coaching, connecting and really listening

ajames2013 Avatar
courtesy of @JGamolina
courtesy of @JGamolina

When writing Engaging Imagination and before I became trained in coaching I realised had probably been an accidental coach for most of my teaching life. This manifested in t intuitively adopting some of the techniques and principles without knowing what they were. This experience made me think of how we develop student reflective capability, and how we encourage them to adopt similar coaching attitudes to help others or question themselves.


The importance of importing techniques from one role or context into another is something which we include in our list of fourteen situations in which students are likely to be reflecting (James & Brookfield, 2014:15) with Number 11 focussed on connecting thinking in one domain to that in another. Christening myself an ‘accidental coach’ made me think that I have probably been ‘naturally accidental’ rather than strategic in many other nooks and crannies of my life. I enjoy finding synergies and connections in unexpected places and this was exemplified the day after my course in the unexpected shape of a radio interview with a hostage negotiator.

As I drove through the sleety grey English countryside, listening to BBC Radio 4’s compelling magazine show Saturday Live, on came Richard Mullender, hostage negotiator, talking about the real art of listening. He instantly challenged some of my beliefs about how I listen. In our coaching session we had stressed the importance of active listening, body language, eye contact and forth as a means of being attentive and present with the coachee. All good stuff and I patted myself on the back for knowing and applying it.

Mullender, however, briskly wiped the floor with many of the easy references we make as to how we are really connecting to someone and establishing rapport. A hostage situation is, of course, infinitely different to a professional coaching session, however the need to listen is paramount in both. Mullender argues that while we may say we use listening techniques and think we do so well, we often do them badly, or not at all. He is not convinced that summarising/repeating back to people what they’ve said is actually effective as a means of showing you have really heard someone and can tap into their need or urgency. He believes that rapport is built by tapping into how someone else thinks and feels, while remaining neutral. For him what really matters in our listening is how we look for keywords that can give us information which we can then convert to intelligence. Our students (and our colleagues) are not our hostages – however they might feel on occasion! – and yet Mullender’s words impressed upon me my need to reappraise my effectiveness in how I listen. What he said also emphasised for me how valuable ‘exquisite listening’ (not his term) skills are for students, both educationally and also across all aspects of their lives. (A listener  – clearly as impressed as me – emailed in with exactly these sentiments).

Having heard Mullender I want to read and hear more, and think about three things: how what he advocates can help staff and students in much more mundane situations than the crisis territory within which he works; about how his recommendations may also support the work of an effective coach; and how I can challenge myself – not to reject body language, eye contact, and all the other things he is suspicious of as effective techniques- but to ensure that my use of them is fully present and focussed on the goals of the other. This is not a jillion miles away from either the work of the coach, or that of the educator.

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