Who is Really Listening?

If asking purposeful questions is the front end of coaching then active listening is the tail end where the real work gets done. But who is really listening?

Who is really lisening?

A lot has been written about listening skills. I list some good further reading from eminent sources below. There is also ‘Levels of Listening’ in the Coaches Toolkit on this website. I recently decided to do my own research into the subject. OK, my research methods were a bit wonky and my sample sizes tiny …. however I thought I would share my findings and see what you think. Five things to avoid and five ideas to inspire.


I started my listening skills research in social situations. Simply sitting with friends and observing what happens. I was alarmed at some of the things I saw and heard.

Distractions. Although I regularly observe this happening to others it is when I am the talker that it is most obvious – and I will say, more than a bit annoying. You become aware the listener is somewhere else other than there and then with you. They glaze over (please tell me I’m not boring). Their eyes wander to something happening behind you. They seem to be opening up their sensors to other activities and conversations in the immediate environment rather than give their best attention to you. In his recent Post Are You (REALLY) Listening To Me? my friend Domingos Silva has a dramatic example of being distracted when he should have been listening to his young son.

Interruptions. The first example is when I listen to one end of a telephone conversation. The person I am listening to starts lots of points that they do not finish. I have to assume the person at the other end of the call is constantly interrupting them. The second example is when I can see that the listener is just bursting to say something themselves and add their contribution to the pot. Finally they but in and override the talker. The sad thing for me is that most times the talker does not pick up the thread where they left off. Neither does the listener apologise or invite the talker to continue. In the third example it was obvious the listener had a poor storage capacity for facts – as well as poor listening skills – because the points they made had already been covered by the talker. The net result for the interrupter is they seem to be taking more than their fair share of the air time.

Subject Switching. It seems that some people are not really listening at all. This is the inspiration behind my Post today. What happens is the listener appears to be skimming along on the surface of the conversation until something comes up that really interests them. Then BANG. They swoop, and using the pretence of a snippet from the talker, they highjack the conversation towards something they want to talk about. In many cases they escalate the stakes and make it a highly competitive conversation. They know someone who has a bigger one, a better one or has suffered more. I’m sure you get the point.

Unsolicited Advice. This is where the listener feels an overwhelming desire to respond to what the talker is saying by offering advice, usually based on their own experiences. “That happened to me, this is what I did” or “If I were you I would …..” In its worst manifestation the listener does not even hear out the talker. There is a trigger word or phrase from the talker. In their mind they reference back to a past experience. They then put two and two together and do not make four. They make a giant leap of assumption and pitch in with an unexpected, and usually unwelcome, piece of advice.

Missing the Point. This is most noticeable when I have first-hand knowledge of what the talker is recounting. It could be a story or reflecting on a recent experience. Suddenly the listener responds with something totally disconnected to the subject. Where have they been for the last few minutes? In a dream world? Often the topic they turn to – as with our friend in ‘Subject Switching’ above – is something about themselves or something they want to say. The technical term for their response is a non sequitur. Look it up. Wikipedia has a good definition. It’s a conversational technique often used by comedians. Ha ha.

In summary, to quote an extract from Desiderata: A poem for a way of life – “Speak your truth quietly and clearly, and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story”.

It’s been a long and enjoyable summer. No, that’s not an example of a non sequitur. It is just my explanation as to how I could find time to do my social listening research. There have been some great social events this summer and I will confess much less work than usual. It has also been fun to do the research and write it down. No, I have not given feedback to any of the listeners in my example above. I just enjoyed the mental exercise quietly on my own. So when I did get back to doing some coaching I switched the context of my research to business situations.


I decided to make myself the subject of the listening skills research. A self-audit if you like. I consciously took care of my listening during a number of recent business meetings and coaching sessions. I reflected on what happened and came up with five things I was proud of doing. I strongly urge you to do this exercise for yourself. You will most likely come up with a completely different set of things to be proud of. That is good news. When you have finished take a look at the three further reading sources below and decide what you have learnt about yourself.

What Are They Trying to Tell You? This is a coaching session. We are about 30 minutes into the session. The coachee is returning quite casually but pointedly to a subject at intervals; but each time cloaked in different dialogue and using different examples. I can’t tell you the subject. That would break confidentiality. Suffice it to say my Deep Listening Skills finally clicked in. I was holding open a deep listening agenda including what Insights was I getting about him. It was a case of putting together the different pieces of a jigsaw and a picture was emerging. ‘Ah, ha’ I said to myself. He’s trying to tell me something here but something is holding him back. I remained neutral and objective. I fed him back the examples and asked him about the picture this revealed to him. The relief on his face was palpable. What followed was a very productive exploration of his Reality on the subject, and, for him he told me, some good coaching outcomes.

What Are They Not Telling You? The same coaching session as the example above. This time I sense from his body language (especially when dropping eye contact), and his hesitancy, that there is something he is holding back. I realised I needed to encourage him to be more open with me. I was using a combination of intuition and active listening. My gut feeling paid off. It transpired that it wasn’t that he didn’t trust me – he just didn’t want to appear foolish. Good learning for both of us.

Listen to the Mood Music. This is a different coaching session. I had not seen this coachee face-to-face for some time. We had mostly conducted our sessions by telephone. My immediate impression was that something was not good with him. He lacked the sparkle in his eyes and the song in his voice. Having been alerted by his immediate demeanour as we met, what I did was listen to the mood music. In fact not just listening, watching and sensing too. I would call it hearing beyond the words and reading between the lines as part of my active listening. It did not take long to agree that it was not the best day to conduct our planned session. By mutual agreement we switched the coaching subject to his more pressing issue. He was relieved that I was willing to make this switch for him. Then we scoped out his pressing issue and the original coaching subject – Goals and a start on Reality for each – and agreed a date in the near future to reconvene. It was back to the telephone for the next session.

Reflect on the Meaning. This is a business meeting. My colleague is relaying some detailed information to me on a subject with which we are both very familiar. I say this because when you are in this mode there are possibilities for the talker to make short cuts, abbreviate and not express or explore all the facts about the subject. There are also lots of ‘bear traps’ for the listener, including showing impatience and jumping to conclusions. It is largely a monologue so I get the chance to practice the full deep listening model FOFI. Starting with the first ‘F’ for Facts I found myself consciously carrying on an internal dialogue. Examples: “What does she mean by that?”, “She could be talking about A, B or C here”, “I wonder how robust that information is?” etc. A couple of times I felt I needed to interrupt and ask a clarifying question. Always polite. Never accusative or in a critical tone – “It’s my fault – help me understand this better please” was the approach I used, tinged with a bit of self-effacing humour. With the ‘O’ and ‘F’ I had my radar tuned into any places in the monologue where I felt she might have either an Opinion or a Feeling about the subject which she was skipping over for the sake of time efficiency. These I left for the end and did a recap, including asking her for her views and what she felt about the subject and the issues she had raised. The ‘I’ of course was for my Insights which I shared with her at the end. A very productive session. She gave me feedback afterwards that she felt I had the time to listen to her patiently even though she perceived I was very busy at the time. Good result!

Check your Understanding. This is a business meeting. To provide context, the two of us were scoping a project which would run for about 6 months. After this meeting we would both be going on holiday so it was important at this stage to avoid any factual misunderstandings. As with the example above I use the first ‘F’ for Facts of the FOFI model and consciously carried on an internal dialogue. In this case I was also asking myself how other stakeholders might see things or the questions they might raise in the future. We were preparing notes that would be shared with other members of the team so it was important to get the project kicked off accurately with no potential for misunderstanding. Not being afraid to check back was an important part of this and the previous example.

The Tools

Here are the tools from the Coaches Toolkit I refer to in the five business example above.

  • Levels of Listening
  • Intuition in Coaching
  • Being Present
  • Being Curious

Further Reading

A recent Post by my friend Domingos Silva.

Here are three organisations I have a lot of respect for. See what they have to say about Listening:

Author: Trevor Sherman

Trevor Sherman: Author, Blogger and Coach. What do I do? I develop leadership training material and personal learning modules. I am the owner and operator of this Blog. I coach senior executives for their development and role transition. I am based in Northamptonshire UK and operate globally - in person and through technology.

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