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Listening: Curiosity vs. Diagnosis

Nov 7th, 2010 | By | Category: Transformational Coaching, [None]

Listening: Curiosity vs. Diagnosis

“During coach training, my homework was to get feedback on my listening skills…You have to listen while someone talks about something valuable in his or her life, and then do an evaluation. Through that, I realized how poor of a listener I was. I did this exercise with my wife… After 23 years of marriage, she really started for the first time to tell me her mind. She told me about her past life, youth, her bad father, private things. She was very honest—it was like the first time I met with her spiritually. It felt like two jars of water being poured into each other. It was such a great experience—she was so happy. I realized that through 23 years of marriage I had never listened to her and that we did not have a deep relationship. [Learning to listen] is a gift from God!”


Recently a friend of mine related a conversation he’d overhead at a coffee shop between a father and daughter seated at the next table. “He was lecturing her on the classic father-daughter stuff, Mark recalls. “You’re spending too much money, you aren’t focused on your education, etc, etc. It was so painful. All she wanted was for him to ask her, ‘What are your goals? What do you want out of life?’ He was raising his voice with her, she was in tears—it was really ugly. I believe that father genuinely wanted the best for his daughter, but he didn’t know how to get there.”

If you had asked this father what needed to happen, he would probably have said something like this: “If she would just listen to me things would work out so much better!” And if you asked the daughter what ought to change, no doubt she’d say, “Why doesn’t he ever listen to what I want?” They’re having a conversation, but nobody is really listening.

In our culture it’s easy to go through life stating our own ideas or exchanging impersonal information while rarely having a real, intimate dialogue with anyone. Many of our conversations are simply two monologues; ships passing in the night (or maybe ICBMs passing in the stratosphere) as each person tries to get their point across. The father in this example carried on a monologue because he felt like his way was the right one. By focusing on his agenda instead of on his daughter, he lost the chance to be really heard—and may eventually lose the relationship as well.

All of us want to be heard. We long to be accepted, to be known, to be valued for who we are. That human desire is so powerful that we find it very difficult to receive a critique from someone we feel doesn’t accept us. We react to the person instead of responding to the facts that are presented. Have you ever rejected out of hand a criticism from one person, and then shortly thereafter accepted the same rebuke from another, when the only difference was that the second person was a friend and the first wasn’t? Our ability to hear depends on who is speaking. Likewise, our ability to change and to operate at our maximum creativity and productivity is highly dependent on being in a supportive environment. This leads to an interesting insight about human beings:

Expressing acceptance and belief in a person often brings about faster growth than pointing out what is wrong.

The daughter in the story above is probably not going to pay attention to her father until she feels accepted by him for who she is. If she continues to receive critique without acceptance, their family relationship may be irreparably damaged—ironically, by her father’s misdirected good intentions.

Listening communicates value and acceptance. People are most open to being influenced by those who accept and value them. Therefore, learning to listen deeply, intently and intuitively is absolutely vital to influencing others. Listening is a powerful tool for changing lives, because the acceptance it communicates frees people to grapple with the message instead of getting hung up on their relationship with the messenger.

The Power of Listening

Listening is the first of the four key elements of the coaching conversation. [[see diagram]] Every coaching relationship starts with listening, because it is only when we listen that we learn to know our clients are and what is on their hearts. The act of listening creates a great environment for change.

Julie began taking a coaching class at our church several months ago, and one day she shared an amazing story about the impact of listening. Each week she and Ashley, one of her co-workers, would stay late on Thursdays to close up shop at the restaurant she worked at. That evening Ashley was distraught about what was going on her life. She was depressed, and her doctor had put her on medication. She worried about being able to pay her bills, her children, and about the serious conflicts she was having with her husband.

“She didn’t know what to do—she felt like she was losing her mind, and she didn’t have any hope,” Julie remembers. “Ashley had been a Christian, but she was not walking with God anymore. She told me, ‘I don’t think God wants to talk to me. I’m not talking to Him, because I don’t think He wants to hear from me, either.’”

“I heard you talk about the coaching approach,” Julie recalls, “So I’m standing there thinking, ‘This coaching thing—how do you do it?’ I had advice coming into my mind and I had to resist the temptation to say it because I wanted to try this new coaching idea… I’d been giving her advice for months from things in the Bible but nothing had changed.”

As Julie and Ashley worked together, Ashley talked for some time about her situation while Julie simply listened. Once Ashley had spoken her mind, a quiet calm descended. “I didn’t know what to do at first, but I finally said to her, ‘I know that the Lord will speak to you, and that when he speaks you’ll hear Him and know His voice.’” Julie remembers. “Then I was quiet, too—I didn’t know what else to say.”

“When I was just listening and wasn’t giving advice I felt so inadequate—I felt like I wasn’t giving her anything. It felt kind of dumb to just trust that God would do something. But the atmosphere was different when I wasn’t giving advice. Ashley was more open, more receptive, calmer—it seemed like her walls were down. Before, I didn’t see that—she was more argumentative.”

Ashley didn’t mention anything about their conversation for a week. But the next time they closed up shop together, she brought it up. “Julie, I ought to tell you: you know the last time we talked, how much trouble I was in? Well, I went home that night and I got down on my knees, and told God how much I needed Him and that I wanted to talk to Him again—and He spoke to me! From that second my life has been totally different!”

Ashley is smiling now. There’s been a change in her marriage, a total transformation in her attitude, even a significant improvement in her work performance. She and Julie have begun praying together regularly for other co-workers in the restaurant—at Ashley’s instigation. All because someone listened to her and believed in her.

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