The Mind of a Coach: Listening for Meaning

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In the early 1970s, a linguistics professor named John Grinder and a small group of students at UC Santa Cruz conducted research with psychologists who had transformational success with clients. The research group wanted to understand what made these psychologists so much more successful than other therapists and counselors. So successful, it seemed like magic!

They filmed the psychologists with clients then analyzed the videos.

Their finding was that these psychologists listened to and explored the structure of their clients’ language to find the underlying meaning. The International Coach Federation lists this competency as listening for what is and isn’t said. Grinder and Richard Bandler wrote two books on this research, Structure of Magic Vol. 1 and 2.

The research continued and was folded in with research on a new kind of therapy, Gestalt. It was research on the plasticity of the brain before the advent of current neuroscience and the naming of brain plasticity.  The research then evolved into a practice named Neuro-linguistic Programming. NPL came to be considered manipulative and on the fringe and disregarded as not serious. Unfortunately, the original work on linguistics and the deep structure of meaning fell by the wayside. Listening for meaning is a serious practice and not easy to learn.

A trained linguist can physically diagram sentences to determine meaning. Listening in a specific way to determine meaning takes time and work to learn.

Good coaches also listen for meaning. Sometimes it requires identifying an anchor word – one the client keeps using – and asking questions about it. It may involve spotting a pattern in the combination of sentences spoken, or detecting something in the client’s body language when a certain word comes up – eyes closing, muscles tensing, or a subtle physical change.

As a coach, anchor words catch my attention right away. I cannot not notice them. When I listen to a client, I listen for meaning without passing judgement on the content. Anchor words jump out at me.

In business and other endeavors, the focus is usually on active listening, paying attention, giving feedback and suspending judgement. It may seem awkward, too personal or uncomfortable to train people to go deeper than active listening in the workplace. In business, there can be a belief that it is too intrusive and unprofessional.

Consequently, too much attention is paid to the surface words, while what the speaker is really saying or not saying is missed. If we want our organizations and leadership to be more human-centered, this skill must be taught, nurtured and valued.

For those being listened to and truly heard, the experience can be frightening or surprising. It can bring feelings of sadness or joy. The body may react almost like a deflation. It can feel like being touched and finally understood for the first time. A new kind of self-awareness becomes possible.   

It is my belief that people want to be heard and that true transformation in behavior can’t happen until they are.

This is the third post in my blog series on how coaches think. The next one, number four, will be about creating experiences that allow for self-awareness and psychological safety for clients.

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