One of the structural flaws of our minds is that it is hard for us to think deeply and coherently for any length of time. We keep losing the main thread the same way we lose our keys on the way out the door. Competing, irrelevant information has a habit of darting across the mental horizon and jumbling our shaky insights. Occasionally, consciousness mysteriously goes blank for a moment, like we’ve lost our streaming connection. These mental glitches distract our attention, chipping away at our potential for finding creative flow in our work, and reinforce doubt in the value of what we are trying to make sense of.
“Why am I doing this? Why did I embark on this effort in the first place?” we think.
When this kind of thinking happens, we can experience overpowering urges to check the news, social media, gossip, walk around the office to distract others or search out a snack. All unproductive behaviors. All behaviors with external focus. As a result, some of the topics we most need to examine—our inner state, our interpersonal relationships; our goals; our skill development; the triggers that bother us so much about the way our colleagues do or don’t do their work—sink into to the mental sands, at great mental cost.
What helps in our attempts to know our own minds is, surprisingly, having another mind present. For all the appeal of independent learning, thinking usually happens best in tandem. The curiosity of someone else gives use the confidence to remain curious about the things we are most intimidated to confront about ourselves, the dogs in the basements of our minds. It is the application of a light pressure from outside us that helps give structure and perspective to some of our jumbled impressions. That coaches require us to verbalize our thoughts mobilizes us toward greater discipline in our concentration.
Occasionally a friend might be unusually attentive and ready to hear us out. But it isn’t enough for them quietly sip their coffee or cocktail and hear us out. Listening means more than merely not interrupting. To really be hard means being the recipient of a strategy of ‘active listening’.
From the start, the coach will use a succession of very quiet but significant prompts to help us develop and stick to the points we are circling. These suggest that there is no hurry but that someone is there, following every word we say, sigh we take, and flinch of our voice and posture as they encourage us to “go on” and “say more.”
One flower, one gardener
When a coach listens actively, our ideas, memories and concerns don’t have to be well-formed. We are given a wide birth to stumble, backtrack, and get confused. But the active listener contains and gardens the emerging confusion. They can see the difference between a weed that will distract us and the seed that we need to learn to nurture. They help us plough old ground covered too quickly prompting us to address a relevant point that we might have skipped. They will help us chop away at a disturbing issue while continually reassuring us that what we are saying is valuable. All the while, they will note minor changes in our facial expressions, tone of voice, breathing, posture, and eye movements. They will be interested in what words we choose, and attentive not only to what we actually express but what we might have said instead.
They do not treat us like ineffective communicators; they are simply immensely alive to how difficult it is for anyone to piece together our blind spots.
This blog post is part of a series related to The Little Book of Coaching pending publication.