In this time of coronavirus, when our lives have been turned upside down, the gift of listening well, the first phase of the evocative coaching model, is especially precious. Listening well is important not just in the context of coaching but with all those we care for and care about. In these topsy-turvy times, we may be spending more time with family members than we are used to, negotiating shared space, preferred levels of noise, and technological resources. There may be precious moments of connection, but also times of irritation and frustration. We may be engaging with colleagues who are uncertain about how to proceed with work obligations or how to manage the technology resources they suddenly must rely upon. We may be doing our best to support our students as they navigate disrupted routines, isolation from their peers and support systems, new and unfamiliar expectations for self-directed learning, and a range of strong emotions they struggle to manage. And we may be in contact with anxious parents, worried about what this disruption in schooling will mean for their children’s future, which is just one worry amidst a panoply of others – financial worries, worries about the health and wellbeing of loved ones, forced separation from those they love, and disconnection from their own sources of support. One of the greatest gifts that we can give to another person in these uncertain times is to listen well as they share their story.
People tell stories to make meaning of their experiences. Stories are attempts to understand, value, and shape experiences in ways that make sense and guide future actions. People need to feel heard, understood, accepted, and appreciated in order to release the energy contained in their stories and channel it in creative new directions. We can set the stage by creating a calm, safe, and judgment-free relational space in which people are free to share their stories without fear of ridicule, pressure, or reprisal.
To have someone listen to you, with no agenda other than to listen well, is a rare and beautiful thing. In the normal course of affairs, people seldom have the undivided nonjudgmental attention of another person. Multitasking is so rampant in the modern world that we have too often forgotten how to pay attention with both ears. We tend to listen with one ear, as we frame what we will say next, and mentally consider other things we have on our mind. When we listen halfheartedly, we fail to hear, experience, respond to, and grow from all that the other person has to share. One unexpected benefit of the current disruption to our normal routines may be that we can hone our listening skills and offer one another the gift of our full attention.
The key to attentive listening as people tell their stories is to stop whatever else is going on, including the internal chatter and opinions about what should happen — and just listen. Listening well requires us to shift into a relaxed and receptive stance. To listen attentively means clearing our mind, setting aside distractions, and giving our undivided attention. Whatever may be going on with us is consciously set aside in order to pay singular attention to the agenda of the one we are with. We listen with genuine curiosity and an open mind because we are listening to understand the experience of another.
In order to listen openly, we suspend the judgments and bracket the opinions that surface in ordinary listening. Our job is not to filter and categorize what we are hearing as good or bad, right or wrong, but rather to appreciate the deep dimensions of the stories people share with us. We make no assumptions as we seek to appreciate a different point of view. We suspend analysis, comparisons, suggestions, and the motivation to fix things in favor of connecting with what is stirring in that person in the present moment.
To listen effectively, it is vital that we become comfortable with silence. As people tell their stories, they will often pause to think, feel, or connect with their truth. Being fully present with a person in silence can add depth to the conversation, because silence gives them time to organize their thoughts, feelings, and desires before translating them into words. It is essential that we honor this silence, to be comfortable with pauses, to avoid interrupting, and not to intrude prematurely.
As people are telling their stories, we can periodically check in through paraphrasing or reflective summaries in order to confirm that we’ve heard what they are trying to say. We offer our best guess as to what we hear them saying, feeling, and needing. Such reflections enable people to better explore, understand, and develop their own experience. By capturing not only the content of what the other person is saying, but also the energy, values, commitments, and desires that lie behind that content, we invite them to go deeper in the search for meaning and movement.
When people feel understood, trusted, supported, engaged, and empowered by the ways we listen to and explore their stories, then new possibilities emerge. When we approach others from a stance of receptivity and possibility, they become interested in change rather than resistant to it. They will often figure out for themselves what they want to do differently and how best to move forward.
By receiving stories with respect, appreciation, and understanding, especially the hard stories where things do not go well and people do not feel good, we facilitate acceptance, expand awareness, create openness, and generate a readiness to change. There is evocative power in paying full attention in the present moment; such presence imbues ordinary and familiar details with new energy and radiance.
This essay was adapted from the recently released Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time (2nd Edition), by Megan and Bob Tschannen-Moran.