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The Power of Listening: Health Coaching in Action

by MaryAnn Jones, A-CFHC

Published on

Have you ever replied automatically to a question or statement? This morning my daughter called. (We had dropped her off just the day before to start her sophomore year at college.) She opened with, “Mom, I miss you already.” I replied, “I miss you too.” We then moved on to the logistics of her day and upcoming week. Rehashing the conversation in my mind afterward, I kept thinking, what did I really “miss”?

The power of listening
What’s the power of listening? It offers health coaching clients the rare and transformative gift of being heard. iStock/courtneyk

In hindsight, I realize that I passively heard her say she missed me, but I wasn’t really listening. As a health coach trained under the ADAPT model, I have learned the value of practicing and honing my listening skills. It is a tool that enables me to reflect and honor my health coaching clients’ vision of wellness. It deepens understanding, so together, we can discover clues to obstacles. Listening is powerful; it helps me support my clients’ efforts to create a roadmap they feel ready to travel.

If I could rescript the call with my daughter, it would start off like this:

My daughter: Mom, I miss you already.
Me: It sounds like you’re feeling a little homesick. Tell me more.

You already know I am an ADAPT-Certified Functional Health Coach (Chris Kresser likens us to change agents) and a mom. I am also an Enrollment Advisor for the Kresser Institute and have the pleasure of spending part of each day talking to wellness warriors who want to share their passion for Functional Medicine and optimal health. We created this series of articles to forward the understanding of the vital role health coaches play in helping clients achieve positive health outcomes. Via a Q&A format, we hope to give you a window into the exciting and growing field of health coaching. I look forward to your feedback and would love the opportunity to learn more about your vision of a future as a change agent.

“When we feel heard, listened to, understood, we feel supported and we know that we are not alone.” Check out this Q&A for more about the power of listening. #changeagent #chriskresser

What Is the Effect of Listening? Empathy, Connection, and More

To cultivate empathy means to see the world through the eyes of another without judgment, without trying to “fix” it, without needing it to be different. It is acceptance independent of agreement, understanding without any implied coercion for oneself or the other to change. — Judith Lasater

Not Hearing or Listening: Hearing and Listening:
An auditory process Feeling heard
Making assumptions about understanding and responding on autopilot Intentionally forwarding the understanding
Not holding focus and allowing for distractions Controlling environmental distractions
Missing an opportunity to show empathy Skillfully showing empathy and compassion
Interrupting and finishing others’ sentences The absence of agendas or preconceived notions
Feeling disconnected Connecting with another person
Remaining passive in the conversation Actively holding space without judgment
How It Sounds: How It Sounds:
“I understand, the same thing happened to …” You say nothing!
“I know what you are trying to say …” “Tell me more.”
“I think you should …” “Can you help me understand …”
“That reminds me of when …” “As you see it …”

To really get at the power of listening, I spoke with my fellow health coach, Meredith Amann. Meredith is a movement educator and health coach, as well as a graduate of the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program. Below, we discuss the difference between hearing and listening, how Meredith learned to listen, and how she uses her skills while coaching clients.

What We Can Learn about the Power of Listening from Meredith Amann

I met Meredith my very first week of the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program. We were assigned as each other’s peer partners. She and I spent an hour each week talking about our shared experience in the course, deconstructing concepts and practicing coaching techniques like motivational interviewing. But I realize now, in retrospect, that the real learning was honing and practicing our listening skills.

Getting to Know Meredith

Q: What were you doing before the ADAPT program?

A: Prior to joining the June 2018 ADAPT Health Coach Training Program, I was teaching movement and mindfulness classes in the workplace and in schools in Cincinnati, Ohio. Before that I was working in private wealth management at Goldman Sachs in San Francisco.

Q: What inspired you to seek a certification in health coaching?

A: Some people may find Chris Kresser and Kresser Institute through their interest and research into health coaching programs. I found health coaching through Chris himself. I was introduced to Chris Kresser through Diane Sanfilippo’s Balanced Bites podcast. In the same week both my dad and brother had heard him on Joe Rogan and said, “This guy is right up your alley; you need to check him out.” The ADAPT Health Coach Training Program was still in development, but I’d earmarked it in my brain to check it out once the information became available and registration was open.

I’d realized around this time that I had the classic “when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything is a nail” mentality with regards to wellness. When I taught Pilates, I thought core strength was the cure-all. When I taught and studied yoga, I thought that was the foundation for a life well lived. Then I began studying somatic experiencing and nervous system regulation and I thought, this is the solution to all of the problems. Getting older and wiser, I came to the understanding that there is no one modality, one answer, one strategy, and what I wanted was to create the most robust, most diverse, smartest tool box I could.

Q: How are you incorporating your training into your work?

A: The first time I became aware that I was incorporating my coaching skills into my current work was during a one-on-one movement session with a new client. We met to address physical limitations she experienced as a result of a stroke.

I asked: “What would you like to be able to walk away with at the end of our time together?”

A foundational coaching question, but a beautiful one to ask in any situation where you are working in the service of others. That simple question clarifies that this is her time and she is in control of the agenda. It also clearly lets her know I was listening to her needs and ready to meet them.

Q: What is your favorite quote or mantra about listening? 

What most people need is a really good listening to. — Mary Lou Casey

A: This quote alone represents a big AHA! moment for me while I was a student in the coaching program. It’s one of those statements that just lands. I could feel it in my body the first time I heard it and can still feel it today, and it feels like a big truth.

How to Practice Listening

Q: Have you always been a good listener? 

A: Gosh, you know this is a good question because if I’m honest, I wasn’t a great listener. But I thought I was! My moment of discovery was via our studies in motivational interviewing and nonviolent communication. I realized that listening is a skill. Active, empathetic, compassionate listening is absolutely something that can be learned, developed, and improved. That came as a bit of a surprise because it seems like something we should all be good at, and if you’re not, then oh well! Like drawing, I used to think that I wasn’t born with the gene for drawing and it was something I’d never be good at. But the more I have practiced listening—and drawing—the better I continue to become.

Q: How do you differentiate between passive and active, connected listening?

A: I’d compare passive listening to fact and active, connected listening to feeling. Someone can hear everything you’re saying, repeat it back to you verbatim, and yet you can still be left with that hollow and unsatisfying feeling of not truly being heard. Connected listening is about more than the facts and information. Truly listening to someone is about picking up on emotions, shifts in energy, hearing the words they’re using and noticing the thoughts and beliefs that may reside beneath them. And it’s just as important that they FEEL heard. That’s where reflective statements, a core coaching technique, have really come into play for me. A reflective statement is like a thank-you card. It’s wonderful that you love the birthday present you received in the mail but unless you send a thank-you note, your aunt won’t know that you got it.

Q: How do you practice listening?

A: I find that the most powerful and effective way to practice listening is to pause. When someone tells you something or asks you a question, pause, even if it is just for a beat or a second. We can be on conversational autopilot most of the day with lots of “Hi, how are you? Fine”-style interactions. A brief pause can be all it takes to interrupt the automatic thought/assumption/reply cycle. Pause and notice not just the words that were said but what need or request might lie beneath the surface. That might seem like a lot, but fortunately, our brains are supercomputers. We are designed for social interaction, so we can actually process this communication stuff pretty quickly. So literally just waiting one second can be all that is needed.

Q: What are some of the personal benefits of being a better listener?

A: The short answer is that it has brought me a deep appreciation for silence. Silence allows me to better listen to my own thoughts and feelings. I realized I was silence starved. I would go from listening to the morning news at home, to the radio in the car, to a podcast at work, back to the car.

How Listening Works in a Health Coaching Session

Q: How do you incorporate pauses into your work?

A: I used to play music in my yoga classes, then one day, I stopped. I give my clients the gift of a pause in the action and noise of their day. There is, so rarely, an opportunity for silence. And if you think about when you have your most interesting and creative ideas, well, it’s usually in the shower without much distraction. Silence is where the magic happens. I provide silence in my movement classes so students have an opportunity to pause, notice, and feel. A little silence can be incredibly powerful in coaching, and conversation, as well.

Q: How have you found pauses to be effective in forwarding the understanding?

A: You never know what thought, emotion, or idea might bubble up to the surface when you give it a little space and time to do so. Coaching with silence bonus: With a short, well-placed pause, you may not even need to ask your client to tell you more. They may organically begin to delve deeper.

Q: How does this enhance your ability to be mindful and exhibit empathy?

A: Thinking about empathy and listening calls to mind the work of Dr. Gabor Mate. In his work he discusses a potentially traumatic experience for a child. The presence of an empathetic witness distinguishes the difference between the child being traumatized by it or not. As coaches we are not trauma specialists, but this speaks to the importance of being seen and heard, of being witnessed. There is great healing potential in holding space for another person’s experience, feelings, and emotions. As a coach, parent, teacher, friend, whatever your role may be, you can be an empathetic witness and sometimes—oftentimes—that may be what is needed that day.

Q: What is an example of how listening to your client has helped propel their success?

A: After learning more about using reflective statements during my coursework, I would equate it to the exchange of a big, loving virtual hug. My client had been going through a challenging time at work, and we spoke on the phone and I listened. I didn’t offer any advice or compare it to a similar experience I’d gone through a couple of years ago. Instead I reflected back to her what she was saying to me.

Client: “I cannot believe that my coworkers are trying to sabotage my efforts to eat a healthy lunch. I am so angry.”
Meredith: “It sounds like you’re feeling confused and frustrated, and this isn’t what you were expecting.” 

Immediately I could feel her relief at being understood. She shifted her energy, and I could hear the tension soften in her voice. When we feel heard, listened to, understood, we feel supported and we know that we are not alone.

Takeaways on the Power of Listening for Health Coaches

Here are a few simple things we can do each day to become a better listener:

  1. Practice pausing in your interactions and conversations. It is a powerful way to exercise our listening muscle.
  2. Try it on yourself! We are most worthy of our own time and undivided attention. Check in periodically and ask how you are feeling and what you might need. Listen for the answers and create reflective statements that enhance self-efficacy and self-love.

For inspiration, check out these additional resources on listening:

Meredith Amann is a graduate of the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program.

“Being” skills are those skills that define our presence, our spirit, and how we are, while “doing” skills include things like the types of questions we ask and the reflections we offer. Successful, effective health coaches need to master being skills—like empathy, acceptance, partnership, and listening—and doing skills—such as sharing information, asking open questions, and offering affirmations.

Those skills—and many others—are part of what we teach in the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program. Our year-long virtual course includes in-depth instruction into the art and practice of coaching, as well as demos and practice opportunities to help you sharpen your skills. In fact, the second half of our course is devoted to the Practicum, where you get the chance to apply the core coaching competencies you’ve learned.

Find out more about what we offer in the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program.

MaryAnn Jones, A-CFHC

MaryAnn Jones is an Enrollment Advisor and contributing writer for the Kresser Institute and ChrisKresser.com. She also just completed her coursework in the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program. She has a quietly infectious passion for health and Functional Medicine that will inspire your own journey toward your health and wellness goals.

MaryAnn is the Habit Change Health Coach and runs her own practice: Thrive Naturally. As a former art director she is expert at deconstructing information and delivering it in simple, informative and dynamic formats that motivate and inspire you to accomplish your health and wellness goals.

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