Listening to your clients – Giving people space to think
Listening is the most obvious skill that executive coaches offer clients. It’s really important, as an executive coach, to acquire top class listening skills. Listening provides the right kind of environment and the right level of safety that clients need to express what’s going on for them. Your clients need to know that they have your undivided attention, that you’ll listen carefully to them without interruptions.
Giving your clients the kind of space and time they need to think serves them well. There are some surprisingly practical yet seemingly unrelated aspects to listening. They can make a dramatic difference to your ability to listen… and listen effectively.
How good are your listening skills? Here are some extremely practical ways to support being a great listener.
Keeping time so your clients don’t have to
The quality of your listening as a coach starts with one simple goal: to maintain the limits of the session and keep to the time boundaries. It sounds like a small thing but it makes such a big difference, a subtle yet essential contributor to the listening climate you create.
When your client trusts you to keep an eye on the time, they can relax. There’s no need for them to control time themselves. They can drop that powerful time focus, forget about upcoming meetings, commitments and demands, and concentrate on themselves.
Arriving early helps both of you
Lateness doesn’t make a promising start, particularly if you’re the one who’s late. Feeling rushed and flustered affects the atmosphere you create. There’s not enough space to centre yourself before you begin. There’s no chance to put the unfinished business of your day on hold and find that essential position of ease within yourself.
It’s worth planning time flexibility into the mix, ideally just before your coaching sessions, particularly if you’re travelling to see a client. It might seem like a luxury, especially if you feel time is money, but it’s actually a necessity. That extra time could prove essential in the longer run, simply because it distinctly improves the quality of your listening and makes you a better coach.
The place matters
Where you coach also affects your capacity to listen well. Sometimes a small, discreet room isn’t available, making it really important to seat yourselves somewhere your conversation can’t be overheard. If you’re in an open area where other people pass through, it makes sense to find a quiet, calm corner where both you and your client feel safe and confidentiality can be upheld. There’s nothing worse than getting distracted from your listening because you have one ear constantly trained on the comings and goings of others.
If you’re in a room with a glass wall and door, looking out towards a busy corridor, it’s worth making sure your client isn’t distracted – let them sit with their back to the corridor.
The way the chairs are positioned also matters. A formal room with a long table, for example a boardroom, can negatively affect your listening. Make sure you’re both sitting at the table end, at the edge, at a slight angle. This tends to generate a more personal conversation.
It your client is too far away or sitting directly across the table from you, they may feel they need to raise their voice, which feels forced and uncomfortable. You suffer too, since it takes more effort to hear what they’re saying. It might seem obvious but avoiding minor irritants like this makes such a difference. And it’s easy to achieve.
Your intentions are clear and respectful
You should always go into a coaching session with the assumption that your client can think for themselves. You approach the session as a respectful thinking partner, confident that they understand their own context and that there are solutions available. Remind yourself you’re not there to control them, rescue them or think for them. It’s your role to elicit their very best thinking.
This will immediately increase the potential depth of your listening, and it’ll also instil a potent spirit of curiosity into the session. This in turn lets your client’s thinking go deeper, enabling them them to explore their issues more freely, express real feelings and break through tricky thinking blocks.
Listening this way will also make your body language much more congruent. You’ll be more relaxed, less affected by your own inner chatter, and less likely to make personal judgements. It’s also likely that your own curiosity and genuine interest will show in your eyes and facial expressions, a level of respectful concentration that inspires people and helps them open up. Now you’re on fire!
Beginning and ending well
Both you and your client will feel better when you leave a coaching session with a real sense of completion. Listening plays a huge part in this process, as does being crystal clear in your coaching contracting.
At the start, listening to your client is vital. Making sure you know purpose of the coaching before you launch into session is a crucial first step. Being on the same page always helps! That doesn’t necessarily mean assuming the things you discussed in the previous session are also the focus of the next one. It might be, but it also might not. Life for your client may have cracked on apace, and things might have changed for them. It’s always worth checking first rather than launching straight into the session.
At the end, complete the session by asking your client what has struck them most during the session. What are their headline themes? What were the ‘ah ha’ moments? Have any key learnings have emerged? Listen intently. Don’t assume that you know. Really listen to their answers. That way they play their vital part in drawing the session to a satisfying and positive end, as well as letting you come to a good understanding of what your client has gained.
Checking the actions a client wants to take is also a great way to end a session positively, and again it’s a listening thing. Actively listening for the key points they summarise reinforces their importance and encourages accountability in your client.
Finally, ending with an encouraging word or two about the way your client has worked with you helps to earth the discussion, leaving them feeling that they’ve experienced something practical and positive.
Help improving your listening skills
Working on the practical aspects of your coaching in supervision is never a waste of time. Making sure you have them in place means you can focus on your client and listen more attentively. Get in touch if you’d like to discuss this crucial aspect of your coaching practice.