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Exploring the Art of Active Listening

  • POSTED ON MAY 30, 2019

By Ken Goldstein, CTI Adjunct Instructor – Executive Coaching

When working to encourage someone who is already an outstanding professional do what they do better, what is most likely to get in your way?

It’s possible that the professional you’re working with is not accustomed to being on the receiving end of good coaching. Any leader who spends most of their time getting things done may have forgotten, or never have learned, how to be open to quality feedback. That may seem like the executive’s problem, but it is clearly a challenge any great coach should be excited to accept.

One of the key problems many executives face is the impossibility of getting honest, useful feedback, often until it is too late. A study from the Kellogg School of Management identified the Icarus Paradox as a particularly pernicious factor in the continuing success of accomplished CEOs.

Where top executives are often most in need of quality feedback, they are often at the disadvantage of their own nervous circles. Exaggerated levels of flattery and opinion conformity are too often the norm within organizations, leaving the already exposed leader even more exposed than necessary, too often in the spirit of being well-meaning.

Northwestern professor Ithai Stern, one of the authors of the study, writes, “My advice would be to remember that the higher you are, the more likely you are to be ingratiated, and therefore you should make sure you get advice from people who do not depend on you.”

Sounds like opportunity with huge upside for the right person ready to provide that challenge in a manner where it is unfiltered, constructive, and uncompromised. The goal is not so much self-enhancement of the individual as it is strategic enhancement of the individual’s mission, upon which so many are depending.

But what if your experience is different from that of the person you are coaching — can you still be of high value? I do this every day with world-class individuals who do things I could never do, and I promise you that you can — but you do have some immensely hard work ahead of you.

Imagine you could help anyone in the world get better at what they do in a professional context, regardless of his or her area of expertise, or your own. How are you going to get past the barrier of getting them to accept your insight?

You might think your initial goal has to be to establish rapport, and that would be a good place to start, but what does it mean? In coaching workshops, we talk less about the notion of rapport, and more about the notion of empathy.

Empathy is the basis of common understanding, an appreciation of shared aspirations and motivating factors, an interlinking of common goals outside the specifics of a work-oriented task. The outreach that constitutes the task of discovering empathy leads to the bond of trust that is essential in any coaching relationship. Find empathy, establish trust, and the process of being open to outside support is not nearly as hard as it seems.

Is it any wonder that this kind of trust is difficult for an executive to exhibit in the hyper competitive workplace? Anyone in a position of leadership is constantly faced with endless conflicts of interest, mixed messages, hidden agendas, and far too much flattery.

When a coach can break through all that noise through the powerful act of focused listening, the next person likely to listen might be the executive. That could constitute an unequaled breakthrough, and the beginning of a powerful business friendship.

For more executive coaching tools and some powerful coaching demonstrations, register for free access to our Co-Active Coaching Toolkit.

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CTI Guest Author

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