Listening Levels and The Brain — Level One

Listening…. perhaps the most important part of coaching, and one of the first things we learn. I remember what a revelation it was when I took my first class at the Coaches Training Institute and they taught me how to listen. Like many of you, it had never occurred to me that there were actually different ways!

At CTI, we call it Level One (it’s all about ME), Level Two (it’s all about the other person, what they are saying) and Level Three (it’s all about everything). In my next three posts, I am going to look at what I think is happening in the brain at each level, and why ALL THREE are absolutely critical for coaching, including (and perhaps especially) Level One.

Level One — It’s all about ME. Me, do you hear me? ME!

I love teaching people about Level One. Understanding that much of human conversation is two radio speakers blasting the “me” channel at each other can be such an eye-opener, and often just this piece of information changes people’s lives. And one of the blessings of my own life for the past ten years has been hanging out with fellow coaches, who know how to be truly curious about another person. How to actually listen. What a relief. It’s what our clients come to us for, and for many of them, it is a transformational experience to actually be heard, perhaps for the first time in their lives.

Level One listening is all about running things through your own filters, judgments and opinions, and no good coach, no matter what coaching school they trained with, does this. Coaching is all about helping the client find their own answers, and you can’t do that if you are only listening from Level One, where all you are doing is mapping what your client is saying on to your own experience.

But there is a way Level One is part of the coaching dance. When I was taught about Level One listening, my instructors said something interesting, which was “you have to use your own Level One to inform your listening.” They also told us that Level Two included Level One, and Level Three included Levels Two and One. To be honest, I had a hard time understanding that, as do many new coaches. It’s a paradox of sorts. My thinking was: “I can’t coach from Level One, but now you are telling to use Level One? To include it somehow? Can’t I just get rid of it altogether? That seems so much easier! I will manage it, push it aside, and sort of try to step away from my own ideas, opinions and personality in order to be of service.”

But here’s what is interesting about Level One from a brain perspective. My instructors were right — you have to include it. We never get away from Level One. In fact, if we did, we would not understand anything at all. This has to do with the fact that many of the neurons in our brain are “multi-modal.” That is, they fire if we do something, and they fire if we watch someone doing something, if we imagine something, and if we remember. Same neurons. Many of you have probably heard the saying “the brain doesn’t know the difference between reality and imagination.” (It’s so well understood that many athletes use visualization techniques to improve their performance, and there is vast evidence it works. They are strengthening their neural pathways by imagining the action just as they would by doing it. In fact, better — because they can imagine an even better performance than perhaps they are doing.)

But what does this have to do with Level One listening? Well, as neuroscientist Jerome Feldman, an expert on how the brain understands language, puts it: “if you cannot imagine someone picking up a glass, you can’t understand the meaning of ‘Someone picked up a glass.'” We have to actually imagine what we are being told in order to understand it. We simply have to run it through our own experience. In neuroscience terms, we “simulate” things in our own brain in order to make them meaningful.

We are simulating others’ experiences in our own brain all the time, but because much of our imagination and memory is not conscious, we aren’t aware we are doing it. Our brains are meaning-making machines. Anything anyone says to us we automatically and immediately try to understand through our own mental simulation. If you say to me “I kicked a ball” the motor neurons for kicking a ball just fired. In fact, they fired as you read that sentence. You are not conscious of this, but if we had you in a brain scanner it’s what we would find.

I’ll wrap this up by saying that as coaches, we can’t help but listen from Level One all the time — and we wouldn’t want NOT to. It’s a gift.  The key is to be skillful with it. To develop our ability to discern what is understanding and what is judgment. And then coach from curiosity. In Level One, all you are doing is responding from your own experience. It takes the other levels in harmony with Level One to truly coach.


3 responses

  1. Pingback: Coach Training by The Coaches Training Institute « ICO le blog

  2. Pingback: Listening for Time Troubles « ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  3. Hi – nice post. I just back-linked it to “Listening for Time Troubles” on my ADD-focused wordpress blog. I especially appreciate your brain-focus.

    Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, SCAC, MCC – (blogging at ADDandSoMuchMore and on ADDerWorld – dot com!)
    “It takes a village to transform a world!”

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