Human beings aren’t solitary creatures. We thrive on our connections with one another, and those connections are what communication’s about. It’s through communication that everything we achieve gets done, from opening a restaurant to flying to the moon to raising children. But while talk is easy, without the ability to listen keenly, communication goes nowhere.
Before coaching, if I’m honest, listening wasn’t something I was very good at. I generally had plenty to say for myself, and a belief that everyone else was bound to be interested in my wisdom. This doesn’t work when you’re coaching, however, and so I’ve had to learn some lessons about listening. But the thing that’s struck me most of all is that it’s incredible what you can hear when you really listen.
Uniquely, in Co-Active Coaching, we talk about three levels of listening. What distinguishes them is where you focus as you listen to the person you’re with. Level One listening is listening primarily to yourself, or your own thoughts or agenda. You could be focusing on any number of things. Maybe you’re thinking what to say next in the conversation, and so only half-hearing what the other person’s saying. Maybe you’re wondering what to have for lunch, or if you left the gas on. The key thing is that in Level One listening, you’re not really fully hearing the other person.
In Level Two listening you are intensely focused on what the other person is saying. Nothing’s distracting you. Thoughts about the past or the future don’t intrude. Even your own ideas don’t get in the way of you hearing the other person.
Level Three listening is also completely directed towards the other person, but it has a wider focus. You hear more than just the words they’re saying. You pick up on all sorts of other things – body language, the inflections and tone of their voice, their pauses and hesitations. It’s like you can hear sound effects in their mind – the clink of a penny dropping, the thud as they hit a wall. You can feel them straining to avoid something, or pulling towards something – and you have a sense of what that might be.
It’s in Levels Two and Three that Co-Active Coaching take place. This is where you really let yourself be on the receiving end of someone else and their agenda. Here’s a simple experiment you can do to demonstrate the difference between listening Levels One, Two and Three.
- Get together with somebody else.
- Take a moment to think of something you really love – a particular interest or hobby perhaps, or a favourite book or film.
- Take it in turns to talk about the thing you love – for, say, 2 minutes. When you’re listening, don’t ignore the person, but don’t let them hook you in either. Think about what you want to say on this subject, or let random thoughts distract you. When you’re talking – and when you’re listening too – notice what’s like.
- Do it again, but this time, when you’re listening, really focus. Be fascinated. Be alert to anything that makes you think “Wow!” or want to know more, however small or large.
- Do it a third time. When you’re listening this time, try to be aware of what this feels like to the other person. Feel their energy. Notice the glint in their eye, the animation in their body language. Open up all your senses and be receptive to what the other person’s opening up to show you.
This is an experiment you can repeat, varying and playing with it as you go. Try choosing different topics – things you hate, things of utter indifference. If you’re feeling really ambitious, try really taking on Level Three listening by doing the exercise without talking – just use grunting, body language, whatever you like as long as you don’t talk. See what you can hear then!