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Sabine Stritch

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Workplace coaching and the art of listening


As the dynamic of the workplace changes, employee engagement remains as challenging as ever. Sabine Stritch explains how coaching can help.
The demands of the workplace are changing and, increasingly, managers and leaders are working with fewer staff, increased expectations and a tighter budget. At the same time the importance of an engaged staff is becoming ever more recognised. Many studies on engagement in the workplace (Roffey Park, Hay, Gallup) confirm that engaged employees are around 43% more productive than non-engaged staff. Yet only some 31% of employees are actively engaged in their jobs, while 15% are disruptively disengaged. That leaves a massive 54% of staff just simply going through the motions.
Whilst this is a shocking figure on one level, it also shows the huge opportunity for putting a focus on engagement, on bringing non-engaged staff into a space of alignment, energy and increased productivity. Interesting figures (Threshold, 2009) for managers and leaders state that 63% of highly engaged employees feel that their managers genuinely listen to them, and that they are actively encouraged to come up with ideas. Equally, 57% of highly engaged employees think that their managers are open and honest with them. 
"I think, broadly, that the link between workplace coaching, coaching skills in general and engagement has not been made as widely as it could be."
I think, broadly, that the link between workplace coaching, coaching skills in general and engagement has not been made as widely as it could be. Take, for example, the fact that highly engaged employees feel that their manager truly listens to them. When working with managers on their 360-degree feedback reports, some 80% of them receive the feedback that they do not listen well enough. What does that mean? It means that most managers are able to listen on a content level, are able to talk well about the content of a task, its structure, its timing, its general make-up and also the goal that goes with it. What managers often do not do well is listen to the whole person, to the whole story the person is telling them. And yet it is exactly the processes that go on underneath the content, on a more feeling level, that often drive behaviour. It is the process that is below the content that determines whether a person feels engaged or not engaged. The 'task' is clear: managers have to become skilled at talking at the level of emotion.
The skills of coaching are perfectly matched to the skills of that kind of listening. So, what does it take to really listen to someone, to listen to the whole of them?

Being present

This is the foundation of good listening. It is only when a person can be aware of themselves, their own inner processes, the boundary between themselves and the other and yet fully in tune with that other, fully present with themselves and the other person, that they can really notice what is going on and allow for intuition to play an appropriate part in the conversation. In itself, this ability to be present means we begin to create trust.

Creating trust

As already mentioned, feelings often drive our behaviour. Listening at that level, though, is, in the words of one manager, a courageous thing to do: 'this is the place that I am scared to go to, I don't know how to ask the questions about feelings, because part of me is scared to hear the answer, because I then don't know how to deal with that in a work situation; work is about work, not feeling'. So, providing a level of security and genuine warmth is a pre-condition for trust.

Listening to the emotion

There are times when people feel at ease and able to discuss difficult topics about themselves, their work, change with curiosity, enthusiasm and lightness. And: there are times when people feel unrealistically driven, misunderstood and defensive. It is particularly important, when we notice someone in a less productive state, to resist the urge to just talk at them, give them good advice, tell them how to be different. It is in exactly these moments that appreciating and recognising this person for where they are at, is the most productive thing to do. Picking up the emotion we are noticing in them and mirroring this back will help the person to feel taken seriously and truly connected. It also opens the doors for an honest conversation.
These are the skills coaching development will hone in managers. It is generally accepted that one of the most successful leadership styles is a coaching style as it has a positive effect on climate which, in turn, has a positive effect on the bottom line.

The positive effects of this kind of listening (and coaching) don't just affect engagement, though. Canadian and US studies show that, over the last few years, people have become more and more challenged to finish their work in working hours:

  • 40% of employees work more than 50 hours per week
  • 52% of employees take work home with them
  • 81% of white collar employees accept business calls after hours
  • 65% check their email from home


Undoubtedly, this has an adverse effect on people's family and social life, which, whilst it can accommodate such an approach for a period of time, is not sustainable and affects both health and happiness in the long run.
Coaching can really help employees find out who they want to be in their work, where their boundaries lie and also how to influence and communicate their needs. Coaching can be crucial in unearthing the reasons why we may overwork, how to develop self-esteem and get needs met, how to be resilient in stressful situations and create a more focussed yet fun way of living and working.
"Coaching can really help employees find out who they want to be in their work, where their boundaries lie and also how to influence and communicate their needs. "
In the words of one coachee who speaks about their coaching experience: '...the most important feeling that I experience with my coach during each conversation is that she always makes me feel better, more optimistic. Every time she manages to increase my self-regard and self-confidence. After every conversation I became a stronger person and it directly affected and still affects in a positive way my work and my colleagues, my leadership skills'.
Many coaching qualifications still focus heavily on coaching skills, listening skills and questioning skills and pay less attention to the importance of developing presence and true listening in their trainee coaches, leaving the coach (manager) open to just applying techniques rather than growing as an individual and becoming authentically able to integrate curiosity, presence and listening into their approach. 
At an emotional level, this will be picked up by the coachee and seriously affect their trust, openness and, therefore, their ability to have honest exchanges with their coaches that foster true growth, development and engagement.
I would recommend anyone considering a coaching training programme to consider the focus the course offers. The more the focus is on skills, chances are that less emphasis is placed on true (personal) development, so vital for coaching to be truly effective.

Sabine Stritch is director of Roffey Park's Postgraduate Certificate in Coaching which is validated by the University of Sussex. For more information visit


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