When the solution is in the listening. The gift of being heard – Part 4

By Dr. Joe Isbister

In this series of blogs I have discussed what Solution-focused coaching looks like, including some of the common techniques associated with this approach and why it works. When it works, it feels like magic. Whilst these techniques are key ingredients of this magic, there is a danger that it can overlook a more fundamental element that is needed: Listening.

Solution Focused Ears

Solution-focused work has a substantial and important contribution to make on this subject. Solution-focused work is known for advocating what have been termed appreciative listening skills, which in turn, greatly assist in the facilitation of solution-finding. But what does listening with appreciative, solution-focused ears look like? What does it sound like?

Some of the common listening techniques associated with a solution-focused approach are covered below. Here’s what they look like in practice and why they can work.

Echoing key words

Reflecting back a clients’ words to them. Often embedded within a question.

Typical examples

You describe your job as a ‘juggling act’. What do you mean by a juggling act?
You described your situation as feeling like ‘an earthquake. Can you describe that earthquake feeling more?

Why it can work

The choice of a client’s words is a window into their thinking. Certain words can carry a heavy amount of meaning. The skill is in recognising when those words occur. This also helps to build rapport, resolve ambiguity and creates a sense of being heard.

Drawing out more detail

Clients have a tendency to make generalisations which can be vague. Solution-focused practitioners will recognise these moments, reflecting them back using the client’s words and then expanding on them by probing for details.

An example

You say things are ‘a bit better today’. In what way are they ‘a bit better’?
What has changed? What can you see that is different?

Why it can work

By asking questions on specifics, this helps clients to engage their own analytical thinking and reflective skills. This can in turn help them to be more aware of successful periods in the future. Understanding more clear what conditions can be associated with success and what they might need to do more of. This level of inquiry conveys a sense to the client that they are being heard.

Listening for strengths and complimenting

All clients are inherently resourceful, if drawn upon, these can be of great use in resolving difficulties. As a coach, you can listen out for this resourcefulness and mirror it back to your client, either directly using their words or through your own summaries or observations.

Some examples

I notice you said you approached this issue very meticulously. Has this helped in this case?
It sounds that you have been very resilient in the face of this. What has helped you to be so resilient?

Why it can work

In the face of difficult problems or issues, it can be challenging for people to identify the strengths that have helped them so far and which could be then utilised further to bring about positive change. Doing this conveys to a client that they are regarded as resourceful they are respected. It reassures them that the story they are telling you is worth listening to.

Listening out for exceptions

Solution-focused approaches advocate that within every problem, no matter how entrenched there always exists exceptions. Therefore, a key listening skill is listening out for when these exceptions may be present or are hinted upon and probing further. It is in the listening out for, the noticing and the amplifying that the seeds of solutions can emerge and grow.

Some examples

You mentioned that last week there were one or two better days. Can you tell me more about that…?
It sounds as though when you… it makes things a little easier…?

Why it can work

By echoing back solutions you are projecting a sense of the client being resourceful and competent. This can help to amplify solutions and provide a more productive starting point to explore them further. It can also be a helpful tool in conveying that you are actively listening to what a client is saying to you.

Did you notice the common thread? These listening techniques enable clients to slow down and express themselves. They support the person in really feeling heard and understood.

In the other blogs in this series, I have talked about the different layers of listening and the importance of giving people space to think. If you are interested in checking these out, here are the links to posts.

Knowing that in the moment, any number of important processes may be going on within this space. It might be that clients are assimilating their experiences? Redefining their problems? Articulating their goals? Having an ‘ah-ha’ moment. What a gift it is to enable someone to have the space to be heard.

One commonly heard criticism of solution-focused approaches is that, unless handled carefully, there can be a danger that clients can feel rushed and not understood. This may be the case, if you encounter some resistance with your clients. For example, the client who goes back to talking about the problem when asked about exceptions. Or the client who is not able to define in real-terms what they want for the future. Perhaps, because they have not adequately (in their eyes) been understood or heard. Maybe that is the solution they need in that moment is the gift of simply being heard. Slowly down might be what is needed here.

The Gift of Being Heard

Take a look at the below excellent Ted talk – The Power of Listening by William Ury

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I Accept

This talk neatly illustrates the power of listening in a generous, expansive and multi-layered way. Real listening provides the gift of:

  • Feeling heard
  • Shifting a mood
  • Defusing a conflict
  • Connecting to others
  • Listening within their frame of reference
  • Understanding what is behind the words
  • Picking up on what is not being said
  • Seeing the human behind the words

Hearing Yourself

There is an amazing power in simply listening to others. Ironically though, this starts best by listening first to yourself. You are then more able to open and more expansively provide a listening space for others. Before you begin listening to others, take a moment beforehand to listen to what your heart is telling you first. This is always a wise step towards finding solutions for yourself. It can support you in opening the way up for others to find their own solutions too.

We know how to listen

We are the Listening Partnership. Listening is core to our business practice. If you would like to deepen your capacity to listen to yourself and others, we would be delighted to hear from you. Get in touch.