The moment you think you understand is when you need to listen twice as hard
It is one of the most deceptive moments in coaching or
mentoring. You have listened to the other person’s story, trying to understand
the situation. Eventually, there comes a moment, when it all seems to fall into
place. We relax our listening and start thinking about what we can do to help
them manage the issue they have raised.
But wait. All we have done at this point is make sense of
the situation in the context of our own
experience and the patterns we recognise from our own mental associations. Yet
what really matters at this point is the sense the client is making – or wants
to make – of his or her narrative. When we prioritise our own sense-making, we
devalue theirs. So, the moment we think we understand is when we need to
concentrate even harder on helping them articulate the patterns and insights
that they see. To do that, we need to park our own insights, labelling them in
our minds as “interesting, but premature”.
What tends to happen, especially with coaches, who have a
strong need to bring the client to a solution, is that we delude ourselves into
thinking we are being non-directive, when in reality, the questions we ask are
based on our own interpretations and sense-making. So we lead the client into
solutions that seem rational and relevant to us. The trust that exists between
coach-mentor and client is such that the client abandons their own exploration
of the issue and their own attempts at sense-making, deferring to what they
perceive as our greater wisdom.
So how can we overcome this instinctive tendency? Some practical
- When our
instincts tell us to say more, say less. We don’t have to share our own
thoughts right away. Indeed, it is better to let our subconscious develop
further links and associations that enrich the picture we have allowed to
- Be curious
about how they are making sense of what they are saying. Use questions,
- Who or what matters and is not in the picture?
- What patterns are emerging for you?
- What do you notice about yourself in giving this
- What’s the most liberating thought you could
have right now?
- What’s unique in the way you are experiencing
- What would be different in how you explain this,
if you were being totally honest with yourself?
(Notice that these questions
contain nothing that relates to your own understanding of the situation.)
- Use tools,
such as getting them to draw the situation, which will capture their dominant
metaphors. Encourage them to take different positions in viewing each of
the players (people or things) in their metaphor. If you also find that the
drawing reinforces your own sense-making of the issue, be curious. Ask yourself, “What is it about me and my experience
that draws me to see this pattern?”
Having gone through these steps, you may well find that your
initial interpretation of the issue and its context was quite accurate and very
similar to the perspective the client has worked their way towards. But this is
now their discovery, not yours and
likely to have much higher impact on them as a result.
Finally, in your subsequent reflections on the coaching
- What did I learn about the client?
- What did I learn about myself?
© David Clutterbuck,
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