Listening Skills In Leadership And Coaching

I want to talk about two really important skills when it comes to leadership, and specifically in the context of coaching and mentoring, and those are listening skills and questioning skills.

You can watch the video, or scroll down to read instead.

Now, when I went to school I was taught at length how to read and I was taught to write. I didn’t go to a very posh school, so I didn’t get taught how to speak. But I remember being told to listen. And I was probably told to listen more often than most people because I’m a very poor listener.

It wasn’t until a lot later in life that I started to understand the benefits of being able to fully and completely understand what another person was telling me and be able to get off my own agenda and get onto their agenda.

So I’m going to break down listening into three sections.

  1. Combative or competitive listening
  2. Passive listening
  3. Active, reflective listening

Combative or Competitive Listening

This is something that I’m sure we’ve all been on the receiving end of, and indeed probably have been responsible for initiating ourselves.

Combative, competitive listening is where we appear to be listening, however, what we’re really doing when the other person is speaking is listening or waiting for a pause or an opportunity to jump in to the other person’s conversation. We do this so we can put forward our point of view, which, of course, is far more important, and be able to demonstrate how clever we are and be able to blow their point of view out of the water.

So we’re not listening to what they say.

What we’re doing is we’re just listening for a gap or an opportunity. The other elements of it, which is even worse if you like, or makes it even worse is the fact that we’re probably rehearsing how we’re going to put our point of view across, how we’re going to articulate our opinion in such a way that makes us look really clever and them look less so.

So, that’s combative, competitive listening. And it’s probably best kept to a minimum if not avoided completely.

Passive Listening Skills

Passive listening is fine, it happens all the time. And it has to, for lots of different reasons.

With passive listening, most of the time the audience will be looking at you, they’ll be making eye contact with you, they might be smiling or nodding. So they’re reasonably engaged or they appear to be, and they appear to be interested in what you have to say.

The only downside really to passive listening is that, for example, if you gave the same piece of information or instructions to three different people, and there is no feedback or verification involved in that exercise, those three people will go away and complete that task…

But when they come back, the results quite possibly could bear no relation whatsoever to what you thought you had explained quite clearly and you thought had been fully understood by those three people. Simply because people will interpret or listen to, or hear, what they want to hear and retain what they want to retain.

So not only can the end result bear little resemblance to what you thought you’d asked for, but also if you have three different people doing the same thing, apparently, you’ll probably end up with three slightly different results as well.

So passive listening is okay, but it needs to be supplemented. And the great supplement and the great skill when it comes to listening is to be able to use active, reflective listening.

Active, Reflective Listening Skills

This is the ability to sensitively and in a timely fashion choose to summarise or restate back in your own words what it is that you’ve been told by that other person until such time that they confirm that you fully understood. So that creates a verification or a feedback loop.

What it really means is, you’ll be using words similar to things like, “So if I’ve understood you correctly, what you’re saying is, this, this, this and this. Is that right?”

And the great thing about having the listening skills to do that is that it gives the other person the opportunity to confirm that you’ve fully understood and therefore you’re on the same page. You are then able to suggest whatever amendments need to be made or to be able to explain that you haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about.

The other fabulous thing about active, reflective listening is that it also enables you to demonstrate to the other person that they have been fully and completely listened to, which will make them feel important and will help them be engaged in whatever course of action you choose to take forward.

Because one of the key things in being able to achieve consensus with other people is to ensure that they feel that they have been fully heard, that their input has been fully considered. Try and minimise or completely eradicate the temptation for competitive or combative listening.

Accept the fact that there’s always going to be an element of passive listening, but supplement that by experimenting with deliberately introducing active, reflective listening. By finding ways to paraphrase, restate back in your own words what you’ve been told in order to ensure that you’re both on the same page.

This reduces conflict. Improves engagement. Makes people feel special, which is always good. It enhances your credibility as a leader.

If you’d like help with listening skills, please contact me and be sure to check out my next post for part 2; Questioning Skills in Leadership and Coaching