Active Listening Happened When I Gave Them My Knees

“Boss, I need your knees.” Sounds like an odd request, but let me explain.

After a few weeks of getting acquainted in my new office, I told my staff that I had a fairly informal management style, that I’d be walking around a lot getting to know people and that I had an open-door policy. They should feel free to drop by my office with a quick question or an update, rather than set up an appointment.

I also told them to watch my knees. I said that if they came by and I was looking at my computer screen, turning my back to them and looking over my shoulder, nodding as they delivered their message or asked their question, they shouldn’t think that I was listening to them. It may look like it. I may even be responding appropriately. But, it’s an act. They should continue speaking only if I make a 90-degree turn so that my kneecaps are wholly visible to them. Once in position, I’m dialed-in, ready to listen. “They had my knees.”

When I think about “active listening,” I ask “Am I ready to listen?” Being physically ready is part of it. In my head, I have to clear the decks and be present for my colleagues. That means looking at them – into their eyes. Sometimes I target the forehead or the bridge of the nose. When I do this, I feel like I am communicating that nothing is in the way and it’s my colleague or client’s time.

Second (and this is always hard for me) I need to stop talking. As a raging extrovert, I genuinely and fully enjoy engaging people….all the time. I feed off their energy and always figure there is something to learn, if I just give others a chance to speak. One trick I use is to have a notepad with me and on the top of the page I write, “WAIT.” It stands for “Why am I Talking?”  When I find myself interrupting or rambling on, I realize I should have written “WAIST!” or “Why am I still talking!” Former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has a quote I like, “Never miss a good chance to shut up.”

When I decided to become an executive coach, I knew that I would have to discipline myself to share the air and speak when it was appropriate. During my training, I asked other coaches for tips on how they kept their comments to a minimum in order to “let the client drive.” I quickly added a new acronym to my collection: TALK.
• Take a breath
• Ask questions.
• Listen.
• Keep quiet.

Taking a breath reminds me to be present with the person I am engaging. Succinct, provocative, open-ended questions are the key to establishing rapport and a flowing conversation. I found that simple phrases like “Tell me a little more….” or “what exactly do you mean” often take the conversation to a new and deeper level. When I am tuned in, listening is easier because I am now focused on exploring more information, not thinking about a reply or what I would do in this situation. The more I keep quiet, the better I do.

Active listening doesn’t mean I become a potted plant. My clients often want advice or are curious about my experience. While coaching styles and philosophies vary, most coaches keep the client front and center and mine the client’s own narrative for solutions. I use appreciative inquiry questions such as, “Have you had an issue like this before? What worked for you then?” Deep into the coaching session, I like to ask, “Can I offer some observations?” Or, “Here are some things that you might think about, based on what you’ve told me.” I don’t mind giving advice when asked point blank and I have truly relevant experience to offer, but that’s not where I’d start the conversation.

Finally, for me, active listening means following up in such a way that the client feels heard and knows it. Restating and summarizing what the client has said clearly signals that I have been tracking the conversation. Recalling earlier conversations that are relevant now lets them know that the coaching conversation is dynamic and ongoing and that I have internalized their narrative as part of my approach. Showing genuine understanding and empathy signals that I understand what they’re going through and that behind the words and stories are important feelings, thoughts and patterns that are often personal in nature.

When I left my last position, I had had scores of coaching conversations with my colleagues, many of which continue to this day. I learned how to fight my instinct to give verbal expression to every thought I had. I used written and mental cues to establish a presence where I could really listen and make them feel heard by what I said in our coaching conversation and how I followed up after.

But first, I gave them my knees.


This blog post was written by Neil A. Levine, Executive Coach

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