This article was originally written by Michael Hall – gently edited by The Coaching Room
“The great majority of us cannot listen; we find ourselves compelled to evaluate, because listening is too dangerous. The first requirement is courage, and we do not always have it.” Carl Rogers
In the above quote Carl Rogers makes a pretty incredible assertion. He says that listening is too dangerous. In his context, listening is too dangerous to ourselves, that is, we are not courageous enough to really listen. So what is the danger? The danger is that you will be changed. You might change your mind— your understanding, your belief, your value, etc. As a coach even when you have no agenda except to be as helpful as the client allows you to be, you may be changed. Your ideas about the client may change. Your understandings of what you can do or need to do may change. And even deeper, the client’s presentation and struggle may affect you deeply— it may relate to things in your own life.
Listening is dangerous because to truly listen, you have to take into yourself the ideas, understandings, premises, etc. of your client— and the mere fact of taking on the client’s model of the world— will affect you. You will be different. It is inevitable.
Carl Rogers also described the power of making a summary of a person’s understanding. In moderating a conflict or helping two people to come to an understanding of each other this is what he recommended. This is also one of the key processes we use in Group and Team Coaching as a way to facilitate persons within a group to come to truly understand each other.
“Each person can speak up for himself only after he has first restated the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker accurately, and to that speaker’s satisfaction.”
This speaks to listening in that it takes a lot of active listening and effort to summarise what another person has said and to keep check if you now understand them to their satisfaction. In contexts of disagreement and conflict, this process has to be repeated several times to just get one person to adequately indicate that they have heard another person. And here the courage to listen and then to articulate the other person’s point of view becomes even more challenging. That’s because to accurately repeat the other’s point of view to his or her satisfaction requires taking on that perspective. And in conflict situations, that is the last thing most people want to do.
What makes listening dangerous to yourself, to a change that you might need to make, is that by listening you have to enter into another person’s private world, into that person’s way of thinking, model of the world, and see the world the way that person sees things. In Meta- Coaching we describe this as entering into the client’s matrix of meaning to understand the client on the client’s terms, not ours. So this process will feel dangerous to any person who does not have a solid sense of their own self and a strong sense of ego-strength to know oneself.
Given that, now you know why we emphasise ego-strength in APG and in Coaching Mastery. That’s why we make ego-strength one of the requirements for even being at Meta-Coaching. Without ego-strength it is essentially impossible to listen to another person without personalising, being induced into an un-resourceful state, etc. Ego-strength not only means that you can face unsettling and disturbing facets of reality without caving in, it means that you are strong enough in yourself to be available for someone else. That’s also why we do the Releasing Judgement Pattern in Meta-Coaching and the De-Contamination Chamber. Those patterns are designed to enable a Meta-Coach to be able to try on someone else’s model of the world without losing his or her own sense of self and model of the world.
The courage that’s needed to fully, accurately, actively, and compassionately listen is the courage to get yourself out of the way as you listen. It is to release any and every agenda that you might have. It is the courage to go with what you’re hearing to understand it more deeply rather than judge it or fix it. It is the realisation that whatever is being said it is not about you and you do not have to personalise it.
How courageous are you? Given all of this about real listening, how easily can you set yourself aside and just listen in order to understand your client on his or her terms? That’s the question that begins to evaluate your effectiveness as a coach.