Good coaching is far more about our ears than about our mouths. What makes listening such a rare, powerful tool in our quest to do better work?

Listen up – I’m going to let you in on a trade secret. Coaching is mostly about listening.

I was once old a story about a trainee coach disheartened after what he considered a bad meeting with a practice client. His tutor asked him, “Were you of more benefit to the client than a lamp post?”. The trainee said he was and the tutor went on to explain that the client would have benefitted even from articulating his professional issues aloud to the nearest lamp post. Therefore, how much more value would he have gained from doing so with a real person who was actually taking the time (however imperfectly) to listen to him?

So, if coaching is about listening, can’t anyone with ears do it? On one level, the answer is yes. And my Coaching Approach Workshops work on the basis that every individual can learn to improve their listening skills in the workplace, resulting in big benefits for their own work and their organisation.

However, coaches are trained in listening in a number of specific and deep ways. Often, after a coaching meeting or call, a client will comment that they can now see a professional situation more clearly or that they are now certain of how to approach a complex issue. A client recently described that process to me as “almost electric.” That clarity means that clients feel motivated to act at work where previously they felt stuck. Rather than taking the credit for this increased clarity and commitment, a good coach will rightly point out that they did very little of the talking and that the new insights, solutions and motivation all came from the client.

How is this possible? Because the foundation for understanding things more clearly, seeing things afresh, exploring options and coming up with solutions is the right space in which to articulate and unravel our professional knots. To rephrase the first sentence, coaching isn’t just about listening, it’s about providing the space in which someone is listened to properly and non-judgmentally. However junior or senior the client is, however respected at work or loved and supported at home, that kind of space and that kind of listening when it comes to your professional life is rare.

Listening like that (a skill which takes training and a lifetime to develop) allows the coach to hear what the client and others may have missed and so to begin to ask questions which help the client. Listening like that, especially in a sustained way with a variety of clients, is not easy. Listening like that takes training and practice and, in that regard, not everyone can be a coach nor would they want to.

Listening like that, and doing it for a living in a way which helps other people make their living, is a tremendous privilege. Giving the client my full attention so that they can make measurable professional progress is some of the most fun and fascinating work there is.

In every profession, you get to deploy tools which can make an impact. If you’re a decorator, one of those is a power drill; if you’re an actor, one of your key tools is your voice. Once you learn to use these tools well, you see the difference they make. For the coach, listening well is one of those key tools of the trade, one which allows us to provide value to clients and make an impact long after our coaching engagement has ended

The power of listening