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« Are your emotions pushing you around? | Main | Coaching yourself on communication strategies. Are you in? »

Self-coaching on Listening: It Ain't Easy

Last week I started our self-coaching for communication skills experiment. Each two weeks, I (along with close to 300 other hardy souls) will be trying to coach myself on how to be a better communicator.   The information gathered from this experiment will eventually become part of a new book I’m working on about professional learning.

Our first project is to improve listening skills by trying the following:  1.  Commiting to listening, 2. Making sure my partner is the speaker, 3. Pausing before speaking and asking “Will my comments open up or close down this conversation?”

All of us have tried stuff like this.  We all read great books by people like Stephen Covey or Susan Scott, and we want to do what the books say, we really do, but … somehow not much happens.

So for this experiment, we’re trying something different: self-coaching.  What we do is we video or audio record ourselves in communication, and we then watch the video to see how well we do.  The idea is that we can provide our own feedback and follow-up as we try to be good listeners.

Well I’ve been doing my self-coaching, and what I have found is, as Montgomery Gentry so eloquently stated, “This ain't about easy it's about tough.”  Indeed, David Bowey & 2Pac say the same thing. 

Really looking at how you communicate, well, it can be tough.

My first experiment, I must admit, was, despite Montgomery Gentry’s insight into life, pretty easy.  My conversation partner was passionately interested in her topic, and the purpose of the conversation was simply for me to learn what she had to teach me about a project in Alberta.  Positioned as a learner, listening to someone who was enthusiastic about a topic that mattered to me, all I had to do was keep myself from interrupting and let her have the conversation.  All in all it went pretty well, and I was feeling like a pretty effective communicator.

But then Jenny, the love of my life, and I had a conversation about home renovations. Jenny wants some; me, not so much. That conversation wasn’t so easy.  OK it was maybe a little tough. 

What is really interesting (and embarrassing) is that until I watched myself, I was convinced that I had done a fantastic job listening to Jen. The video evidence, however, gave me away. I interrupted, I cut Jenny off, I judged what she was going to say, long before she had come close to finishing. Our conversation was gracious, and loving, Jenny made me laugh, but I also I frequently did a terrible job of listening.

Watching the video of the conversation taught me a couple things.  First, I really have very little idea what I look like performing the important tasks of my life—like talk with me wife.  Second, video can really help me get a better idea of what I am really doing.  Third, when I have the painful awareness of how I’m performing, I am motivated to improve.  I just can’t handle being the jerky guy in the video recording, and I’m going to try to do the tough work of getting better. The video recordings will help me see if I am really doing any better.

All of this has real implications for coaching teachers. Many of you are experimenting with the self-coaching experiment along with me.  People across Canada, the US, Singapore, India and other parts of the world are now also practicing self-coaching.

So if you are in on this party, what are you learning? I’d love to hear how self-coaching is working (or not working) for you. How do you see self-coaching help us as we work with teachers.  I’d love to hear anything you’d like to share. My bet is that together we can learn a lot.

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Reader Comments (28)

I've never done something like this before. Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in co-coaching, and it was incredibly informative. Left me thinking about the need for additional collaborative and self-reflective experiences. Assessing our active listening skills could be so meaningful! Are there other critical coaching skills that we might consider assessing? This is very helpful--thanks.
March 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAngela
Both of the conversations I have videod have been easy for me because the speakers were so passionate about what they were discussing. It's easy to be an active listener in those scenarios. The difference, however, was that one was very personal. My huband had an anxiety attack at work, and I wanted to help him discover the origin of that attack. I naturally felt a heightened sense of responsibility to be a good listener.

In the second scenario, I was videotaping a co-coaching activity. As a new instructional coach, I wanted to say the "right" things and respond appropriately. It was distracting for me to WANT to be a good listener, when I actually felt distracted. My saving grace was how much I like and respect the speaker.

I'm anxious to see how well I listen when the topic is not so engaging, or I don't agree with that person's point of view. Somewhat like you and redecorating, Jim.
March 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVicki
I am not participating in this study, but I can still learn from the work of others. Jim, thank you for posting your own personal reflection tonight. It was incredibly informative. I can only imagine what we would all learn if we video taped our conversations with our spouses or significant others. It always amazes me how my husband and I can have the same conversation and hear two completely different things. I believe that at times we "end" the conversation before it truly begins. Mars and Venus? I can't wait until you figure this one out Jim.
March 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKayla (Oregon)
I appreciate the pain Jim felt while watching his second conversation. The pain of reality. I, too, felt that however my experience was in a conversation that I rated as a "5" of wanting to be there...and that was probably a little high.

I still thought I was professional and the video was evidence that I wasn't.

What I'm learning is the "want to be a listener 10" conversations are, well, easy. The real challenge are the ones which I have lots of room to grow.

And to think I thought I was all that.
March 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKris (Missouri)
Great comments, everyone. Angela, I will be writing about 9 more communication strategies each two weeks, and my attempts to implement them. Next is controlling destructive emotions. Vicki and Kris, you make a good point. The listening challenge is much greater if we aren't absolutely fascinated by the topic. I wonder what we can do to make something uninteresting, more interesting? Kayla, I learned a lot about video from you, so great to hear from you. Watching myself continues to be a revelation.
March 24, 2010 | Registered CommenterJim Knight
Something I discovered, very similarly to Jim, is that the closer the relationship we have with an individual, the more difficult it might be to maintain effective listening behavior. My adult daughter agreed to partner with me and I truly thought I was engaged in the conversation until she called me out during our conversation and actually told me I wasn't looking at her so she didn't feel I was paying attention. The videotape affirmed her complaint - my infant granddaughter captured my time and caused me to redirect my attention. For me that was a critical lesson learned - commit to listening!
March 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLinda (Wisconsin)i
I was surprised how my conversation with my best friend over lunch was so guarded. We spoke only of what was going on in school not things that really interested us. I did not bring up things that I know she is into because we have differing opinions about them (ie. church and politics). I have to think about this phenomenon with a best friend. Will get back with my ideas.
March 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterOdessa
I am a little behind in the self-coaching due to March Break here in Canada (and a root canal) but here is what I've done so far. Fortunately, I work in a Pairs Coaching model so I let my coaching partner know my intent to work on my listening skills and to begin with making a commitment to really listen. She agreed to let me tape one of our conversations tomorrow so I'll keep you posted.
I tried using step 2 with a teacher yesterday, but I didn't feel that it was very successful at the time. Then, I got an email tonight from her saying how validated she felt after our conversation and that she feels much more confident about going forward with her plans. She even met with her principal to discuss how she is planning to use her data. Who knew asking a couple of questions and really staying focused on being a listener could be so effective. Thanks, Jim, for the great guidelines and for encouraging us through the self-coaching process. So far, so good.
March 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShelley
I have come to see that in my professional life I'm a strong listener and in my volunteer capacity I'm well known as a good listener however, what I am learning in this exercise is that if I am emotionally involved the listening skill is much more challenging. The reality is that my emotions and my ability to listen or maybe inability seem deeply connected. I'm looking forward to the next lesson!
March 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCorina
Well, here we are one day before the end of the first assignment, and I have only one official recording. BUT, I am noticing how MANY important conversations I have in a day, and I am definitely thinking of the listening principles as I am in a variety of conversations. My problem is remembering to have my recorder handy at all times. More concerted effort today and tomorrow!
March 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMargie
Jim, after reading your post about making something that is not interesting more interesting to us, I am reminded of the work I am doing in the district with seniors who have not passed the MN GRAD test in reading. Their biggest complaint is that the passages are boring and they cannot stay focused throughout the test. Having them practice and use the INFER strategy has significantly increased their engagement in the text, to the point that THEY are recognizing that they do not drift off or get as sleepy. I am going to think about how and if some of the INFER steps might relate to listening in conversations.
March 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMargie
For most people, the give and take of a conversation when both parties have an interest in the topic is a natural event. You talk, I listen. I talk, you listen. We make encouraging remarks. We nod. We gesture. Sometimes WE TALK OVER EACH OTHER. I had an inkling that I did this sometimes in conversation, but I was appalled to learn just how much I did it. I didn't consider this "interrupting" the speaker. I thought I was conveying my interest, my encouragment, my positive feelings about them and what they were saying, and maybe I am, but it sounds JUST PLAIN RUDE. I don't want to do this so much anymore. I want to be more intentional in my silence. Make more space for the speaker. Give myself more space to listen to the words, the information between the words, and the non-spoken information.
March 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMickey
The reflections have helped me to identify when I have become distracted from conversations and the strategies have helped me to stay focused. This is hard though. Especially when there are so many things to be distracted by. Like someone else mentioned though, we truly will never know what impact we have on others. We may feel like we have not done a good job, only to receive feedback that we have helped in some way. Definately an ongoing professional development skill that needs to be progress monitored and retaught and practiced and . . . thanks for this difficult but well worth self-study
March 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLynn
I learned that I do much better at focusing and listening when I am in my office rather than in another place and especially better than when I do a "Walk and Talk." When I know I am recording, I do even better. Perhaps as I get more used to the recording I will get a better idea of who I really am. Better yet, perhaps I will think about these things and just become a better listener.
March 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSteve
I am learning the most during the reflection process. Also, one of my conversation partners, my mom, loves this project, so after she and I had a conversation, we reflected how it went together. That was very helpful because during our conversation about our conversation I shared with her my reflections about my previous three conversations and we made comparisons. One discovery is that the skills of the conversation partner matter a lot, too. Some people talk no matter what type of listener we are; some people hardly talk no matter how many questions we ask; and some people are natural at speaking and listening, then the conversation runs beautifully. What a good exercise this has been. I am looking forward to learning about my destructive emotions next!
March 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJocelyn
Reviewing my conversations these past two weeks, I have found a clear correlation between my level of interest to my degree of listening..not much of a surprise. :) What did come as quite a shock to me, however, was that my listening skills were much better in my conversations with colleagues than with my loved ones! Is it because my conversations with loved ones tend to be more frought with emotion and passion? That I know my loved ones so well that I feel I don't need to be as polite and attentive? Wow...I really have to work on that.

One thing came through loud and clear when replaying my early conversations...I definitely get caught up in the conversations and tend to interrupt and talk-over people...sometimes I even try to finish their thoughts! Once I recognized that shortcoming, I tried in my latter conversations to bite my tongue...and sometimes I had to, literally! At times, I thought my head might explode because there were so many thoughts I needed to share, I had to consciously keep them all in until my partner was finished speaking. In doing so, I found myself dwelling on what I wanted to say and consequently missing some of what my partner was saying! I definitely have some work to do... :)

Looking forward to the next phase...
March 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLisa
Thank you all for your comments. I think it is interesting that many of you have commented that the way you listen at home is different than the way you listen at work. I am also taking from your comments that the simple strategies I recommended are powerful enough to make a difference. Is that you're experience? I know that for me, just pausing before speaking is almost way too advanced for me. I just need to not interrupt, and I suspect if I am REALLY committed to listening, my not interrupting should be easier. Simply put, I have found that if I am thinking that maybe I shouldn't say something because it might sound a little rude,I discover when watching the recording that I should definitely not say it. I am way ruder in reality than I am in my mind, and that is a big take away for me. I need to keep working on this. Thanks again for your comments. They are very helpful.
March 29, 2010 | Registered CommenterJim Knight
I have discovered many of the same things others have mentioned. It is much easier to listen at work. I think it is because at work we set a time to have a conversation with others while at home we talk to each other in passing, while we are folding clothes, doing dishes etc. I think at home and with our loved ones we need to take the extra step to plan to talk and limit distractions. Turn off the t.v., silence the cell phones or turn them off, go to a quiet place away from others.
March 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChris(Texas)
I found that in the conversations I taped, not only was it far more obvious than I thought it would be when I wasn't truly interested or fascinated with what the other person was saying....guess I thought my acting experience would pay off, but it didn't. My body language, facial expressions etc were (at least to me) dead give-aways. I also found that the more interested I was the greater my tendency to interrupt or talk over the other person. The last conversation I captured was interesting for me to watch because I was really trying to incorporate my learning from the other 3 and I did fairly well.

Thanks for giving us this great "work-out" it really is good after focusing on helping others to improve to really watch myself with critical eyes as well.

March 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMolly
I am reading a book named Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.I picked up the book at the bookstore because it intrigued me. I never thought that there would be a connection to what we are doing here with self coaching. However, in chapter four "Paul Van Riper's Big Victory: Creating Structure for Spontaneity" he discusses the successor failure of improvisational comedians. In the discussion, he tells how teachers of improv' coach comedians. The teacher creates the "conditions for successful spontaneity." This is done by encouraging the comedians to "accept all offers" meaning they must ""set aside their skill of suppressing action" and "develop action." When I think about conversations, they are spontaneous in nature. We have learned in listening that we can end or encourage conversations by our actions or lack of actions. I believe that I will find more connections between this book and the lessons in self coaching in communication. I highly recommend this book BLINK. I am glad that this experience in self coaching and the book came together spontaneously.
March 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterOdessa

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