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Listening Sublime!

It is one of those fine moments in the life of an executive coach. You are having an important conversation with a client. They are sharing things that matter to them, and you are 100% focused on what they are saying, how they are saying it, what they are not saying, their body language, and their tone. Then you start noticing your own inner reactions, and you simply find them interesting. Without judgement, you ponder what is happening between the two of you that renders you feeling the way you do. Somehow, you know that what is happening might be useful information that could serve your client.

A few years ago, I had an initial telephone call with a senior manager (and potential coachee) at a new client company. I sort of remembered having been told by an HR professional several weeks before that he had recently been promoted to a quite senior position. Sort of. OK, I confess that that information was not top-of-mind when we began our call.

He started speaking quite quickly, and appeared mildly annoyed when I asked whether he had speaker phone on, explaining that he wasn’t coming through clearly. He turned it off and snapped, “Is that better?” It was.

We continued, and a bit later, I asked him if he would repeat a list of three points that he was making, “A bit slower please,” because I hadn’t caught them. He took a breath and did. I knew that I was struggling with the still-imperfect line, his quick speech, and the fact that he spoke English with an accent unfamiliar to me.

I began to notice that his rapid speech and (apparent) annoyance with my request to repeat himself had triggered me to wonder whether he was rather junior. Then I glanced at my notes from a few weeks earlier and remembered his seniority. He had even shared that one of his goals was to develop a senior sort of gravitas. Now this was interesting!

As it happened, we soon entered into a coaching relationship, and a few sessions later I had the opportunity to share those moments from our initial call with him in their entirety. He listened closely. I then asked him what he thought the impact of the “how” of his communication had been on me. After he responded, I shared that, in fact, I had been thinking that he must be “rather junior”.

I could have cut a knife through the silence.

This feedback ended up being an important piece of “evidence” of how he was behaving in the workplace, and it allowed him to “see” the resulting perceptions of those around him. As a consequence, he was able to replace ineffective old behaviors with effective new ones.

By listening to our coachees, and at the same time turning some of our attention to how we experience them, we coaches can use ourselves as a tool, for our coachees’ benefit.