Listening Ability: How to Develop It

Becoming a great coach requires developing an extraordinary listening ability. I often find myself telling trainees, “Don’t try to figure out the client’s problem—just listen! The client will tell you the answer. You just need to be listening intently enough to pick up on it.” When trainees do focus in on listening instead of trying to think up an awesome question or reply, they are always amazed at how well it works. People really can solve their own problems.

At first glance listening may seem passive, but it is actually a powerful tool for solving problems. What often holds people back is not a lack of insight, but a lack of confidence in their own ideas or an inability to put them into words. Our listening ability affirms and empowers people to express themselves with confidence. When you listen consistently and intently, the message you are sending is, “You are important! What you are saying is important. You are a person of great worth, and what you are saying is worth listening to. I believe you can figure this out.” When you express confidence in your clients’ abilities by listening, they will start believing in themselves, too. That alone is often enough to get someone unstuck.

But our listening ability does even more. One of our biggest weaknesses in problem solving is that we aren’t very rational when it comes to our own lives. When leadership coachingsomeone else is on God’s operating table, I can sit back and examine it dispassionately. When a friend has lost a job, it’s easy to say, “Don’t worry! God will provide for you!” When you are out on the street yourself, it’s a little more of a challenge to believe God has everything under control! When we are trying to think through our own problems, our emotions, perceived limitations or past disappointments cloud the picture and we easily get stuck. Our rational abilities play tug-of-war with our emotions until we’re mentally exhausted.

But when I sit down with a friend who is really listening, something magical happens. As he listens patiently, asks me questions, and helps me to look at my situation from other angles, the truth comes into focus. My objective and subjective insights begin to mesh. I push through the fog of emotions or preconceptions; until suddenly I break out of the box I’m in and see the solution clearly. When we verbalize our thoughts to someone else who is listening, we think more clearly and confidently than we do alone.

Tony Stoltzfus is a best-selling author, leadership coach, master coach trainer and director of the Leadership Metaformation Institute. Additional information on the role of listening in the coaching relationship can be found in Tony’s book,Leadership Coaching.