You may think that it's incredibly obvious to suggest that you be a good listener to successfully coach people. But good listening, as it were, is often taken for granted. Coaching and mentoring skills are built upon a foundation of dialogue between coaches and employees and mentors and mentees. Unfortunately, there are some souls that consider a dialogue anything that permits another person to utter a word or two edgewise. That is, 98 percent of the conversation comes out of their mouths versus 2 percent everybody else's. That's not a dialogue!
Coaches and mentors should finely hone their listening skills, because employees should be listened to and heard from on a regular basis. This entire managerial methodology revolves around raising the level of employee participation in defining their own jobs, so it stands to reason that team members should have some say — a literal say — in what's going on. This means that they need to say a few words on occasion — to hear and to be heard.
This isn't to suggest you must always like and take to heart what your employees are saying. Nor does it mean you have to implement their suggestions or grant their requests. Coaches are still managers and are the final arbiters in all decision making, unless the responsibilities for the decisions have been specifically delegated to others.
The listening tool of coaching is richly beneficial in dealing with employees in matters ranging from performance planning to problems of professionalism. It's akin to brainstorming in the sense that it can't hurt to listen. Listening opens up doors. You can discover so much by merely hearing what your employees have to say and connecting with them in a decidedly confidential way.
Employees who are not performing up to speed have to be listened to all the more. What's causing their slumps in performance or hostile attitudes? What do they consider their roles on your team? Where do they see themselves in a year's time in the company? Do they think they've got a future in the company? Ask — and listen very carefully and respectfully — and ye shall find out. The decisions that you ultimately make after these listening tours will be fairer and sounder than they otherwise would be if you managed with cotton in your ears.
As a coach, you must be an active listener, which means that you must make certain at all times that you are both hearing and understanding your employees. You accomplish this by clarifying important points in discussions with the techniques of paraphrasing and the frequent posing of probing, open-ended questions that can't be answered with just one word.
Okay, you've got it. You listen to your staff. You talk to them on a one-on-one basis and let them all speak their pieces. That's the first step. But now it's time you absorb the precise skills of being a good listener. Yes, there are genuine skills involved in listening, and it is important for a coach to possess them. But listening to your employees without hearing what they're saying is not listening at all.
Some managers fancy themselves employee-friendly with a so-called “open door policy.” And, yes, they'll let you come in and sound off when something's on your mind. But in the end, nothing ever seems to come out of all this “listening.” That is, you lodge a complaint, ask for a new job role, request a raise in pay, a time extension on a project, and so on — and nothing is ever done about it. Eventually, you come to realize that talking to your manager is about as fruitful as talking to the plasterboard wall in your office cubicle.
As a coach, you want to scrupulously avoid being this kind of “open door policy” manager. You must both listen and hear. This is one of many key aspects that distinguish coaching from the more traditional management styles. Employees should know beyond a shadow of a doubt that when they are talking with their coach, they are being heard. They should feel confident that what they ask of their coach will be considered — either acted on affirmatively or rejected. The employees must, in turn, accept the facts of work life that maybe — just maybe — they won't get what they want. But at least they know their manager — their coach — will always take what they have to say under careful consideration and not completely disregard it. That's really all employees can ask for: a fair hearing.
You've got to be able to paraphrase what's being said to you to show your employees that you're indeed listening to and hearing them. During any confabs with your employees, periodically paraphrase what they're revealing in the discussions. “So what you're saying is, you'd like more challenging tasks in your next assignment.” Punctuating your listening with such paraphrasing reassures your employees that you're not a brass monkey — not a department store mannequin — but a real person listening, hearing, and understanding what they're saying.
If your employee unhesitatingly accepts that you are doing these three things (listening, hearing, and understanding), you've passed the coach's listening test. Remember, though, that you aren't the judge on whether you are an accomplished listener. You may sincerely feel you fully give your employees a fair hearing when they come to you with their various concerns. But what's key in these scenarios is not what you think, it's what your employees think.
Sometimes our perceptions of ourselves are not quite the perceptions that others have of us. This is precisely why you need to find out how you are perceived and whether you are in fact connecting with your employees in the way that you would like. After each and every coaching encounter and “listening time” with your staff, you need to do a checkup — on yourself. You accomplish this by soliciting feedback from your employees on whether they feel that you are listening to and hearing what they have to say. You ask them point-blank whether they feel that you are grasping their concerns and reacting to them appropriately. If you think that you are in complete sync with the feelings, hopes, and desires of your team — well, that's peachy keen, if in fact it matches the true feelings, hopes, and desires of your people.
Consider this checkup your reality check. You owe it to yourself, your employees, and the company that signs your paychecks to know where your people are coming from and where they are going, too. You are, after all, endeavoring to create a choice work environment. And you know that this pathway to positive outcomes and pleasing results all around cannot be traveled alone or with a deaf ear.
To further enhance your listening skills, there's yet another verbal device that can be added to your coaching toolbox. To categorically connect with your employees, you must make sure that you are in sync with their points of view and perspectives. In addition to paraphrasing their responses, the intelligent use of questions will ensure that your listening encounters remain on track.
That is, if you intermittently question your employees throughout discussions, you will not lose your way. So, pepper your people with questions. Not in an aggressive manner designed to put them on the spot, but to clarify points along the way and assist you in “understanding” them.
Questions can be classified as either close-ended (requiring an answer of just a word or two) or open-ended (requiring an explanation). Which do you think should be a considerable part of a coach's querying arsenal? (Open-ended questions, of course.)
Close-ended questions are posed for definitive and short responses:
“Where is the cafeteria?”
“How long has Michelle been supervisor?”
“What time does the meeting begin?”
“Is that Mr. Roach's real hair?”
As you can see, these questions are not posed to elicit elaborate answers. A couple of words in response to them will suffice. Close-ended questions have their place for closed answers — for information purposes. But they are not the driving forces in a dialogue.
Open-ended questions, on the other hand, are very powerful weapons in a coach's arsenal. These types of questions are calculated to produce more thoughtful rejoinders. They are posed with an “open end,” so to speak, and have no right or wrong answers attached to them. Open-ended questions go hand in glove with proper listening. They afford you golden opportunities to extract more from your employees. For instance, you can question them on any cloudy points that they make, or ask them to flesh out some of their opinions, suggestions, or requests. Here are several examples of open-ended questions:
“How do you feel about your coworker John leaving in the middle of the project?”
“Can you further explain this idea of yours?”
“Is your performance plan unfolding as originally anticipated?
“What's your opinion on the change in bonus policy?”
“Do you have any thoughts on why sales are down in your department from last year?”
All of these questions are meant to elicit honest and thinking responses. Coaching and mentoring methods frequently utilize open-ended questions because they, in essence, “open up” the sometimes-intimidating workplace environment. Employees are afforded opportunities to more freely express themselves in response to them. They are given chances to discuss the progress of their work assignments, their feelings about their status in the organization, their relationships with their coach and coworkers, and just about anything else.
Of course, not all open-ended questions are positive in nature. Questions leading with “Why,” for instance, are in fact open-ended, but often put the employee on the defensive. “Why did you make that decision?” “Why did you choose this new approach instead of the one that worked so well last time?” These open-ended questions are somewhat loaded and accusatory in nature. Try the alternatives: “What was the thinking process that went into your decision?” or “Please explain the reasons you chose this new approach to solving the problem instead of the previous one.”
A final listening skill worth noting gets to the heart of your employees' “feelings.” Yes, coaches need to be sensitive in ascertaining the emotional states of their team members during day-to-day encounters with them. Granted, this isn't always easy. Some people are poker faces by nature and carefully rein in their emotions. On any given day, they could just as easily have won $50 million in a Powerball lottery or been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and you couldn't tell the difference.
Most people, however, are not so accomplished at completely concealing their true feelings. And so emotions — in varying ways and degrees — are visible at all times, with the office environs being no exception. Thus, you can unearth so much just by gleaning the moods of your employees when you speak with them. How they are feeling when they are in your presence cannot be discounted as immaterial and unrelated to the work at hand.
If an individual is visibly upset when he speaks with you, it's important that you listen and respond with this reality in mind because feelings run deep — very deep. And just because they're revealed in the workplace, feelings cannot be cast aside as irrelevant. A person's feelings directly translate into job performance. Coaches and mentors know this and don't shy away from it. Coaching and mentoring — rooted so deeply in people, performance, and positive outcomes — equate feelings and mindset with productivity. Coaches never ignore employees' feelings because they recognize and appreciate that these feelings are not separate from the productive individuals behind them.
Receptivity to others' feelings adds a powerfully empathetic dimension to the art of listening and, indeed, the art of coaching and mentoring. It enables coaches to venture beyond the words being expressed by their employees. Feelings properly gauged put mere words into a meaningful perspective.
So, what you've got to do is incorporate into your listening skills, and overall coaching methods, the ability to mirror the feelings of your employees in your responses to them. Use open-ended questions to more fully comprehend why your employees are feeling this way or that way. Get to the heart of the discontent if you have to. Understand where anger is coming from and at whom it is directed.
The more traditional managers of the world are apt to equalize the emotions of their employees. Come to work with a tear in your eye and you are advised to go to the bathroom and pull yourself together. Coaches don't pack their employees off to the bathroom in lieu of forthrightly dealing with genuine human emotion and real feelings. They conscientiously link their employees' emotional states with their ultimate job performances, and are right to take this approach.