Learning through writing

When you start writing a book you do so because you believe that you have something to say. If it’s a professional book, you hope and believe that your experience and insight might be of interest and use to others. You might reasonably do some reading in order to draw on others’ research and commentaries. You then combine that with your own contribution to produce a coherent story from which, you hope, others will derive some benefit. That was certainly true of the book on listening for coaches and mentors that I have recently finished.

There is clearly some learning involved here: getting an overview of the relevant literature is highly likely to add to your knowledge and understanding. But that does not capture the depth and range of what can be learnt from writing.

In my experience, you quickly get greater clarity. You need to order your thoughts, make sure they are clear, coherent and consistent, and give them some structure. But you inquire into your own practice: how is my listening, how does and vary and why? And what’s the basis for my practice? Can I justify what I do, other than from my experience of what appears to work?

These questions create a dialogue between writing, ‘theorising’ and practice. I focused more consciously on the effects of how I listened and captured my observation and reflections. I then shared my account of what happened with my client. This led to dialogue about how we had worked together. It made my process transparent and my client added their observations and perceptions. My accounts became more nuanced and better reflected the complexity of listening in practice. I developed and refined my model of listening as a result.

This process also impacted my practice. I became more aware of my default patterns of listening and what I did less often. I became a lot more aware of my listening in the moment.  I found my learning edge and used that awareness to change and expand my practice.

I also found that I became a braver listener, being more willing, for example, to share my gut responses and intuitions even when they were not well-formed. To my mind, a professional book should aspire to describe best practice. Once you have done that, the bar is set. The challenge then is to live up to it.

I wrote the book because I believed that good listening is the bedrock and core of effective coaching. But my own learning has sharpened my respect for listening and deepened my appreciation of how hard it can be to do it well. Listening enables the speaker to find their voice, see their way forward and discover themselves. Listening helps create the relationship within which that can happen. And the quality of attention required involves the coach in unending work on themselves.

I believe that writing the book has been a form of reflective practice. Practice informs conceptualisation. And that ‘theory’ informs practice. It has reinforced my belief that coaches should write: it improves practice and it tethers theory in reality. And, although it is hard, it is also fun, stimulating and, ultimately, hugely satisfying.

‘The Art of Listening in Coaching and Mentoring’ will be published by Routledge in summer 2019.

Photo by Trent Erwin on Unsplash

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