Listen Up, Coaches – It Matters! The simple mindset shift that will transform the nature and quality of your coaching in a HEARTbeat

One of the first fundamental skills we develop on our journey to become phenomenal coaches is listening. In most coaches training programs we study the three levels of listening:

Level I – listening from self (what I affectionately call, Level "I" listening)

This level is about taking in the words we hear and evaluating them exclusively based on what they mean for our own lives. When someone tells us about their last vacation, we have an urge to tell them about our last vacation. When someone talks about their favorite movie, we start to think about our favorite movie.

We fully experience their stories through the lens of our own lives - as if we are the only person on the planet who matters. This is exactly how we want our clients to listen during our coaching sessions - after all, it is the client's life that takes center stage in the coaching conversation, and in that context, they are the only ones who matter.

Level II – listening "over there"

In this level of listening, you listen so intently to your client that you may even forget that you exist.

You've done this type of listening before...perhaps, when you were on your first date with your first love. You were hanging on their every word, trying to understand every morsel of their being through their stories – sentence by sentence, word by word, image by image. You couldn't get enough of the words dripping out of their were so engaged that it is likely that four hours into dinner, you didn't even notice that everyone eating at the restaurant was long gone, all the chairs were put away for the night, and the staff was seriously annoyed with you.

Quite possibly, the only thing that pulled you out of your love-struck stupor was that your bladder went into DEFCON 1, and you realized if you didn't get up to go to the bathroom, this would likely become your last date.

That's Level II listening.

Level II Charades

Just in case you can't summon a vivid recollection of listening this way, try this trick to help you out: listen to your client (or any other human being, for that matter) as if you are playing a game of charades.

The person talking (talking is allowed in "listening charades," okay?) is describing the "clue". As you listen to their words, focused on deciphering the "clue", create a full-motion picture in your head of the story they are telling you. They become the narrator to the movie of their lives - and only you can see it, because it's in your head.

Now, notice the details of their story - what are they wearing? what is the temperature in the room? how many people are around? what time of day is it? what material is the floor made of?

Next, get wildly curious - what do you want to happen next? what secrets are they revealing about themselves? who is the hero? who is the villain? what are they longing for? what are they afraid to admit?

When you can listen to someone so intently that you make a vivid, striking movie out of the words that vibrate out of their larynx and into your eardrums, you will forget all about yourself - and they will notice. They are likely to feel as though they've never been listened to so intently before.

You are giving them and embroidered invitation to open up and share their real story of their lives.  It's okay to be vulnerable.  I care, and I'm here to help you make sense of it all.

Level III – listening with your whole body

This is where it gets a little bit weird, I must admit. You could also call this level "listening from your intuition."

If you've heard of the concept of a "gut feeling," then you know what level III is all about. Listening at this level is really just listening to your gut - it knows when something is fishy; it knows when something is important.  If you can listen to your gut, it will open up your coaching like a may flower...

Did you ever walk into a room, and, although no one was saying anything; you knew they were talking about you before you got there?

Awkward silence! Tension in the air. Uncomfortable vibe.

Your radar detector starts to blow up. Your gut tells you that something's up. Well, that "thing" you're hearing that is not being know it's there because you are listening at Level III.

Level III Bird-watching

Listening at Level III is like bird-watching. Most of us walk through life totally clueless about those little buggers that nest in the trees above and soar the skies (until they use us for target practice or leave us a "lucky" present on our freshly washed windshield).

There could be a hundred and fifty different species in the woods in our neighborhood, and we haven't a clue. Hell, there could be a scaly-sided merganser walking across the road, and we'd just think it's a duck!

But...not the avid, sharp-eyed birdwatcher. (Let's call this hypothetical birdwatcher "Dennis.")

Dennis is always on the lookout for something special in the skies. When he sees an orange-bellied parrot, he comes to life. He can't believe his eyes! He wants to call his mom and tell her he's in love! Dennis will remember this moment until the day he dies!

Well, a coach who learns to listen at Level III, is always on the lookout for the unsaid, and they don't let it pass by unnoticed or unexplored; they dig in by asking powerful questions, such as:

"What's causing that quiver in your voice?"

"I noticed you are super excited when you bring up this topic - what's that about?"

"Hey, your energy just shifted - what happened?"

"It feels like you've run out of steam, how can we add some coal to the fire?"

Level II & III - the listening Lambada

Powerful coaching lives in the land where Level II and Level III listening dance the night away.

Think of powerful coach listening like a dance. If you can get the rhythm just right, you can spin, twirl, and shimmy your clients by moving through Levels II (see their movie) and III (latch on to their emotions) until you are dancing in unison through their life, and before you know it, out pops their dirty little secret that they've been hiding from themselves.

By taking the reins and daring to dance the forbidden dance with them, they have just realized something totally new about themselves. From this moment on, they see the world a tiny bit differently...and they can start to be at choice in their actions in a new way...armed with a deeper understanding of their being.

Level 0 - the enemy of listening

So, those are the three levels of listening we learned at CTI (the Coaches Training Institute), and I imagine you learned something similar wherever you trained as a coach.

At Make Coaching Matter, I am sad to unveil a fourth level of listening.

It's called Level 0.

This is, unfortunately, the way that many, many people listen most of the time.

You see, this is listening from your ego. It's actually not listening at all, but rather just pretending to listen. Instead of listening at I, II, or III; you are smiling and nodding, or making dead eye contact while you think about something totally unrelated in your head, or you're telling yourself you are better (or worse) than the person talking.

Perhaps you are formulating the next thing that you are going to say or question you will ask to ensure you look "smart" or "impressive." Or maybe you're "multitasking": reading or typing an email, checking Facebook, worrying about doing your taxes, watching Prison Break, or playing Mortal Kombat with a friend in Vietnam.

Even worse, maybe you're just waiting to talk.

There is no place for this type of listening (some call it pseudolistening) in coaching. As a coach, nothing is more engaging to your client than to listen to them skillfully and with great care and curiosity. And nothing is more deadly than not listening at all.

Listening is the true currency of coaching.

Listen in movies.

Play charades.

Become a birdwatcher.

Learn the Lambada.

Discover hidden secrets.

Give your clients the gift of being heard. They'll love and thank you for it.

Want to bring in your perspective about the role of listening in coaching?

Have another topic dear to your heart you would like to discuss?

Join the coaching revolution - leave YOUR comments below - I'm all ears!

Published by

Steve Tulowitzki

Hi, I'm Steve. I am a dad, a husband, a coach, a trainer, a friend, and a seeker of my true self; on a quest for truth and good in the world. I've served clients as a strategy consultant since 1999. When I decided to stop talking and start listening, I began my journey to become a coach. I've been trained by the Coaches Training Institute as a Co-Active coach. Here are some fundamentals about Co-Active coaches:. We don't believe that people have problems and need to be fixed - we believe that people are naturally creative, resourceful and whole. We don't walk around life with a predetermined script - we dance in each moment. We don't focus on problems or drone on with our own advice and pretense - we focus on the whole person to help you discover your solutions...often in unexpected places in the unfamiliar nooks and crannies of your humanity. We don't shy away from the uncomfortable questions - we won't let you off the hook, because our goal is always to evoke transformation. My dream is to create and contribute to the coaching revolution so that we can all walk around with eyes wide open in a modern, more authentic world. I can't wait to join forces with you. According to Mark Twain, "The secret of getting ahead is getting started." So let's get started!

4 thoughts on “Listen Up, Coaches – It Matters! The simple mindset shift that will transform the nature and quality of your coaching in a HEARTbeat”

  1. Steve, I LOVE LOVE LOVE the brilliant, crisp, clear way you explain the levels of listening! And a great reminder of the importance and value of listening deeply and actively to others. That in and of itself is a gift.

  2. Thanks, Alison!

    I just discovered a new term while working with a client today: ‘incomplete listening.’

    The insight that came to me is: “Removing your ego from the equation completes your listening.”


  3. Steve – this is an excellent explanation of the levels of listening – and I reminder, an inspiration – to listen deeply. Thank-you.

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