The Coaching Chronicles #5: The importance of listening
Updated: Jun 27, 2019
The effectiveness of an instructional coach is directly proportional to the quality of their character. While one increases, the other also rises. Similarly, a failure in character strips a coach of credibility. Before getting into the work of coaching, coaches ought to take a moment to consider their presence. How do they show up as a coach? What values do their attitudes, actions, and habits reflect?
Previous posts examined the filters and emotions that coaches bring to their work, the superiority or respect they project, and their beliefs and dialogue skills. The final component of how coaches show up each and every day is their skill in listening. If coaching effectiveness directly relates to character quality, character quality shows up demonstrably in one's ability and willingness to listen.
To improve listening as a skill and an art, there are a few obstacles that must be removed. First, coaches must flee from the viewpoint that teaching and learning is singular and linear. When working with teachers, the concept that there is only one correct way to teach something, and that it just so happens that the coach is in possession of that hidden secret, makes listening superfluous. Instead, conversations with teachers become a one-way deluge of information rather than a two-way dialogue (Knight, 2009).
Additionally, coaches who enter conversations with a specific goal or purpose in mind tend to hear what they listen for. They pay special attention to what they expect to see, hear, or feel. Unless noticed and removed, this predisposition will affect how coaches listen and turn potential exchanges into a search for evidence to support existing theories (Rock, 2006). In addition to hampering fruitful exchanges, a lack of listening has a larger effect on workplace relationships. To the degree that coaches avoid the exploration of differing realities and opinions, they will spend an equal amount of time, energy, and emotion cleaning up the aftermath of suggestions and techniques quietly but effectively shot down by teachers who resent the fact that they aren't listened to (Scott, 2004).
To improve listening and show up each day as an instructional coach with character, there are some general principles to adhere to along with some specific listening tips.
Though listening is a skill that can be developed, it emerges from a place deep in the coach's character. Coaches will not ever become effective listeners unless they honestly want to hear what others have to say (Knight, 2009). The second of six beliefs for holding better conversations, according to Jim Knight (2015), is the understanding that coaches want to hear what others have to say. To demonstrate this truth, they are fully present, ask questions, and make sure to understand their partner before worrying about what they themselves are trying to communicate.
Whereas listening is the core of communication, it could be said that presence lies at the foundation of listening. When coaches are present in any situation with the full force of their attention brought to bear, the air crackles with potential energy. They open up an avenue for personal connections, place their judgments on hold, and reflect on the various levels and facets of the situation. Coaches communicate to teachers that they are heard, respected, and appreciated. In other words, they listen (Jablon, Dombro, & Johnsen, 2016).
Much like how we walk, talk, interact with others, and skim through our emails, how we listen is deeply hardwired into our brains. Coaches have been listening long before they ever began to coach and their listening skills are largely habitual (Rock, 2006). As with other habits, breaking them is extremely difficult. Instead, coaches would do well to focus their energy on creating new behaviors to replace their existing ones. Do coaches long to be understood by their teachers? Do they seek to share knowledge and have their teachers embrace their ideas? Then they first must focus on understanding others. The best coaches talk with teachers, not at them (Scott, 2004).
The first step in becoming a better listener starts with a belief, not a practice. Coaches should listen to their teachers as though they have all the tools they need to be successful. Instead of directing a didactic dialogue, coaches should approach conversations thinking that teachers would simply benefit from exploring their thoughts and ideas out loud (Rock, 2006). This attitude opens the coach up to true exchange and replaces a need to inform the teacher with a desire to listen and learn from the teacher.
While it may seem obvious, it still must be stated that listening occurs when only one party is speaking. Coaches must truly commit to listening by entering each conversation determined to let the teacher speak. Instead of filling up their air with their comments, questions, or feedback, they let the other person do the heavy lifting (Knight, 2015). Even well-meaning or benign interruptions can quickly derail a conversation as the teacher becomes the passive listener while the coaches waxes eloquently on sundry related topics.
More that just listening for words, coaches must also listen for intent. They must examine the scaffolding on which each story hangs. When the story behind the story is heard, clarity emerges for both the coach and the teacher. Powerful listening results from coaches who disclose their inner thoughts and invite teachers to do the same - authenticity begets authenticity (Scott, 2004). This process sometimes reveals motives and drives to teachers that they have never consciously considered.
A key component that coaches must cultivate in conversations through purposeful listening is safety. When all parties in a conversation feel secure enough to contribute their ideas, even those that contain emotionally-charged content, learning and exchange take place. This reality, powered by listening, is not something that happens merely at the beginning of the conversation. Instead, it's something that coaches must continually attend to as they relentlessly monitor the direction and efficacy of their conversation (Patterson, Grenny, Switzler, & McMillan, 2012).
In the next edition of The Coaching Chronicles, the focus shifts from how coaches show up to who they are as people. How important are ethics in coaching?
Jablon, J., Dombro, A. L., & Johnsen, S. (2016). Coaching with powerful interactions: A guide for partnering with early childhood teachers. National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Knight, J. (2009). Instructional coaching: A partnership approach to improving instruction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Knight, J. (2015). Better conversations: Coaching ourselves and each other to be more credible, caring, and connected. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Patterson, K., Grenny, J., Switzler, A., & McMillan, R. (2012). Crucial conversations: Tools for talking when the stakes are high. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Rock, D. (2006). Quiet leadership: Six steps to transforming performance at work. Harper Collins.
Scott, S. (2004). Fierce conversations: Achieving success at work & in life, one conversation at a time. Penguin.