions I would have added, “What do you think I should do?” And we do this all day long. I’m keenly aware of this tendency and still, I find myself jumping to a solution or painting a silver lining. It’s not enough to “get it”. Doing something different requires intentionality and action.
Listening and Empathy
Everywhere you look people are touting the importance of empathy in leadership. It’s really, really crucial. Empathy has the power to create belonging, connection, understanding, and humanity. In fact, according to Dr. Ronald Siegal, PsyD, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, “Empathy helps us understand other people, so we feel more connected and able to help one another through difficult times.” Empathy is also a skill. And, according to researcher Theresa Wiseman, listening is an integral component. Listening is the gateway to being able to practice real empathy.
How to Listen
Becoming better at listening isn’t something you work on for a week and can consider done. It’s a lifelong practice, partly because of those innate instincts to want to fix, make better, and draw comparisons. There are, however, a few practices that really support this lifelong learning:
Recognize your tendencies– Start to pay attention to how you react when someone is sharing with you. Don’t shame yourself about it—we all have these tendencies. Noticing is the first step to doing something different.
Embrace the discomfort– There’s probably going to be a voice in your head that says, “if I’m not coming up with solutions, what am I doing?!?!” Acknowledge the voice and kindly set it aside. You are listening. It will feel different. Different usually means uncomfortable and uncomfortable doesn’t necessarily mean wrong.
Clear distractions– This seems like an obvious but I can’t tell you how many times people think they can listen and check email, respond to a text, and tend to a screaming toddler. Forget what you keep telling yourself—you can’t multitask. Multitasking is just doing several things poorly. If you want to be a good listener, quiet the distractions or return to the conversation when you can be more focused.
Listen to everything– When people share with us, their words are only part of the story. Start taking in not just the words but their tone of voice, facial expressions, body movements, pauses, laughter. It all contributes to what the person is experiencing and, when you start to hear through all of those channels, you start to see and understand more of who the person is.
Activate your inner toddler– If you’ve spent time around young children you know the continuous asking of broad, open-ended questions. The beauty in that curiosity is that it’s free of any agenda. The child isn’t asking to lead you to a certain solution. They are simply curious because they find the topic is to be genuinely intriguing. Do that with people and you will be demonstrating the same—a genuine interest and intrigue in who they are and what’s important to them.
Most of all…Enjoy Yourself
Remember, listening is about creating connection, belonging, understanding. It is the root of all deep, meaningful relationships. Think of someone you adore and feel genuinely connected with. I’m guessing there have been exchanges of real listening that have contributed to those feelings. Our relationships are our life force. They are essential to our humanity. As you are practicing your listening remember that it’s all in service of that!