Compassionate Listening

“Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart. Even if he says things that are full of wrong perceptions, full of bitterness, you are still capable of continuing to listen with compassion. Because you know that by listening like that, you give that person a chance to suffer less. If you want to help him to correct his perception, you wait for another time. For now, you don’t interrupt. You don’t argue. If you do, he loses his chance. You just listen with compassion and help him to suffer less. One hour like that can bring transformation and healing.”

Thich Nhat Hanh 

As a supervisor supporting the development and professional practice of coaches, I often hear phrases such as “I just listened, it didn’t feel like I added much value.” Even though they report that the coachee said it was useful session, there is still an ‘itch’ for the coach that they did not do anything.

But over time, every coach learns that the coachee’s insights and answers will always be more powerful than those provided by the coach.

This is because of what it requires of the coachee to get to that realisation by themselves — a shift in perception, engagement, awareness and a felt sense of change; this requires space and being held.

In our model of coaching, transformation means that the coachee experiences an energetic or embodied shift in the coaching conversation. If the coach is too focused on the coachee’s story there will be no space for this insight to occur.

In fact, if we rearrange the letters in ‘Listen’ we see the words ‘Silent’ and ‘Lets In’. Once a coach truly knows and embodies this, their presence and listening become the capacities at the heart of their practice. This shift of understanding creates a deliberate practice of listening, and through training and experience this becomes a trait; a characteristic; a way of being felt by the coachee.

So let’s pause and reflect again upon the above quote from Thich Nhat Hanh and consider the impact on the coaching space that this form of listening creates.

First, what is compassion?  

Compassion over the past number of years has become more discussed, recognised and accepted as needed within leadership and organisations. It can be described as:

“The experience of suffering with the wish to alleviate it.”

Siegel and Germer

This quality is best thought of as an attitude that we bring to our listening, and it involves turning our being to the coachee’s being — with empathy and a motivation to help (to help them help themselves), and in an adult-to-adult/horizontal way of relating (I-thou).

In our experience, listening in this way creates a transformational space: it provides the coachee with permission to be seen, to be authentic in that moment and say what truly needs to be said from a deeper place. This is where the embodied and energetic shift is created.

Listening in this way creates deep levels of connection and an experience of being fully understood. The coachee will feel ‘felt’ as the coach becomes attuned through this process of compassionate relating:

“Emotional attunement – the ability to hear, see, sense, interpret and respond to the client’s verbal and non-verbal cues in a way that communicates to the client that he / she was genuinely seen, felt and understood.”

Mary Sykes Wylie and Lynne Turner

So how do we develop our capacity to listen compassionately?  

We can think of compassionate listening as an attitude we bring to the relational space that we create for our coachee and this starts with our intention.

Intention is a pre-cursor for our attention – remember, ‘energy follows focus’ — so before the coaching session, we need to come into the present and consciously step out of our experience of the day so far. This is so we are not coloured by our mood and unconscious habits in the way we relate to others, and instead meet the client with fresh eyes.

During this pause and grounding, we set a conscious intention to be fully present and listen to the coachee with the attitude of compassion. (A resource that can help with this is our free grounding exercise for coaches

“Learn your theories as well as you can, but set them aside when you touch the miracle of the human soul.” 

Carl Jung

This preparation and intention enable us to move into the coaching session in a grounded space, consciously embodying supportive qualities into the container we are creating for the conversation with the client. As a result, the coachee is likely to experience a sense of partnership, support and spaciousness to truly think and learn.

As a coach, we will be in a receptive presence that is grounded, solid, open and connected with the other, as we listen with all of our senses, noticing the verbal and non-verbal patterns of energy within the conversation; this is a deeper attention of the other.

To help coaches that train with us stay in an embodied and receptive presence, we introduce them to mindfulness and the practice of 50:50 awareness when coaching – this involves practising keeping at least 50% of their attention to inner listening, the field of their own body and mind, and giving a full 50% to the ‘relational field’ of connection with the coachee. Through mindfulness training they develop strong anchors of connecting to their ground – through embodied sensing of their feet, the seat, their hands and breath during the coaching session.

Through ongoing mindfulness practice, we sustain our capacity for this inner and outer listening — as it is often more challenging to sustain mindful, present body awareness when interacting in the coaching session.

It is through a formal practice outside of coaching such as mindfulness and centering that we develop an ability for scanning our inner landscape — an ‘inner listening’ that helps us notice interferences; the distractions that pull our mind away from the immediacy of experience with the coachee.

Then in the session, when impacted, e.g. pulled into the content or ‘rescuing’ when we notice the felt sense of difficulty, we can simply pause, take a conscious breath, sense our body and our ground, let go and reconnect with our intention to stay embodied and open to the coachee; and listening with an attitude of compassion.

“When listening from centre, we are inspired by the big picture, awareness of interconnection, and the abundance of possibilities…centre perspective is expansive and inclusive.”

Wendy Palmer

Scientific research shows us continually that brain areas affected by mindfulness training are involved in regulation of concentration and our emotion response, embodied awareness, learning and compassion. It is for this reason that through developing a regular mindfulness practice we can bring this capacity into the coaching session itself, and listening becomes less about what we do and more about our state of being as a coach.

So next time you are coaching or moving into a conversation at work or home, try some of the above ideas and experience what Tara Brach describes as “listening with the ears of the heart.”

When someone really hears you without passing judgment on you, without trying to take responsibility for you, without trying to mould you, it feels damn good…When I have been listened to and when I have been heard, I am able to re-perceive my world in a new way and to go on. It is astonishing how elements which seem insoluble become soluble when someone listens. How confusions which seem irremediable turn into relatively clear flowing streams when one is heard.”  

Carl Rogers

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