• Thomas E. Anderson, II

6 Tips to Listening Like a Professional Coach

“Do you hear the words that are coming out of my mouth?” This line was made famous in a movie starring Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan. It is made infamous each day. In the workplace. In homes. In family life. When two or more people get together, there is room for miscommunication.

If you’re a coach or professional sales rep, chances are you’re already a pretty good listener. Even if you are a trusted advisor or a good friend who acts as a “sounding board,” you have used listening skills at a high level. These tips are strategies that I use for stronger connections when having conversations with people from ages 1 to 100.

Listen for the sake of the other person. Most folks listen to figure out, “what does this mean to me?” When we move to the other side of the table, the question changes. You can begin to ask yourself, “what does this mean to them?” As a girl-dad, this has been a challenge for me—especially with my youngest daughter. So I adopted a habit of sitting down when I talk to her, and she needs to explain something to me…even when it would be more convenient for us to keep standing. Taking a seated position, I can see things from her vantage point. It helps me to think about the issue in the same way she is thinking about it. I also use this strategy with clients and students. Once we have a chance to hear each other out, we can ask a question together, “so what does this mean?” Your strategy may be different. The point is to do what it takes to put yourself in the other person’s shoes using phrases like “I understand how you feel.” Simple questions like “could you say more about that?” also go a long way to building understanding.

Keep an open mind. Chances are this is not your first conversation with the person you are listening to. Or if it is, they may remind you of someone else. We enter conversations with all kinds of assumptions. I encourage you to let them go. Or at least loosen your grip on them long enough to suspend judgment. This is the key to listening that gets results. When you keep an open mind, you can hear the other person without so many previous experiences clouding your judgment or coloring their words.

Listen with more than your ears. Giving proper attention to word choice is a great start when helping someone to feel heard. Words can reveal how a person thinks or feels about a topic. Word choice also reflects what they are comfortable talking about. But listening to someone is much different from just hearing them. When you settle for hearing them, their words can go in one ear and out of the other. In contrast, listening requires thought and reflection. It requires you – the listener – to be fully present. Active listening is a full-body experience involving your ears and eyes, heart, and soul. It requires that you “read between the lines,” paying attention to the emotional and non-verbal cues of the speaker. Active listening calls for you to respond appropriately to the speaker’s words, non-verbal communication, and any clues in the speaker’s environment that may reflect their current situation.

Be willing to question your preconceived notions. Once upon a time, in a land far, far, away, I was a (quasi-)professional speaker with Monster’s Making It Count Program. After a less-than-stellar practice session, I asked my speaker coach, “which speakers should I study to get better?” To my surprise, he looked squarely at me and uttered 6 words, “study the one in the mirror.” When another person is speaking, it helps to pay attention to what’s going on inside you. Is my blood pressure changing? Am I breathing more rapidly? Am I playing with a paper clip? What are my eyebrows doing? These signals can give insight into how the person’s statements are affecting you. Chances are these signals are reflecting some type of preconceived notions or biases or assumptions. (Btw…these are not always bad things—but at the least, closely held beliefs are worth questioning). By paying attention to what’s going on within yourself, you can speak more authentically when sharing your point of view.

Remember, a little “caustic eyebrow” goes a long way. You know what I mean. The facial or verbal responses that communicate suspicion, doubt, disgust, or any other sentiment that would make the other person shut down immediately. If you find that what your co-worker or spouse is saying to be totally unacceptable to you, then, by all means, go for it. But most responses will not warrant the caustic eyebrow. I must admit this is a tough one for me. I am extremely animated (even though time and experience have worked together to tame my animation). Non-judgmental responses communicate respect for your listener and their unique point of view. Instead of shutting them down, offer an alternate point of view after hearing them out. Share your perspective and explore the differences from how the other person sees the situation.

Paint a picture for them of the way you see things. Visualization goes a long way also—but maybe in a slightly different way than the caustic eyebrow (lol). If memory serves me correctly, around 70% of the population is made up of visual learners. When someone tells us something new, it causes the need for us to become familiar with what they are saying. Our responses to the information they shared cause them to learn something new also. In that sense, conversations are learning experiences. Visualization is a powerful teaching tool. Here, the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” rings true. Think about it. What better indicator of learning is there than to hear the other person say, “I see what you’re saying!”

The goal of active listening is to keep the lines of communication open, understand what the speaker is saying, and respond in a way that addresses the issue and edifies them at the same time. On the other hand, saying something that makes the other person disconnect would be counterproductive.

Here is a shortlist of habits that, when used excessively, could make the other person shut down:

  • Repeatedly cutting across another person mid-sentence

  • Rushing them to a point when they are trying to think about what to say

  • Unwelcoming facial expressions (e.g., scowls, snarls, glares)

  • Starting your point of view with “but”

  • Acting out your emotion instead of naming it

The most important tip is to make sure to reserve enough time for the conversation. This way, you can take your time, walk together through the issues, and avoid feeling rushed in the process.

For more on authentic communication, visit my site for access to the “Authentic Feedback Webinar.”

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