Listening is one of the most fundamental skills in a coach’s toolkit, and I’ve found that few things have advanced my coaching practice (and life) as much as continually refining my listening skills. While this may seem obvious or rudimentary, I’ve been blown away by the layers of subtlety that exist in the realm of listening. In my growth, I’ve learned to listen more deeply to myself, my clients, our shared space, the larger field, and how all of these realities interact.
In this article, I explore how deeper listening to our own truth can advance our ability to serve clients more effectively and share:
- how my understanding and capacity to listen have evolved,
- some approaches I use to cultivate refined listening, and
- the impact deeper listening has had on my practice.
First, what is listening?
I view listening as receptivity to the field of information moving in each moment.
In the case of listening to another person, it is a posture of openness that takes in all of what they are expressing, regardless of how conscious they are of what they’re transmitting or how much I may or may not understand what they’re communicating. It’s as much about openness to sound, tone, body language, emotion, and energy as it is about listening to the words they speak. Listening is a multi-level sensing experience that creates room for the other person to fully be where they are.
In this way, listening is “holding space.” It’s creating a loving, receptive, non-judgemental space for another to experience and reveal their truth. I’ve found that the more I invest in the quality of my listening, the more easily and readily others share their deepest truths with me in a comfortable way, because they can sense the space I’m holding for them. More often than not, people initiate sharing deeply-held truths very quickly with me in personal and professional settings, which they then reflect they wouldn’t normally share. I’ve seen this pattern increase in my life in correlation with my growing ability to listen and hold greater space for others. And all of this has sourced from advancing my inner listening.
Inner listening, or listening inwardly to myself, is receptivity to the fullness of what I’m experiencing. Beyond just my thoughts, it includes my body sensations, emotions, energy, mental images, and intuition. To me, listening is a deeply musical act—it’s the sensing of harmony and disharmony. It’s also a lot about feeling. As I’ve expanded my ability to perceive what alignment and misalignment feel like in my body and how to recognize my own truths and false beliefs, I’m more effective at helping others do the same. I attribute this both to the pattern recognition I’ve gained through doing my own work, as well as gaining refinement in the internal tuning fork of my listening. I’ve gained somatic (body-based) imprinting of what harmony and disharmony feel like, and how to uncover the pathways that help move energy and emotion. But it took me repeated, sharp wake up calls to listen to the inner knowing my body was communicating because there were so many reasons I didn’t want to listen to my truth.
What gets in the way of listening
In order to listen, we have to have the awareness to slow down, open up, and feel. And all of those attributes go against the rhythms of modern, industrialized culture. We move at breakneck speed, are habituated to constantly pushing, feel disconnected from each other and our bodies more often than not, and regard thinking as the only or most important form of human intelligence.
All of these patterns were firmly operating in me when my dad died when I was 22. His death was like a lightning bolt that shocked me into expansive listening and evaluation. I realized I was pushing my body too hard in my drive to “achieve” the status quo path of success, which suddenly seemed absurd, knowing in a visceral way that I’d never incorporated before that I could die any moment. I’d already begun to question some of the above cultural assumptions though my Master’s work and experienced the havoc I was wreaking on my body as a hyper-driven student-athlete. Thankfully, my dad’s death had the silver lining of firmly launching me onto the path of listening to and following my truth.
But it isn’t only these cultural habits and personal narratives that get in the way of our listening. We’re also internally motivated to avoid listening, because listening can result in us being uncomfortable with what surfaces—especially when listening to ourselves. In addition to potentially being uncomfortable with what we hear, listening brings forward the pesky element of accountability. As one of my clients said, “The trouble with listening to myself is that then I actually have to do something about what I hear!” Oh, yes, that :) We all have a part of ourselves that wants to exist in denial and avoidance. Because then we don’t have to be uncomfortable, do the work to examine the falsehoods in our story, and figure out how to grow and create alignment in our lives!
I believe that the drive to avoid our deepest patterns is profound, and often unconscious; hence, why we’re in business as coaches. This part of us that denies and wants to keep things in the shadows of our consciousness is not a stand for our greatest self. That’s why it’s important to recognize the payoff we get from denial, so we can use it as fuel and motivation to courageously listen to what’s true within us.
Overcoming the urge to push and learning to listen more deeply
When I was 29, I had another lightning bolt moment that catalyzed layers of listening in me that I never thought possible. I had a near-fatal accident that Western medicine helped me survive through interventional surgery, but had little guidance on in regards to recovery. By listening to my body for 6 years about how to uncover my healing path, I gained an advanced immersive training in inner listening. I listened to my truth as if my life depended on it, because it actually did. I did so by listening to and navigating by my Yes and my No. By this, I mean the inner knowing that exists in my body, our bodies about how to create alignment.
My dear colleague and collaborator, Laura Griffiths, who’s worked for over 10 years as a coach and bodyworker, describes our inner knowing in the following way: “Our body knows how to heal a cut. In the same way, we have this other ‘knowing’ in our beings that knows how to generate alignment and health. We know when we’re hungry or thirsty. We also know when we’re uncomfortable emotionally or when we’re passionate about something. All these little signals direct us as to how we can create greater alignment in ourselves.” Along with examples from my personal journey, this is how I explain that listening is foundational to living your truth.
I believe that, as coaches, we’re only as good at listening for mis/alignment in others as we are at listening to it in ourselves, which is why it’s critical that we continually commit to living our truth. It brings authenticity to our practices and personal lives, and equips us to train clients to live in alignment with their own beings. We help them learn that by not simply operating on Pushing Autopilot all the time or falsely thinking that endless doing will produce success, we can come out of depletion, step into true listening, and apply the correct measures to flourish in our lives.
With almost every single client, I begin by helping them connect to their inner knowing through listening. I start by asking people to close their eyes and then posing easy Yes/No questions in our session about thirst, hunger, comfort in their current body position, etc. (*Having one’s eyes closed helps people start to develop their listening because they’re not distracted by external visual information). Then, I usually end with a question that doesn’t have a Yes/No answer to help them realize they can hear valuable information beyond Yes and No. I’ll ask them, “What’s the most nourishing thing you could do for yourself this evening?” They always get clear information and then are at choice about whether they want to choose that course of action or not. Following that session I give them awareness practices to help them get curious and start tracking their own patterns:
- How do your Yes and No show up in your body? What do they feel like?
- Notice where in your life you act on your Yes and No and where you don’t.
This assignment is the doorway to greater awareness. People will come back with observations like,
“Wow! I literally don’t ever listen to myself.”
“I actively go against my listening every single time I get an indicator to take care of myself.”
“Every time I feel uncomfortable in a conflict and I disagree, I don’t say anything. I don’t know why...”
These observations generate curiosity, which is the path to more awareness, because once we get curious we want to know more. That’s the great thing about humans. And clients notice me noticing them wanting to become aware, which also motivates them.
From all my personal experience and experience training others in inner listening, I’ve seen humans experience a Yes in their bodies as a feeling with qualities like opening, brightness, warmth, expansion, softening, happiness, while the No can feel constricting, dark, tight, small, tense, hard, blah, or downright terrifying. Despite these patterns, I always ask clients to notice what their Yes and No feel like first, because I don’t want to assume how information registers in their being. Also because, in general, people from industrialized cultures need help to learn how to not sprint and how to develop their inner listening muscle memory.
This information is quiet, especially at first—unless we ignore something important for long enough that it arises through an explosive expression that’s built up great pressure through long-standing denial. Having experienced various explosive information moments and having almost died, I often implore clients to listen so they don’t have to get a violent awakening to listen to their truth. But because the impulse to avoid listening can run so deeply in all of us, sometimes this is what’s required. Sometimes we need the shock of a lightning bolt moment to be motivated to listen.
What I listen for in myself and in my clients
Even before I meet with clients, I need to be clear on my invitation as a coach—what’s my Yes? What’s the work I’m best equipped to do and most passionate about doing? And how do I keep this invitation current in my external branding and storytelling as I evolve?
These days most clients come to me with a conscious or unconscious desire to do deep soul work as it relates to their leadership. As I’ve shifted my internal intent in that direction, I have very few clients who come to me for just strategic thought partnership, though I can do that. I hold a bigger space for my clients now and it starts with me knowing my Yes first, so that when they show up, I can be present and fully available to every aspect of them.
In my practice, I can generally assess someone’s intent for seeking coaching and whether I’d be a good fit for them in about a half an hour. Having listened to myself, I know how I’m best equipped and most want to support people, and what’s required from them and our chemistry to engage in that way. Here are some of the indicators I listen for in our first conversation:
- Alignment of context and style.
Both people need a clear sense of each other’s context to understand the transformation the client is seeking and whether I, as a coach, feel equipped to help foster that process. The client also needs to get a clear sense of my style to know whether they resonate, since skills alone don’t determine fit. Some examples of style, as you think about your own, include: inquisitive, humorous, logical, intuitive, dynamic, structured, etc.
- Ability to trust and be vulnerable.
My hunch is that initial trust sources from a client’s sensing of our listening, skills, and style. I pay attention to how comfortable the client can be with me in bringing their vulnerability forward and aim to surface the heart of why they’re seeking help in 15-20 minutes. As I said before, this can often look like people unintentionally sharing deep, dark secrets in our first or second conversation, without verbal prodding to go there. Since my style is to dive into the real real with clients to spur root cause transformation, I seek clients who are open to deep vulnerability and seeking the space to open in that way.
- Do you want to be fixed? Because I’m not here to fix you.
I’m here to be my client’s companion on their growth path—to offer reflection and pattern recognition in a territory that’s familiar to me. But the client is the only one who can discover what they need and choose the required changes. I don’t have the power to do that, nor do I purport to have authority over their being in that way. It’s not how I work, and I’m highly skeptical of practitioners who stand in this posture.
This could be a whole post (already explored by other coaches here on tgc! , but I have a few thoughts. If I sense a client has a very strong commitment in their ego to being right, broken, obstinate, or closed, I personally don’t proceed in the relationship. This is a subjective assessment, but I need to sense a fertile opening within them to considering the possibilities that (1) They don’t see everything (2) They can change their current state and (3) They want to do the work. Otherwise, it’s not in alignment with the type of practice and work I’m seeking. So, I think we each need to define what coachability means and doesn’t mean for ourselves.
In the coaching flow
Once I’ve established fit with a client and we’re engaged in coaching, there are a whole host of things I listen for during sessions to guide my practice.
Some core things I listen for in myself
- My energy level
If I’m mentally foggy or scattered before a session, I try to prioritize gathering myself for several minutes before encountering the client. And if I’m feeling deeply exhausted or unwell, I’m usually incapable of holding quality space and deep listening for another. Despite my best efforts, sometime I’m just not in a space to serve. In this case, I’ll share transparently with my client and ask if they’d prefer to postpone our call.
- My ego
always keep one eye out for any desire I may have to be right, have “the fix”, look good, focus on myself rather than the client, or choose from business motivations rather than true service, since no amount of self awareness eliminates the ego (in my experience). And my ego doesn’t give a damn about other people.
- Body mirroring/empathic experiencing of the other’s state or emotions
As I’ve deepened listening to my Yes and No, I’ve come to hear/feel other people’s Yes and No, their energy, and their body reactions in my own body. I listen for these and if something’s occurring that doesn’t feel like mine (like a clenching in my throat or a knot in my stomach), I’ll ask the client to check that I’m tuning into their experience, since where we store emotions or memories in the body is crucial information.
- Triggers or blind spots of my own
This is more rare than in my early coaching days, but I do pay attention for when a client brings something up that triggers me or that I’m unaware of in myself. These are usually indicated by a strong energy in me that’s not consistent with the client, so I take note to investigate in my solo work afterwards, rather than let that energy influence the coaching session.
Some core elements I listen for in clients
- Story and self-limiting beliefs
This is a no-brainer for coaches, but I’ll say I listen for whether someone’s telling a story that’s life-affirming and open to possibility, or one that’s life-diminishing and limited. It may be a whole self-defeating story or a fragment thought embedded in a larger narrative. Regardless, I’m always hunting these with my listening.
- Body language
People communicate so much through their body—their posture, facial expressions, gesticulations, and where they rest their hands. For example, when a client is constantly holding or massaging the back of their neck, they’re usually holding a lot of stress, so I’ll ask about it or pause our conversation and help them relax.
- The energy behind the words that people say
On the obvious level, we can listen to someone’s level of excitement—how lit up or not they are—through their tone of voice. More subtly, I experience a silent type of music that happens when people speak, where a word or phrase may have a lot of energy behind it even though their tone of voice doesn’t change. To me that signals information, like a signpost, so I’ll ask them about it and the associated thought or feeling behind it, because it’s usually a thread that will help us find the way forward.
- Engagement on the journey
I can feel if someone is in. They are telling the story that they want wholeness, they are ready to do the work, to love and accept themselves, and integrate all the parts of who they are. And when they show me their cracks and vulnerabilities, in return I help fill the cracks with gold. The cracks are the gold. That’s where the gold lies. And so it’s in that notion of the cracks, the way I feel their awareness of the cracks, help clients feel into them, and perform inner alchemy that I support people’s yearning for wholeness.
The practice of listening as Wayfinding: Reflections and where next
Listening and responding to what I hear real-time is key to my style as a coach, which is why I call my practice Wayfinding. We find the way together through focused receptivity to what’s occurring in each moment. By doing this together, my clients learn how to do this on their own, which I love, because I ultimately want them to outgrow me. So it’s key in my practice, to get ever more clear on the types of people who’d best receive the unfolding approach to transformation that I’m equipped to offer.
I learned years ago that when I have very structured ideas of plans and programs for coaching, they get dashed on the rocks. What I’m really best at is accompanying someone in the mystery of their unfolding, of life’s unfolding, with what patterns I do know. That’s my way. It’s what is authentic to me. It requires me to feel myself and my clients continually in real-time to find the leverage points for them. I see this as my gift, and as our gift as coaches :) To me, coaching is basically feeling people, falling in love with their true selves, and mirroring who they really are back to them, so they can grow into that self. That’s my job—I get to fall in love with tons of people, with their whole selves. It feels like the luckiest job on the planet! Which is my truth. And when I’m in my truth, people feel safer with me and can have a more honest assessment of their own Yes and No.
And so, I think it’s critical in selling ourselves as coaches to not only tell clients what we’ll work on with them, but to let them know how we’ll dance with them. It’s the style thread I mentioned above. How do you want to dance? Some people really like a ton of structure and they want a program that reflects that—e.g. they want to know how long they’re going to be engaged in coaching, they want to know what other people have received from doing it, etc. And if that’s your style as a coach, great. To the best of our abilities, we need to put forward a clear invitation of how we’re going to hold the space for clients and dance with them to help them decide if we’re best for them.
Thus for me, coaching is a fluid, unfolding, real-time exploration of someone’s life and the avenues that they want you to accompany them on. And they should always have the authority to step away when they feel done. Sometimes though, business motivations can sully that choosing and that granting of authority, because the coach, who’s also a business operator, can operate from scarcity. For me, as the coach, it’s critical to have very little ego about it and bow and say, “Thank you, good luck,” with humility and that listening. That practice of listening is also why I don’t offer extended coaching program packages. I make my clients assess every month so they have to hear whether they want to keep working with me. It’s a mechanism to build their inner listening.
In the bigger perspective of listening, I think it comes back to understanding the social relevance of our work—looking at the context of what’s happening for humanity right now, and asking how we connect our individual offerings and development to where both the pressure points are in society, as well as the flowering edges are. I see the practice and art of listening as being critical on the individual, organizational, and social levels to foster our best growth together, so the more we can role model and train people in it through our practices, the better.
My question to you: How do you go about listening for living your truth?
To connect with Larissa Conte, firstname.lastname@example.org
Larissa is a leadership coach and rites of passage guide through her business, Wayfinding. She teaches leaders to navigate from their deep listening into greater alignment by blending ten years of experience in leadership coaching, culture consulting, ecosystems science, ceremony design and facilitation, and holistic healing.
Larissa’s offerings range from 1:1 coaching and leadership circles to nature-based rites of passage and leadership qigong. All of her work is designed to help clients foster integrity through inner listening, embody their authentic leadership style, and navigate from their center, so they can more skillfully serve as stewards of creative energy. She’s worked with hundreds of leaders across the Fortune 100 and startups and is based in San Francisco.