- Posted by Liz Gooster
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- attention span, business coaching, coach training, Coaches Training Institute, concentration, interference, interruption, jenny rogers, listening, performance, potential, social media
As on any well-run training course, our coaching tutorials involve engaging exercises that challenge our preconceptions and begin to build new perspectives. Focused listening is intrinsic to effective coaching. The Coaches Training Institute identifies three possible levels of listening, with focused listening only kicking in at level 2, suggesting that this is not such an everyday skill as it may sound. So in our second tutorial, we did a listening exercise in which David, our tutor, read aloud to us in a slow, measured tone. Intermittently he struck a coffee cup on his lap and each time we heard the merry little jingle of spoon on china, we were to note down how focused our listening was. If it wasn’t the 10 of perfect concentration, we had to write what we were thinking about. We variously closed our eyes, sat up straighter in our seats and put on our best listening faces.
The results of the exercise were startling. We’d all kicked off with an attentive 10, but then wavered up and down. My score went down to a bewildered 2 a couple of times where I completely lost the thread of the dense text, up to a 5 or 6 where I managed to regroup my scattered brain cells enough to grasp the meaning of a phrase or two here and there, and rose valiantly to a 7 when I sensed the end was nigh.
This illuminating exercise took only three minutes but revealed just how tough the simple-sounding task of listening can be. It surprised me how easily my mind wandered between worrying about why I wasn’t listening properly, concern about whether I’d be ‘tested’ on the meaning of what I’d heard and wondering why the coffee machine outside our thin-walled meeting room was bubbling so loudly. I wasn’t alone. Julia had been thinking she must be a bit dim because she’d only picked up two or three of the points in a list of five while Peter had been thinking about domestic matters at home.
This exercise shows convincingly how quickly interference creeps in, so that a potential score of 10 for full, focused attention becomes an eroded actual score that is much lower. While focused listening has always been more difficult than we might think, my sense is that the way we work today has helped make a shorter attention span the norm. Multi-tasking, constant interruptions from email, the demands of social media and, in the physical workplace, endless meetings and requests for ‘just a quick minute’ have all taken their toll on our ability to hone in exclusively on one thing for any length of time. Equally, at home, we often engage in several activities at once.
One memorable occasion for me was when I watched one of my best friend’s weddings in Vegas by live video streaming on the web. As I watched, I was on the landline to my sister, texting a friend on my mobile and posting Facebook messages to friends overseas. A truly 21st century shared emotional experience, but one in which no one person was getting my full attention. This may be an extreme example, but it’s now the norm to watch a popular sporting event or TV moment and tweet your views in real time to other viewers of the same programme.
The multi-media, multi-channel world is full of the delights of new connections, randomly brilliant discoveries and the forging of interest and agenda based virtual communities. It encourages fluid, scattered thinking that leaps across subjects at the twitter of an update. Coaching requires that this sort of ‘noise’ is completely silenced to allow you to focus on and listen fully to your client, picking up on what they say, what they don’t say and all the nuances in between. Although our performance in our tutorial left a lot to be desired, I’m confident we can rediscover, with David’s help, the skills I remember having in my student days. Back then, I could, if I chose, listen to a one-hour lecture – not always scintillating – and pick out some key messages in my notes. This makes me believe that the ability to listen is one that, through conscious practice, can be developed into a habitual capability.
In the same way, people’s actual performance on any task can be seen as their full potential minus the interference that intervenes to prevent them reaching it. Indeed, it has been said that ‘the core purpose of coaching is to help clients close the gap between their potential and their performance’. To do this, they need to learn how to switch off their own internal static, such as that which intruded during our short experiment and to practice listening in a focused way. Fortunately this is something we will be returning to in future tutorials, as I think I need a few more lessons!
 The names of my tutor and fellow students have been changed. However I am the real me, Liz Gooster!
 Jenny Rogers (2008) Coaching Skills: A handbook, 2e, Open University Press. Look out for my review of this book – coming soon on this blog.
I like to describe myself as happily ‘At Large’ in an independent portfolio career, balancing coaching, leadership development, coach training and being a mum to my young daughter. Positive psychology is a big influence on my work and I’ve recently gained an MSc in Applied Positive Psychology & Coaching Psychology from the University of East London. My interests include reading, writing, travel, yoga, Zumba, coffee and wine! Connect with me on LinkedIn and sign up for my newsletter, Positive Intentions.