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Why listening matters and how to be a great listener

Justin Shelley Leadership & Life Coach.

In this month’s blog, I am writing about what it means to be a good listener and why it is such an important skill to develop.

Have you ever had a conversation with someone and not felt like you have been listened to at all? For most of us, when we express ourselves emotionally there is a deep desire inside that the person we are speaking to will ‘give us’ their 100% attention. They will stop talking over us, acknowledge what you have said, and just really listen, perhaps for once not giving us their advice or opinion back.

I can recall one personal experience where I had something very important that I wanted to share with someone very close to me; for this blog (and not wanting to upset her) I will call her Angela.

In this instance, there was that moment during our conversation that I began opening up to Angela. I needed her to hear me, to take what I was saying seriously. I did not need her advice or an example or her opinion. I just wanted Angela to hear me and acknowledge how I was feeling.

As Angela began giving me an example of how my story related to her, my heart sank; she was not hearing me at all and, worse still, she was not even aware that this was the case.

So what is it about being listened to that makes such a difference to us?

I believe that to truly listen to someone you must do so from the heart and not from the ego. When we do so we listen as an act of curiosity and empathy, rather than as an opportunity to give clever responses or solutions to the person speaking. 

In coaching, we call this active listening.

In active listening, we create an empathetic non-judgemental connection with the speaker by adding the simple act of acknowledging the person’s feelings without trying to solve the person’s problems. This creates a deeper connection with the person speaking, who can feel like his or her heart is being listened to.

For the most part, human beings have an innate desire to be heard, listened to and ultimately be seen and respected. If we all took the time to slow down and learn how to listen to each other, I believe the world and the people in it would become less frustrated and much less angry.

Looking back at my experience with Angela, and the many conversations I have had with my clients, it is clear that we are not taught how to listen. Most of us listen to others in a way that we have been taught by our parents and educators (who in turn were similarly taught by theirs).

On reflection, it was not Angela’s fault that she did not listen to me, she had just never been taught how to listen from the heart and she did have the awareness or skills to do otherwise.

In a world where therapy and coaching are becoming much more accepted, our culture is slowly changing, and we are learning to listen with intention.

Slowly and gradually we are also beginning to learn that it is OK to talk about our emotions openly (yes, even men). This then highlights how vital it is to be able to listen and acknowledge how the speaker is feeling and not disregard those emotions.

As coaches’, listening is at the heart of our profession. In fact, everything hinges on it. Many hours are spent during (and after) our coach training focused on how to listen actively and with intention, and these styles of listening can be broken down into three levels.

The levels:

Level 1 – Internal Listening: Where the listener’s awareness is on themselves. This is where we listen to the words being spoken, but where our attention is on what it means to us personally.

Level 2 – Focused Listening: Where there is a sharp focus on the other person, what they are saying, how they say it. There is a great deal of attention on the other person and not much attention on the outside world. This is very similar to active (or heart) listening.

Level 3 – Global Listening: Where you listen as if the speaker and listener are at the centre of the universe, receiving information from everywhere at once. Level 3 listening includes everything you can observe with your senses; what you see, hear, smell and feel. Intuition and empathy play a significant role in this type of listening.

During a typical coaching conversation, a client will listen to the coach using level 1 skills, where typically they will respond to the coach concerning how questions relate to them personally. Conversely, during the same conversation, the coach will alternate between listening with levels 2 and 3 skills, avoiding level 1 listening, and how the topic of the conversation relates to them personally.

The results of this type of conversation are profoundly different to a standard two-way conversation, as the focus and attention is 100% on the objective and the detail of the client’s story.

This style of listening can also be applied to any conversation where the listener is seeking to be heard.

What does it take to be a good listener?

People who become coaches are often gifted listeners, to begin with, but that is not always the case. The good news is that listening can be developed through training and practice, and you also do not have to train as a coach to improve your listening skills.

In this vein, here are some personal tips on how to become a better listener:

  • Be interested and curious: Many people think listening means keeping quiet until it is their turn to talk. But true listening is a selfless act. Listening means giving your thoughtful wholehearted attention to another person. This attention is non-judgmental, open-minded, respectful, and demonstrates a curiosity to learn more.

  • Hold space for the speaker: When you truly listen to someone, particularly when the subject may be sensitive, creating the right space for the speaker will make them feel safe and secure. Holding space means being physically, mentally and emotionally present for someone, and placing your focus 100% on someone to support them in the way they think and feel without judgement.

  • Listen from your heart and not your ego: Try to listen from your heart and not your head. Learning to listen from your heart space creates an empathetic connection between the listener and speaker. It also creates a much more open and objective conversation as the listener is not constantly trying to come up with a clever response.

  • Wait for organic pauses: Try not to interrupt. It is an amazing gift to provide space for someone to just let it all out. We have a natural tendency to speak as someone has finished speaking. If you are unsure if the person has finished, perhaps take a few more breaths before you begin to speak. Some people internalise and process before they speak, so learning to feel for ‘natural’ cue’s is a skill that you can develop over time. 

  • Acknowledge and empathise: Good listening is not complete silence, although, remember, you are not there to give your own story or to provide a solution or solve a problem unless specifically asked to (for example, if your colleague tells you in a loud and upset voice, “I am feeling really stressed with the amount of work I have right now, I’m not sure how I’m going to cope”).

As a good listener, you should let your colleague vent, don’t tell them to calm down and not be stressed. That will only escalate those feelings of being stressed and they will not feel heard. Instead, it would be better to empathise with your colleague and acknowledge how they are feeling. Perhaps you might respond with some of their own words, and say “Okay, you sound really upset. I’m really glad you have told me; I can only imagine what you must be feeling like right now.”

By reflecting back to the person what they said in their own words, you are acknowledging you heard them accurately. And by saying you might feel the same way, you are putting yourself in their position and empathising with them.

  • Use subtle clues to indicate listening: Just because you are not speaking when you are listening does not mean you cannot show you are listening (particularly when you are on the phone. Let the person know that you’re interested in nodding your head, murmuring “mmm hmmm,” and softly echoing a word or short phrase here and there.

  • Don’t give unasked-for advice: When someone asks you to sit down and have a conversation with them don’t be tempted to start giving advice. What most of us don’t realise is that whilst you might think you are being helpful with your great ideas and solutions, offering them before a person has expressed their feelings does not work. Think about it. Would you want to be told what to do while you’re venting?

  • Ask for what is needed: A common mistake that most listeners make is that they assume that the person speaking is looking for advice or mentoring. When the person has finished speaking, ask them what they need. You may be surprised to hear that they did not need your advice at all, and just needed to get something off their chest.

  • Switch off your mobile phone: How many times have we sat down with someone to have a conversation only to be interrupted by the constant pinging of our mobile phone? If you are planning to either speak to someone or listen intently, be respectful of each other and switch off your phones!

Just to be clear, it is not always appropriate to listen in one particular way. The beauty of learning to listen in different ways means that you are much more self-aware of how you listen, and therefore more adaptable in the way that you listen to people.

I hope the above has provided you with some insight into the different types of listening are available in coaching and your everyday life. If you have any questions or thoughts on the topic or would like to work on your listening skills, let me know, and I would be happy to help.


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