How many times have you asked a question, and then realized a few words into the response, that you are listening to your own thoughts rather than what the other person is saying?
Effective question asking skills are fundamental to being a good coach and developer of others. I’ve written about how effective questions skills are a key component of being a good coach. But what about listening? As leaders, how well do we actually hear what the other person is saying? What is our response when we ask someone a question? How do our own assumptions and biases influence what we hear? How do we know what question to ask next?
John Shook has been attributed with saying “Until I heard where your thinking was at, I didn’t know what question I needed to ask.” If we are coaching others in service to their development, we owe it to them to both ask questions to elicit their thinking and to actually listen to what they are saying. Only then, by hearing their thoughts, will we know how we might support them in developing their thinking further.
For those of us who readily express our thoughts, who think by talking out loud, or who are used to being the problem-solvers, jumping in with our opinion or solution is a habit. We may be practicing overcoming this tendency to be more “telling” by asking good coaching question based on humble inquiry. But if we find ourselves listening to our own internal answers or are focused on thinking about the next “great question”, do we actually hear what the other person is saying in response? A quote that Margie Hagene uses frequently in her coaching sticks with me: “Getting ready to speak is not the same thing as listening.” Does this resonate with you as well?
Our own assumptions of what ought to be the answer or explanation also can get in the way of effective listening. I have frequently found that assumptions on behalf of the listener are barriers to a coach/leader listening to the A3 presenter when working through an A3 problem solving process. When we hold on too tightly to our own assumptions of the problem and what we think are the solutions, we miss out on hearing (and seeing) a different perspective. Or, we may end up advocating for our own point of view by asking questions with the intended (although perhaps unconscious) purpose to get the problem solver to go down our way of thinking, rather than really hearing what the person is saying and supporting them in the process of discovery for themselves.
For anyone looking to practice their listening skills, play the role of observer or second coach during a gemba walk, A3 catchball session, or in a meeting – listen and write down verbatim what the person serving in the coach role is saying. I learned this practice from Margie Hagene when she served as my “second coach” when I worked as a lean leader at a large Californian healthcare system. This is a great practice not only because it hones your listening skills, but because the verbatim record serves as evidence to the person you are coaching on the quality of their questions or the way in which they are showing up in gemba. The more you practice focused listening when you are not in the role as primary coach or question asker, the better you will become at effective listening when you are also the one asking questions or directly coaching someone working on a problem.
I recently moved to Japan and, for the first time in decades, I am actively learning to speak a new language. This practice has made me appreciate how singularly focused I have to be in order to understand what is being said. If I don’t listen intently, I don’t hear each separate word. If my mind wanders or I try to translate the words while the other person is speaking, I don’t comprehend what is being said. I do hope for a day – in the near future – where I don’t have to listen quite so intently, but in the meantime, it is good practice for focused listening, no matter what language I am speaking and hearing.
How well do you find that you listen? How do others experience you as a listener? What practices have you found helpful for more effective listening when you are coaching others or working with a team member to solve a problem? How will you bring intention to get a little bit better at listening today?