Ever wonder why coaching — whether for business, career or life — is so effective for so many people? U.K. leadership developer and coach trainer Aboodi Shabi joins us today to talk about why listening is such a crucial part of the relationships between coach and client.
Are They Mad?
Towards the end of her life, my mother, who grew up and lived in Baghdad until she was in her late thirties, developed Alzheimer’s and started to forget herself during her conversations. Whenever we spoke on the phone, or when we met, she would ask me what I did for a living, and I would try to explain.
“She would look at me with a slightly astonished expression on her face, and say “They pay you? To talk to them? Are they mad?”
It’s never been especially easy for me to quickly sum up just what it is that I do, but explaining coaching to someone whose English wasn’t fluent and who couldn’t remember anything anyway, was especially trying.
Occasionally, however, she would get it.
And then, she would look at me with a slightly astonished expression on her face, and say “They pay you? To talk to them? Are they mad?”
A Solution to Every Problem?
The story about my mother and I is one I often tell, and it points to something at the heart of why I do what I do. We live in an increasingly rational culture, one that believes, in its rationalist way, that there is a solution to every problem.
“If self-help books work, how come we need more than one?”
This has penetrated our culture in ways I couldn’t have imagined as a child. Go to any bookshop, and you’ll find rows of shelves devoted to “self-help” books; look on the internet and you’ll find advice on how to deal with any problem you can imagine, and some you can’t.
And yet, despite the mass availability of good advice, information on how to deal with our problems, workshops on how to make money, find or maintain relationships, live powerfully, etc, we are still seeking something.
Something else that I often say is that “If self-help books worked, how come we need more than one?”. It’s not that the information out there is bad or that the courses offered aren’t any good, but it seems there is something missing. Something that people will, despite my mother’s protestations, pay for and which they value.
The Answer: Listen + Listen + Listen
That something, I think, is listening. Sounds simple, but it’s almost as if the more solutions there are out there, the harder it is to simply be listened to.
When we talk to our friends or our colleagues about our challenges what we often get is advice – “Read this book,” or, “Do this course.” Or, worse, we sometimes get told we should “Just deal with it,” or “Get over it.”
“We don’t really get listened to. We get information and advice.”
In other words, we don’t really get listened to – we get “fixed”, or “told what to do”, but we don’t get listened to in the sense of being legitimised in our own experience. We don’t get seen, we don’t get witnessed and we don’t get that connection. We get information and advice instead.
For the Dogs?
Those of you who have dogs will know that, if you throw a stick for a dog when you are out walking with it, the dog will run after the stick, bring it back to you and drop it at your feet for you to throw it again. The dog doesn’t simply want the stick; it wants the connection, the relationship.
Information and advice are a bit like the stick. It’s not that we don’t need advice or solutions to our problems – of course we do – but often what’s needed in addition to these things is simple listening.
In fact, I’d say listening is something that’s so vital and so rare.
Sometimes we miss the obviousness of simply giving someone the gift of listening. I know, from my own experience as a coach and also from the experiences of the coaches I have trained and worked with, that often the coachee will say that, in coaching (and also in counseling), they have been able to speak of things they have never spoken about before. The simple act of being able to speak those things was sufficient.
In the excellent book, “A General Theory of Love” , the writers Amini, Lewis and Lannon argue that one of the main benefits of counselling (for which you could also read “coaching”) is the connection between the counselor and the client – the limbic connection between them is the healing, not the content.
To Be Heard, To Be Seen
In summary, I think we can say that the human soul longs for, perhaps more than anything else, the chance to express itself and be heard or seen. It doesn’t need to be fixed, told what to do next or given a solution. It simply longs to be witnessed.
“The human soul longs to express itself and be heard or seen. It doesn’t need to be fixed. It simply longs to be witnessed.”
This need has been around since ancient times. Writer Joseph Campbell used to talk about “sacred space” – a space where people would gather to speak of their important matters and where the act of speaking would in itself be transformative.
I think it’s that space that people are seeking – the space where they can hear themselves and be witnessed. And, for that, no, I don’t think they are mad to pay.
© Aboodi Shabi – 2015
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