Today, in our solution focused coaching fundamentals class one of our participants, Fanny from France, asked a very interesting question: how do we practice really listening to our clients, being present with them rather than thinking of what we are going to ask next or evaluating how we are doing as a coach in our minds?
I think every beginning coach knows how difficult it is to be fully present to the client and really listen to what they have to say when at the same time we are still struggling with our insecurities about whether we are going to do a good job or our anxiety about possibly not being able to find a good question to continue with. We feel responsible for leading a useful conversation with the client. And while this is a very honorable sentiment, it can get in the way. In order to become good at presence and active listening, we need to develop the skill of refocusing our attention on the client when it has drifted elsewhere.
In our class, we were able to collect a beautiful selection of possibilities for practicing this refocusing. Not every of these practices will work for everyone, but I am sure that you will find something valuable in here. Here is our chest of treasures:
1. Mindfulness meditation
A few of our participants recommended mindfulness meditation. The first step in being able to focus on anything is noticing when your mind veers off. Mindfulness meditation encourages us to choose a focus, for example our breath, and practice retaining our focus where we want it to be. When we notice our minds drifting off — which is quite normal because that’s what minds tend to do — we can gently and without judgment practice coming back to our focus: the breath or the body or anything else that we have chosen. There are many apps out there that help to learn this practice, for example, “Calm” or “Headspace”. Usually a few minutes every day are enough to start reaping benefits from the practice. You might also join a class or a community of practice to learn more about it.
2. Mindful 10
Judith from Berlin suggested a practice she learned from a Buddhist monk. You focus your attention on your breath and start counting. You count every breath that you were able to focus on fully. You count the first breath: one. Then the second breath: two. And then a thought occurs in your mind, for example “I might be getting up to three now, I am doing a good job!” Acknowledge it as “a thought” and then quickly refocus on your breath and start counting the next breath going back to “one”. The objective is not to reach 10 but to become aware of where your focus is. Once you notice where your focus is, you can choose to lead it back to where you want it to be.
3. Training paraphrasing
Allison from Hong Kong suggested a very practical listening exercise. Turn on a recorded movie or podcast. Listen for a few minutes and then write down how you would summarize and paraphrase what the people in the podcast or movie were saying. Practice picking out important keywords and try to use the same language in your summary. Then play back the section that you listen to and compare your notes with the recording. What did you capture? What did you overlook?
Viara from Munich mentioned how important it is for her to integrate silence into her life. She deliberately makes space for silence during her day to create free space in her mind. In her coaching practice she spaces sessions so that there is enough room in between for her to transition from one client to the next. She deliberately uses this time for silent refocusing and does not look at her iPhone or distract herself with other things.
5. Downloading stuff onto to do lists
One thing that helps me be present to my clients is to write down all the things that I need to do in a very nicely structured to do list. I follow the system of “Getting things done” by David Allen. I have a list of projects with tasks and subtasks which resides in my computer and is synchronized to my devices by an app called “Toodledo”. It automatically reminds me of things I need to do and gives me the confidence that I am not forgetting things. This confidence frees me from having to play and replay reminders in my head. This way, I gain more freedom to focus on what I want to be doing in any specific moment, for instance, listening to my client.
6. A not-knowing stance
My co-trainer, Chris, from South Africa, mentioned that it is helpful for him to assume that he doesn’t know anything about the client. This helps to be really interested in what the person says and opens up the possibility for surprise. The International Coach Federation recognizes coaching mastery by a stance of open curiosity without the need to perform on the side of the coach. I think that “really wanting to know” what is important to the client is a very good starting point.
7. Listening like a dog
This is one of Chris’ lovely metaphors. When a dog really wants to listen, he tilts his head and turns an ear into your direction. As a coach leaning forward, tilting your ear and really adopting a physical stance of openness also helps to focus on your client.
So, here is our selection of training and practice gems to help you develop coaching presence, active listening and the ability to choose your focus. What are your favorite ways to practice?