Sara Swords Speed listening blog post

Speed listening

Ashlee Vance, author of a recent biography of the tech entrepreneur Elon Musk learnt that one of the people who had bought his book had listened to it at twice normal speed in order to ingest the information at a quicker rate. How many of us have wished that we could absorb the learning from the pile of books we have by our beds through the power of osmosis? Or the ability to put in ear phones and play seminars from YouTube and despite the fact that you have lapsed in and out of concentration you have taken on board the best bits to be recounted later. What would be the implications for our coaching if we take in the information from our coachees at great speed? I suspect there would be huge long pauses as the coachees go deep within themselves to seek out further information or to make sense of something.

As coach, I do not absorb all the information and thoughts and feelings I am told, but give attention to the nuggets that reveal some deeply held assumption or belief to help the person distil what they think or feel about situations from all the fragments of thought that have been circling in their heads. In normal conversation we process speech at 120-180 words per minute. In addition, our brain tries to logically predict what is about to be said (our working memory). The latter point about predicting is not useful in coaching. That would be us making sense of the coachee challenge from our own experience and world view.

But we are helping them to make sense of their world for themselves. This realisation makes clear to me the relational aspect of coaching and how that helps a coachee to open up and reveal more of themselves and their situations. The reader of the book in the example above was viewing the experience as transactional and as Vance said to suck (the book) of its precious information as efficiently as possible.

Coaching sessions offer something different in this age of speed and instant retrieval. We tell our coachees that our coaching is the time to step out of the pace of their busy decision making and reflect on those priorities and cognitive skills that inform that very busy-ness. Coaching gives them the chance to reflect and to look back at the valley from the perspective of higher up the mountain slope. Paying attention to what they need to respond to allows for a more fruitful response than the usual automatic rushed reaction. It means that they engage with a problem rather than struggle against as Robert Poynton would say in his book Do Improvise.

How many times do we see those new to coaching relationships, postpone at the last moment so that they can snatch back the hour to write a report etc? It happens less as a relationship progresses. They value the distance that they get from stepping out of the immediate problem. When coachees arrive online, or in face to face coaching, I can sometimes see what they have had to wrestle themselves away from to arrive physically. It is then my role as coach to help them to arrive fully. I do this by reminding them of the valued learning from previous sessions and this being time for them to draw breath.