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Working Too Hard to Listen

Years ago, I unintentionally fell asleep on my colleague while he was driving both of us home from our very first coaching assignment ever. We both laugh about it now, but I am grateful that HE was driving! I think this experience illustrates that we consume a lot of energy when we listen deeply during a coaching conversation.

In fact, coaching conversations are very different from our typical day-to-day ones, in large part because of how deeply we listen to the other person. Deep listening can take many forms, and this post is about what you can do when you find yourself NOT able to listen deeply.

Fast forwarding from that first experience to about 10 years later, when I was coaching a manager who was telling a long story. I found myself trying hard to listen, yet repeatedly ‘drifting off’. Over and over again.

My stomach was going into knots because I was angry and frustrated with myself. No matter how hard I tried, I wasn’t doing what I needed to be doing.

Then a light bulb went on, and I was suddenly fascinated by the fact that I was working this hard to stay engaged. Why was this happening?

I started to explore what exactly was going on, and my attention turned toward the way in which my coachee was relating her story (true confession: I was still not listening to the content). A visual image started emerging in my mind of a branch with leaves on both sides. Her story seemed to have a goal, heading from the base to the tip of the branch, but it kept taking significant detours to walk around the edges of each leaf along the way. It seemed to take way too long to get from base to tip. Every time another detour occurred, I felt annoyance, followed by inattention. I wanted her to finish the point she had started straight away, and not be obligated to weather the asides. I wondered whether others experienced her narrations in the same way.

At a certain point, I asked for a time out and permission to share what was going on inside of me. Taken by surprise, she was curious about what I might say. I related the above, and even shared a couple of specific detour examples that I had jotted down while [not] listening. Then I drew the branch.

She immediately took the conversation in a completely new direction, making links between what I had shared and what she struggled with when communicating with key stakeholders. This created a shortcut that accelerated our progress significantly.

When you are coaching someone and working (too) hard to listen, start exploring why you are feeling that way. Whatever the cause, it can be very useful to step back, try to understand what is really going on, and share that with your coachee. It may end up to be useful for you, and for your coachee!