Learnings from listening

Stephen Burt listening

Last week I attended a talk at The RSA in London by Stephen Burt on the power of listening. Stephen is a highly experienced leadership coach, so operating in a similar space to me.

I, therefore, invested the time to come to this talk not to expect to learn new core skills, but to learn by deep listening to here the music that Debussy called “the space between the notes”, as I wrote about in “Listening, your superpower“.

As a starting point, I loved the graphic above from Stephen, himself a passionate musician. My favourite slide from his talk.

I did indeed pick up a few powerful observations and learnings. Not all were new to me, but all crystallised and embedded further from listening.

Today I share three key thoughts.

Listening crystallises thinking for both speaker and listener.

One element that Stephen talked about was that by being listened to, the speaker can, simply by that act of being heard as they express themselves, crystallise their thinking, have epiphanies, gain clarity.

My thought from listening to Stephen’s talk, off the back of a week of numerous client meetings across the globe (oh how I love the ease of video calls!), was that when we truly and deeply listen, we can also crystallise thinking as the listener.

For that listener, that crystallised thinking can be clarity on what to reflect back to the person speaking, it can be an understanding of the context (the source) of where they are coming from.

In addition, and something to share to people newer to listening (including coaches in the early stages of that journey)…

The right question emerges automatically once we listen deeply

When I started coaching, I was actively (with my energy and my rational thinking) always looking for the next question to ask in a coaching session.

My sharing now is that, if we truly and deeply listen, the right question emerges automatically.

This can be at a relatively superficial level, but sometimes it can be the totally incisive question that cuts right to the key issue. Oh, and a clue that this happened is that the coachee will normally pause then say something like “that’s a really good question”, then pause some more before answering.

The most powerful questions go to the heart of the matter and cut through energetically and not simply rationally.

One more level. Where you are a coach with significant (as in at least one to two decades) of relevant business leadership experience, sometimes that question can incorporate financial numbers. Financial questions can be hugely powerful when they shift perspectives.

As an example, recently I was at a small and private event where the featured speaker told us of the growth vision for his company. I sensed that they had not thought beyond the next 2-3 years, plus from my understanding of the financial scale they were talking about, that they would hit a limit with the existing scope of the business at that time. So, my question to them was: “Congratulations on your success your growth so far, as well as your anticipated growth to revenue of £ x million within the next 3 years. My question to you is your vision of what your business will evolve to in order to ultimately reach a revenue level of £ 2x million?”.

That question really opened up their thinking and conversation.

Where did that question come from? It came not from thinking of what my question might be, but from listening and then allowing the question to come forth automatically.

What prevents us from truly listening?

At his talk, Stephen Burt asked us to consider what stops us from truly listening, given the proven power of listening to others. As I sat and listened, the answer came forth to me.


When we listen deeply, there is an intimacy to that for both listener and speaker.

To listen and be listened to, we must exhibit at different levels the attributes of leaders (as in the #BeMoreYou page on this site), to be:

  • Hungry
  • Humble
  • Brave
  • Open

It is easy to have surface conversations, we can create shallow interactions and relationships that way, we can be transactional rather than transformative.

Sometimes that is exactly what we need, however sometimes we crave deeper meaning in relationships, and by relationships, it can be as simple as a short and one-off conversation.

If we are hungry to connect to others, bring humility and openness to our listening and to our speaking, and have the bravery to be open to such connection, magical things can happen.

Oh, one last thought for coaches reading this. You are trained listeners, you love to listen. Please (please!) also note that a) coaching is permission-based, and b) when you are acting as a coach it must always be the agenda of the coachee, not the coach. What does all of that mean? Simple. You may listen and notice something powerful for the individual, but before reflecting it, before asking the incisive questions, please make sure that a) you have permission to coach, and b) that you are speaking in service of the other person, not from your ego, you need to show how smart you are. Trust me, every coach (including me) has failed at this from time to time, so sharing my own mistakes and learnings.

Also published on Medium.