People long to be heard by others, yet listening in a way that ensures that the speaker feels understood is hard to do and rarely encountered.  Why is that?  The riposte, ‘you are not listening to me!’ often comes when an individual has expressed negative feelings about themselves and the person they have been speaking to has rebutted this in some way.

Accepted as they see themselves

In our desire to support others we frequently want them to feel good about themselves.  When they convey negative emotions; ‘I have failed.’ ‘I am useless.’ ‘I did a bad job.’ we listen to what the person says and counter this with examples of how they have succeeded.  We believe that we are helping them achieve a better balance and see ‘failures’ in the context of the bigger picture of who they are and what they have done.  However, at the moment that the person voices, ‘you are not listening to me’ they want to be heard and accepted as they see themselves.

Safe space

One of the most powerful aspects of coaching is that the coach provides a safe container/space for the coachee to express himself/herself unreservedly and without fear of being judged.  Carl Rogers[1]found that his client‐centred approach was more effective if, “the counselor concentrates upon trying to understand the client as the client seems to himself.”  Often the coaching relationship is the only one in which the coachee can utter hopes and fears, have the space to think out loud, gather their thoughts, reflect and ruminate etc.  Articulating their thoughts in the presence of another person whom they trust and feel safe with is different from speaking in front of the mirror say.  Carl Rogers refers to this as unconditional positive regard’– where the therapist accepts the client for whatever and whoever he is in that moment.  He found that this was one of the conditions essential for clients to make positive change (in therapy).[2] I believe coaches should never underestimate the value of providing a quiet presence for the coachee.

Truly hearing clients

Even in the strongest coaching relationships the client may withhold from saying ‘you are not listening to me’ so that we might feel we are being empathetic, compassionate, supportive etc.  So how can we, as coaches, test for this and develop our abilities to accurately listen to our clients so that they feel truly heard?  Here are my suggestions:

  1. Be present during the coaching session so that you are ‘in the moment’ with your client. If you are present you give your full attention to what is happening; in yourself, in your client and the dynamic between you.  Nothing else matters.  You notice the ‘music’ of what the client is saying, the pitch, tone, phrasing, are curious about gestures and body language that the client uses and notice what is occurring in your body as you listen.  This attentive will give you clues to how the coachee is feeling and what might be left unsaid.
  2. Test for meaning. Coaches are great at reframing what we have heard to see how well our interpretation resonates with the client. We need to go beyond this to suspend our reflexive ability to form connections, see patterns and make meaning since these can be different from how the client sees him or herself.  One way to do this is to ask the client to explain what ‘key’ phrases mean and to test we have comprehended the meaning they have assigned.
  3. Don’t be afraid to keep people in a negative space. When a coachee voices (strong) negative emotions, we can be tempted to take them out of that space too quickly i.e. to make them feel good again. Often powerful learning comes when the coachee is allowed to stay in that negative space and work through what that means.  As coaches we need to have the courage to keep them there for as long as is necessary whilst demonstrating empathy and compassion.

Faithfully listening to another person is one of the best gifts we can give.  Managing our ego and learning to let go of our own needs is essential for this to happen.    In your next coaching session consider how well you are attending to your coachee.

Dr Joan van den Brink, “your personal chemist”, is a freelance management consultant and owner of Araba Consulting. She works with individuals and organisations to tailor solutions that make them stronger and more capable. Joan has had a rich experience in a wide-ranging career that spans Marketing, Operations, HR, Communications and Management Consulting in global and local public and private sector organisations.  She has travelled extensively throughout her life, working in the Americas, Asia, Australasia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

[1]Rogers, C R 2003, Client‐centred Therapy, Robinson, London, p. 30

[i2]Rogers, C R 1995, A Way of Being, Houghton Mifflin, New York, p. 117