Active Listening: Listening For Potential

by Paulette Rao Share via -



Information in; information out. The majority of our waking hours are spent in some form of communication. We are social creatures. Even when alone, we frequently maintain an inner dialogue with ourselves. Of all forms of communication, listening is the most frequently used. Studies find that adults spend about 45% of their communication time listening. Managers are estimated to spend 63% of their time at work listening.* Listening is essential to life, and a skill we want to hone. 

In our previous article, we discussed several listening perspectives. In this article we will discuss a final one: listening for the client's potential.

Peter Senge says, "To listen fully means to pay close attention to what is being said beneath the words. You listen not only to the 'music,' but to the essence of the person speaking. You listen not only for what someone knows, but for what he or she is. Ears operate at the speed of sound, which is far slower than the speed of light the eyes take in."  

We listen for the person's ability to reach their unique potential. We listen as though they are capable of solving their own issue, because they are. When we truly believe this, our brains reflect that belief via mirror neurons resulting in the client catching this belief.

A mirror neuron is a brain cell that fires both when a person acts and when a person observes that action performed by another. Thus, that brain cell "mirrors" the behavior of the other person, as though the observer were itself acting. For example, when you pick up your water bottle, a brain cell fires to tell your hand to grab it. If you are watching your colleague pick up his bottle of water, the same brain cell fires in your brain as if you were also picking up his water bottle even if your hand is not moving at all.

Daniel Goleman explains that "mirror neurons create, within a person's brain, a replica of the brain state of whomever that person is with. So as a coach, we must believe in the client's efficacy."

Often, as leaders or coaches, we believe in our client's resourcefulness and potential more than they do. The fact is few people are aware of their potential. As coaches we have the privilege of seeing that very potential and facilitating their growing into it through the way we listen and speak.  

We must listen as though the client is capable of solving their own dilemmas.

If you listen this way you are not inclined to stand in the expert role and so be tempted to give advice. When you listen this way you create a space, through inquiry, where the client can explore for themselves how they might reach a solution. It is hugely empowering to believe in your client's ability to learn and grow. It opens up the possibility for the client to live into that very potential.

In future articles we will discuss impediments to listening well and the two phases of active listening. Until then, here is a thought to ponder:

"The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them." Ralph G. Nichols

*Data from Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and Practice by Owen Hargie




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