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Listening skills

Coaching is all about being real, real to oneself and to the client at the same time. It’s about this authentic relationship, neutral and non-judgmental communication process. It starts at the very essence of the coach emptying himself from himself.

“Everything in coaching hinges on listening – … Listening, then, is the gateway through which all the coaching passes.” Listening is an art; it’s not about letting sounds pass passively thru the ears. Instead, it’s an alive process between the coach and his client where the former actively listens at Level II, focused listening (listen to hear), noticing all the information being conveyed together with being aware of the coachee’s reaction to his response. Oftentimes, the coach can switch to listening at Level III, global listening (listen to understand), as he opens door to intuition, noticing not only the words but feeling emotions and sensing signals as well, in the context of the coachee’s entire surroundings.

A good listener listens between the lines, sparing their thinking, being attentive to what is being said, and being totally aware of the non-verbal implications as well. As Jalal El Din El Rumi said: “there’s a voice that doesn’t use words, listen”.

We as coaches, should take our listening skills to the next level. It is very essential that we give our full attention to the situation in hand, be ready to empty ourselves and be totally in the “here and now” in order to perceive things exactly the way they are. It’s like sitting next to our coachee and seeing the world thru their eyes, actively participating, with openness and a relaxed state of mind, flexible and alert to any changes to their state. This is practically how we become non-judgmental, and this is where a coaching session would be framed as successful.

“Non-judgmental listening means listening to understand. It involves putting your own views and values to one side and being careful not to criticize or judge the person who you are listening to. It means accepting them as a person and accepting the things that they are struggling with.”

Being non-judgmental is one of the four pillars of coaching. In order to be a non-judgmental and an effective listener, a coach should not only use their ears but their eyes as well. The coach is then responsible for creating this healthy environment, and only then, the client would be able (if willing) to open up and share more, be more at ease, and freely express their thoughts, ideas and emotions.

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If we, as coaches, are in this equation to help others, empower them to believe in themselves, help them look forward to change and facilitate their growth and self-awareness, then our core coaching practice should be free from our own life experiences, beliefs, values and consequently free from any opinion about the coachee in question.

Coaching is about raising awareness, enabling the client to bring out the best in themselves, which is the driving key to growth, success, happiness and fulfillment. It’s never about evaluating the coachee, or comparing their values, beliefs or perceptions to ours. It is about them first and foremost, never about us. Hence, remaining neutral in a coaching session is pure self-management. It is the ability to be completely aware of the person in front of us, fully accepting them as a whole, with all the baggage they are dragging along, from their past and present experiences. Oftentimes, their values and beliefs differ from our own or from what is considered socially acceptable or even virtuous, nonetheless, we should strive to remain unbiased and non-judgmental. Our empathy is the first thing we absolutely need to offer them, and only then may they open the door for us.

As humans, our brain is constantly and automatically geared towards judging our surroundings, other individuals and things around us, labeling them as good or bad, right or wrong, important or not, valid or invalid, useful or not, and so on and so forth… judgment is so deeply ingrained in our subconscious.

A coach is requested at all times to bring non-judgmental awareness to the coaching session; the more aware and mindful we are of jumping into conclusions and thus judging, the easier it becomes to avoid falling into that trap.

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Non-judgmental communication means avoiding any form of blame or criticism, steering away from presumption and any form of auditory or visual impressions about how they sound and look, how they talk, how they are dressed, etc… Judgmental approach is harmful, it puts the client on edge, in a defensive mode and makes them close up on further talks as they may feel misunderstood. It blocks their way forward, impede their personal development, and discourage them from improving and taking initiative. Consequently, this will surely sabotage the continuity of a good and productive relationship, and may at some point bring it to an end.

As communication is roughly 7% spoken words, 38% pitch and tone of voice, and 55% body language (Mehrabian & Weiner, 1967), non-verbal cues alone, can convey a judgmental attitude. Listening to our clients with indifference, arms crossed and eyes glancing around, is sure to make them feel as though we’re being judgmental. Tone of voice as well can imply judgment. The same words with a different tone of voice can be understood differently.

“Leo Babauta, creator of Zen Habits, has identified a non-judgmental communication method he’s dubbed DUAL. Here are the four steps:

1. Don’t Pass Judgment – The first step involves analyzing your own thought process and becoming more self-aware. Over the span of a few days, make a note of any time you make an unwarranted judgment and what triggered it. This will help you recognize when it’s happening and correct the judgmental thinking.

2. Understand – Go into empathy mode, and try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Ask questions and get more of a backstory so you can fully understand their thinking and actions.

3. Accept – This can be challenging, but it’s important to accept that others have a different way of thinking, usually because they’ve had different life experiences. Their values are not your values, and that’s okay.

4. Love–Once you’re able to accept the reality that everyone else is coming from a different perspective than you, try to embrace that notion. Focus on the value that comes from a person’s unique point of view.”

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While coaches have the right to select their clients, choosing then who to coach and who not to coach is an acceptable form of being judgmental. It is surely achievable to match with any client when you’re a wonderful coach, but it’s definitely more productive to concentrate on the coachee when the coach is comfortable and at ease during the session rather than trying to build rapport in order to make the best out of it; when a coach is relaxed, clients are more certain to cooperate and get better results. A coach with a matching client can be far more efficient in bringing their coachee closer towards their desired goals; their relationship would be smooth and naturally flowing.

“So, while being non-judgmental can be the kiss of death to your coaching practice, making the right kinds of judgments can give an ailing coaching practice the kiss of life.”

To conclude, judgmental approach creates separation rather than unity. A coach is requested to come to a coaching session with one main goal: bringing out the best in the coachee, help them be on the right path towards their objectives and aspirations, and in line with their own beliefs and values. This is only achieved when a coach is relaxed, at ease, free from any prejudice or opinions, moods, thoughts or experiences, and able to deeply listen without engaging in their self-talk, avoiding to enforce change, but instead making space for change to happen.

Being totally in the present moment, a coach then becomes non-judgmental, allowing the coachee to reason, feel, open up and explore their options, and find their own answers which pave the way of transformation, with a clear, well defined and concise action plan to achieve their goals.

Listening to our coachee at the proper level, is at the same time a way to better understand ourselves, and a way to make them feel that they’re properly heard and understood and consequently not judged; this is a solid foundation for a healthy relationship which will not be sabotaged.

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