Monday, August 4, 2014

Listening and asking questions

Although it sounds crazy to say this, listening is actually very hard to do.  Most of the time we don't listen, we have an internal dialogue going on about what we think, how it relates to ourselves, what we might argue with and so on, and often we judge what we hear.  Deep listening, the sort that coaches need to do, is very different and at times feels quite uncomfortable as you have to put your own thoughts on hold.  It's quiet and sometimes quite empty.  But Elena Aguilar argues that it is the most effective tool that is used in coaching.  Quieting the internal chatter creates the space where a coachee can explore his/her own issues.  At the same time you can help and guide the conversation through the questions that you ask.

But we don't need to jump in with questions.  What we observed in our summer cognitive coaching course was that there is a pause when the coachee stops talking.  This could be the time for the coach to formulate a question (not before this - remember you are listening at that point) or it could simply be wait time to allow the coachee to continue to talk without a prompt.

Both transformative coaching and cognitive coaching emphasizes that it is not our job to connect what we hear to our own autobiography, or to be inquisitive to to come up with a solution.  We don't want to think of leading questions to get to "our" solution.  Aguilar writes:
We listen from the point of view that people don't need answers, advice or wisdom.  They can do their own thinking, discover solutions, and figure out their next steps.  it demonstrates respect when we listen to someone from this space, believing they will come to their own understanding, and that my own understanding is not necessarily better than theirs.
So a coach doesn't share his or her own experiences, opinions or feelings, and doesn't give advice or suggestions.  Even clarifying questions can get in the way because the coach is asking for information for his own needs or curiosities.  Questions should only be used to help the coachee in digging deeper into his or her thoughts.

A coach listens for what is being said and for what is not being said - all those thoughts, feelings and beliefs that lurk below the surface.  A coach can see patterns in what is being said as a teacher shares stories of their struggles and successes - and a coach can then help the teacher to connect the dots and see the themes in what s/he has shared.

But it's important to listen actively.  Active listening involves body language and also conveying that s/he is listening and, even more importantly, hearing what the coachee is saying.  One way of doing this is to paraphrase.  During the cognitive coaching course we also learned to ask mediative questions to stimulate thinking right at the point when the coachee agrees with our paraphrase.  Mediative questions use plural forms eg:  what  are the reasons for .... what strategies are you ..... and also use tentative language eg:  what might be your thoughts about .... or what are some of the possibilities ....

We also talked about positive presuppositions - phrasing questions to show we think positively about what the coachee is already doing eg:  "as you examine the data, what are some of the similarities and differences that are emerging?" (you assume they are using data) or "how will you know that you are successful?" (you assume they are successful) or "what learning issues might your teachers be keen to spend their time discussing in staff meetings?" (you assume teaches are wanting to discuss these issues).

Transformative coaching also addresses probing questions.  Aguilar writes:
The purpose of asking a probing question is to help a client uncover thinking or beliefs - not necessarily to find an immediate answer or solution.  The great majority of the questions we ask in coaching should be probing questions, given that, at its broadest, our work is to help another person deepen reflective capacities and become more self aware.  Therefore, a probing question is for the client, not the coach.
We had lots of practice in listening and asking questions during the course - and I for one am keen to get more practice this year in order to develop these skills.

Photo Credit: denise carbonell via Compfight cc

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