Listening: you do it all day long, in various situations, from the music on your headphones to nightly news on TV. But if you’re a health coach, an aesthetician, or you serve another counselor-type role, the type of active listening you use to perform your job is vastly different from the listening you do at most other times of the day. Listening to a client or patient—really listening—takes practice.

At the NAA, we believe that your ability to listen is one of the greatest skills you can develop to improve your practice. To become a better listener, you can start by identifying your goal of your listening situation. Here are three distinct listening outcomes, and their unique challenges.:

  1. Curiosity and Exploration of the Speaker. This type of listening is often generously peppered with open ended questions and a keen eye to body language. Keep in mind that often what is not said is as important as what is. Listener challenge: avoid asking questions that are more about your process than the Speaker’s.
  2. Empathy and Holding Space. Validation is often the goal in this situation. Listener challenge: authenticity. In this situation, if you can no longer listen with love and patience, don’t be afraid to pause and regroup rather than pretend.
  3. Clarity/Efficiency. Check for understanding frequently during a listening session with this goal, and paraphrase or otherwise check for alignment. Listener challenge: avoid simply parroting what is being said.  It is okay to use your own jargon/style when reflecting back what you hear, making inferences and connections shows that you are engaged in the exchange (just make sure your inferences do not upstage the Speaker).

What’s your personal experience with listening?

Tisha:

What am I doing to be a better listener?  As a professional coach, I know that my ability to be a creative catalyst to my clients is directly proportional to my prowess as a listener. I practice at it, striving to be better each session, with each client. And I will continue to be diligent in this pursuit because I know that as a fast talking, problem solving, waaaay extroverted Gemini, I am have to work harder then some to remember that listening is more than just silently waiting your turn to respond! Here are a couple reminders that  guide my earnest listening practice:

  • “Hear before help.” Listening and learning go hand in hand. Show me a master teacher and I always see a passionate, constantly curious learner. Nothing impedes listening more than thinking you already know what it is going to be revealed. “You can’t fill a cup that is already full.”
  • “Connect not direct” keeps me aligned with Tisha’s coaching rule number #1 – The client is always the ultimate authority of their own experience and transformation. I am being of greatest service when I am being fully present to the genius of my client, not tending to my own. If I am listening with my head, all squirrels scattering at once, trying to think of how I am can “fix it”, I do us both a disservice. I might need to check my ego or expectations and start listening with my heart.
  • “Slow down.” I talk fast, I am tempted to listen fast too. Words need to be afforded ample time to marinate.

Jolene:

Listening has always been one of my skills. In elementary school, I remember being singled out to receive a special plaque that said ‘Best Listener.’ While that was a little embarrassing and uncool, it made me conscious that there were benefits to my tendency to be a quiet observer and a friendly ear— not otherwise traits that are attention-getting in a child. And to this day, I often feel like I flourish in that behind-the-scenes, quiet space where I can use those skills in a one-on-one conversation or with a small group. When I steered my career toward becoming a health coach, I remember taking a personality test that labeled me as a ‘Counselor,’ one who excels at listening and supporting. It was another little reinforcement that my elementary school administrators were pretty spot-on. Today I try to encourage good listening in my toddler, so he develops this undervauled trait (and, yes, in part so he follows important instructions) and I work hard to maintain this skill in myself, by NOT multitasking when it’s time to listen. The sheer number of things we often do at once may be the single greatest impediment to our collective listening skill this day and age. Sometimes it’s truly a luxury to listen, fully and with focus. But it’s worth the extra time to slow down, because we absolutely need to develop and maintain relationships and communication.

Rachael:

I’ll be completely honest and say that being a good listener is not a skill I was born with. I grew up in a family with a lot of noise, where everyone had to speak loudly (if not yell) to be heard and interruptions were common. I also grew up in a family of fixers, where everyone always had advice, recommendations, or a “fix” for whatever the conversation was–whether there was a problem or not, and whether advice was asked or not. One of the most meaningful and hardest lessons I learned in my coaching education was from Geneen Roth, who, in a lecture said “feel, don’t fix.” The art of allowing for uncomfortably long silences as part of holding space was also a challenge, because in my family, silences were always filled–even with small talk. To this day, those are the listening skills I practice the most both in my personal life and with clients and students–listening to feel what the other person is saying and to allow for intuition to guide my next question (not my “fix” or response), and also allowing for those long pauses. I’ve learned that those pauses are often where the magic happens. It’s where the “stuckness” lives, and if we don’t allow that silent space, then the client often can’t get to the root of why they knowingly continue negative habits and thought patterns, though they understand every intellectual reason why they should break them. With clients, I’ll admit this is easier to do in person, and over Skype or another face-to-face virtual platform because you can see facial expressions and read body language, whereas over the phone, it becomes harder to pick up on these cues, which might lead to misinterpretation of context or resorting back to small talk or topic changes to avoid awkwardness.

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How does the important ‘art’ of listening play a role in your life?