Four metaphors and several deliberate practices leading to listening mastery
Not more than a few months ago, it was still hard for me to keep quiet. A quality of any master coach is the “evocative” silence – the kind of pause that creates a vacuum in the conversation with the client, a void that the client fills with new understandings. I was not able to do that.
In my path towards mastery, I knew I had to master the listening competency. With the help of my mentor coach, a particular practice program, and a lot of peer coaching, I was able to shift from being a speaker to being a microphone, from a microphone to a paper, from a sheet of paper to a tree, and from that to Waze.
First, I learned to shut up. Then to hear.
Then to listen.
Then to listen to help my clients.
The following is a list of practices that I created to help me in the process.
1. Learn to shut up.
Shut up like a microphone. A microphone has no expectations. It sits there and waits for any surrounding sound. It also loses all the sounds it previously received as they dissipate in the wires and speakers.
There are evident practices to learn to shut up, like waiting for 5 seconds before opening your mouth, or asking only the third question that pops into your mind, or even silenzio stampa for one day (shut up for a whole day). But I wanted more; I wanted to completely shut my advice monster (Bungay Stanier) and learn to be intellectually humble in front of any client.
One of the first practices I took on was to watch video recordings of my coaching sessions and catch myself in the act of speaking too much. My mentor helped me point out times when I asked several questions in a row, or asked long, incomprehensible questions. Watching those videos made me realize how deem my thinking was, but how shallow my presence was.
Calculating the quotas of speaking time split between my clients and me further proved the point: 50% me, 50% client. It was like I was coaching the client and myself in the process.
2. Learn to hear.
Hear like a paper. A paper awaits your words. You write them down as you want and they appear in front of your eyes, ready to be corrected, deleted or kept.
This second practice helped me hear more than was being said. For several weeks, I had set “hearing beacons.“ During some coaching sessions, I purportedly tried to hear the pitch, volume, intonations, accent, length of phrases, rhythm, melody, my breathing, client’s breathing, and language patterns, keywords, etc. My head was in constant chaos made of words bumping into each other, arranging themselves in rows and columns, in fractal matrices and arrays and different hallucinatory shapes.
3. Learn to listen.
Listen like a tree. A tree listens with its roots, branches, leaves, sap, fruits. It listens to the wind, the sun, the moisture in the soil, to any bird resting on its twigs, to the rhythm of the surrounding nature. A tree connects to this planet’s evident and not-so-evident rhythms.
The third practice is primarily one of presence. I started having short meditations before any coaching session to connect to the space I would co-create with my client. At this point, I used a smartphone app called “Mindfulness Bell”; I would set it to gently issues ten to twenty random bells during any coaching session to trigger my entire presence in the moment. It worked exceptionally well, and from that present state, I could catch more than before. It felt like my awareness deepened vertically and grew horizontally. I was able to feel what the other felt, look “at” my clients, and look “as” them simultaneously.
4. Learn to listen purposely.
Listen like Waze. You may know how Waze works. You set a destination. The app finds a time-eﬃcient, cost- eﬃcient route; it considers any contextual happenings, others’ inputs, all in real-time. And it gives you feedback. You can also change the destination, and it adjusts the route accordingly.
As I watched my listening skills improve, I sometimes still lost track of the way ahead, of the destination the client would set for himself and for us on a long run and for each session.
Transcripts helped a lot at this point. Following a narrative line from beginning to end and back showed me how my questions and interventions, the dialogue pauses, the sighs, and the “Oh’s” shaped a conversation. This helped me understand where I was missing turns, walking over holes, hitting road signs and listening with no purpose.
I still have many more steps to be a master of listening and evoking awareness purposefully. But I rely on my creativity in creating deliberate practices to help me. Listening to the person is a long time journey. Each person is different, as I am different and constantly evolving. New frames of understanding emerge at each step I take in this evolutionary process.