Managers as Coaches, Part II: How Coaches Listen

I hope the first article in this managers as coaches series drove home the first important point I wanted to make, which is that coaching is the approach in which your managers should be trained to bring out the best of all employees. But if you’re like many, you may still be wondering exactly what’s involved with coaching and what it’s all about.

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The basic process of coaching can be summarized in three simple steps: Listen, ask questions, and give feedback. Of course it’s not that simple when you go to actually do it, but that’s the essence of the process. Let me zero in on the listening skills that go into coaching.

How Coaches Listen

To be great coaches, your managers need to learn active listening. It’s not rocket science, but it does take practice. And of course it goes without saying that in order to be a good listener, the very first thing you have to do is stop talking! As you probably know, even that in itself is going to be difficult for some of your managers. Get a load of this: Even though adults spends 45% of their time listening to somebody or something, only 5% of the American workforce has been trained in listening.

Really listening to someone is a conscious choice (as well as an art, a skill, and a gift). If you dare to make the conscious decision to listen, then you’ve got to live up to that choice and take responsibility for doing it.

The key is make listening a conscious choice, then take responsibility for doing, then leave your prejudices and stereotypes behind and open up your mind, and also make sure physical closeness is possible as well. Make eye contact and ask thoughtful questions about anything you’re not clear on. Another way to check for understanding is to occasionally paraphrase back what you’re hearing to see if the other person agrees with your summary. Finally, you need to really be able to focus on the other person by eliminating all the noise that you can in the form of distractions.

Keeping an open mind is an essential part of active listening. It’s all too easy to enter a conversation with preconceived ideas about the other person or their topic of discussion. And once you get a preconceived idea in your head, it’s almost impossible to “hear” what the other person is saying. Your preconceptions act as a filter, and you only hear what supports your preconceptions.

Removing physical barriers is also important. When there are “things” between you and the other person, listening can become more difficult. If you’re on a job site, for example, and there’s a piece of equipment between you and the other person, it will be harder to hear as well as pay attention. In the office setting, having a manager who sits at their desk and makes direct reports sit across from them creates the kind of power differential that prevents good listening.

And of course, there should be no distractions whatsoever. That means turning off phones, computers, and other devices. Active listening means no interruptions, which can be hard to achieve in the modern ultra-connected workplace.

There’s also a bunch of little things managers need to practice to be good active listeners. The list includes making eye contact, leaning forward towards the speaker, withholding judgment, refraining from interrupting, showing empathy, slowing down the back-and-forth exchange so it isn’t too rapid-fire, checking for understanding, discreetly taking notes when needed, and so on.

As you can see, the listening aspect of coaching is not only the first and possible most important of the skills needed to be a great manager-coach, there’s a lot more that goes into it than you might have imagined. It’s not complicated, but it does take real effort.

August 18, 2015   Updated :August 19, 2015   coaching, talent management   

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