On 2nd November 1953 Chad Varah answered the first call to a helpline created for people considering taking their own life. He took out an advertisement entitled “active listening therapy”. And it was ‘the power of the listening that turned out to be the strength of the service’ (HRH Prince of Wales, forward, ‘How to Listen’ 2021). And so the Samaritans was formed.
Come forward 50 years to the creation of a profession called ‘coaching’ and we see direct evidence of the importance of deep listening - for the benefit of the client, as well as for the benefit of the coach. Adapted from Julie Starr’s description in her text ‘Brilliant Coaching’ (2017), deep listening involves being completely focused on the other person to the point that you are unaware of yourself, or the environment; fully sensing the other person’s experience.
And yet how often do we as coaches find ourselves able to give this level of attention. If it’s not our intrinsic desire as humans to want to help others by giving advice and answers; or the focus of our attention coming back to ourselves, our lives, our experiences and the connections we can make to what the client is saying; or our sense of ego and the need to be seen as ‘clever’. All of these elements and many more hinder our ability to shine the light solely on the client’s experience. Which is ultimately the role of the coach.
At MRA our definition of great coaching ‘Being fully committed to the client’s success and wellbeing, through high support/high challenge conversations that encourage accountability and lead to increased confidence to take action’. Listening is a way of providing both support and challenge. The silence increases the client’s focus on what is ‘really’ going on for them at the given moment, allowing them the space and time to think deeply and honestly - and with that comes the intensity of emotions.
In our coaching practice we must remind ourselves daily that ‘our silence is a gift to others – it allows them to express emotions that need to be expressed in a safe atmosphere’ (Gillingham 2014). And the more that we can encourage clients to open up, we are able to work closely with their emotions, and to activate the felt sense in order to create behaviour change and positive momentum.
But listening is more than just about helping to create action for clients. Listening is much more than this. ‘Listening to others has an extraordinary ability to make them feel validated, give them back their self-belief and empower them to change the end of their story’ (Columbus, 2021). And this is exactly the role of the coach – to validate, create self-belief, and to empower others to change the end of their story if they so wish. Therefore coaching is listening, and listening is coaching – they are intertwined based on alignment of beliefs and outcomes (MRA, 2021).
And with the powerful words of Nancy Kline in her text ‘The promise that changes everything – I won’t interrupt you’ (2020), we hear just what it means to build a coaching competency around listening and to bring discipline to our practice:
“I won’t interrupt you.
I won’t interrupt your words – or your thoughts.
Imagine the relief, the possibilities, the dignity.
You now have ground that is yours. Unassailably. This is for you. Time to think. To feel. To figure out what you really want to say. To say it, to consider it. To change it. To finish your sentences, to choose your own words. To become – because you can trust the promise – a bit bold, even eloquent. To become you”
The discipline to be present, fully present. The discipline to sense the client’s experience, really sense it. The discipline not to filter what is said, and to suspend all judgements. The discipline not to interrupt; to hold the silence.
Coaching is so much more than a leadership style or development tool. It is a modern-day form of “active listening therapy” that can and does bring Chad Varah’s ambition to life, as a way of giving life to others.
What more can any coaching client or human being possibly want?
No matter the level of coaching experience or qualifications you have… go, and listen. Deeply listen. And give life to others.