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The power of listening

Updated: May 19, 2021

“Usually, the brain that contains the problem also contains the solution – often the best one.” Nancy Kline

A lot of leaders aim to take a coaching approach. They understand that it is more effective to let people find the answer themselves, rather than simply give instructions. They know that this means people feel empowered and that the learning goes deeper.

However, the focus of this approach is often on questions, sometimes very leading ones. They ask “well, what do you think you should do?” or, even worse, “have you thought about doing this?”

While questions are important, if we become too focused on asking them, we miss out on the most important element of helping someone find their own solutions – listening.

The thinking environment

Nancy Kline’s Time to Think is a seminal text in this area. She advocates for the transformational power of letting people really think for themselves - and urges leaders to regularly create the conditions for them to do so.

She talks about creating a “thinking environment”. This allows people the luxury of speaking and knowing that they aren’t going to be interrupted, that they have someone’s full attention, and that what they are saying is being heard and respected. This is when people will be able to generate their best thinking.

As Kline says: “People shine not in the light of your charisma, they shine in the light of your attention for them.”

Listening is more than not talking.

We’ve all heard the term “active listening”. We’ve probably all also been sat across from someone who’s been taught that this means nodding and making noises of agreement while we’re trying to talk. This is not active listening.

Active listening as a term was originally coined by the psychologist Carl Rogers. It wasn’t about demonstrating to the other person how well you were listening (which is, after all, about you, not them), it was about making a conscious decision to listen, to pay attention to everything that was being said, non-verbally as well as verbally, and to work to truly understand what was happening for the other person.

A good listener knows that they don’t know everything about the other person’s world, and is curious to discover more.

Finding the best solution

On my first day of “coach school” I was introduced to the fabulous acronym W.A.I.T – Why Am I Talking?

If you’re speaking to show off your own knowledge, to give an opinion or simply because you feel you haven’t contributed in a while – stop!

Limit your contributions only to those that will move the speaker on in their own thinking.

As a leader, you will often know the answers (or think you do). You will usually have an opinion on what the best course of action is. Are you really listening to the other person and letting them find their own answer, or are you waiting for an opportunity to ask a leading question which will help them get to the answer you want them to find? I will be completely honest and say that, when I led a team and said I was taking a coaching approach, it was often the latter.

However, when I coach now and give people the space to explore their own problems and options for themselves, I often see them come to a conclusion that would never have occurred to me. And it is usually the perfect solution for them.

That is the power of listening.

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