Learning Lab

How Active Listening Impacts Your Clients Brain

By Amy Brann

As a coach, you know that listening skills are essential when working with your clients. A coach’s ability to employ active listening – a communication technique in which the listener focuses on what is being said and seeks to empathize with the speaker – can make or break the coaching-client relationship. Though we’ve long had an intuitive sense of the power of active listening, researchers are beginning to elucidate the neuroscientific underpinnings of this phenomenon and have visualized the brain regions that light up when we feel that another person is actively listening to us.

[image_frame style=”shadow” align=”left” height=”180″ width=”300″]https://neuroscienceforcoaches.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Listening.jpg[/image_frame]In one recent study, participants shared significant life experiences with evaluators. When evaluators employed active listening skills, participants noticed, giving active listeners higher skill ratings and reporting feeling more positive about the overall evaluation experience. Participants with actively listening evaluators also reported more positive feelings about the life experiences they had shared – even if that experience was inherently negative, such as the death of a close friend or family member.

These results alone underscore the need for coaches to employ active listening. But in addition to recording the differences in participants’ subjective experiences under the active listening and non-active listening conditions, differences were also observed in participants’ brain activity. Using fMRI, an imaging method that lights up regions of the brain that are using more glucose (the brain’s power source), the researchers saw marked differences brain activity under active listening and non-active listening conditions.

Your Brain on Active Listening

fMRI results showed that the reward regions of the brain were activated when participants worked with actively listening evaluators. The reward regions activated, including the ventral striatum, are also activated by monetary rewards and other rewarding life experiences. The right anterior insula, a region of the cerebral cortex, was also more active in participants whose evaluators employed active listening techniques. Neuroscientists believe that the right anterior insula is involved in evaluating positive emotions.

Active Listening is an Essential Coaching Skill

Active listening is one of the key ingredients for happier, healthier clients. The research literature on active listening shows that when coaches use active listening with their clients, the learnings from those coaching session are more likely to ‘stick,’ as individuals who feel listened to tend to remember more of the relevant experience. Active listening can make clients more cooperative in the coaching process. In addition to creating a fertile ground for self-improvement, active listening also makes your clients feel good, increasing positive feelings when sharing their experiences, and strengthening the client-coach relationship. Active listening techniques can also improve a client’s outlook on past events they’re sharing with coaches. If a client is sharing a traumatic experience that is negatively impacting their life, the use of active listening can enhance your client’s ability to reframe past events in a more positive way, which can be an important step in the healing process. Clients whose coaches employ active listening are likely to enjoy the growth process more and have a more pleasant experience in coaching sessions – making them much more likely to stick with their coach over the long term.

Improve Your Active Listening Skills

If you want to improve your active listening skills, find ten minutes or more to sit down with a coaching buddy or another friend. Ask your conversation partner to share what’s on their mind and listen without interruptions. Use active listening techniques like paraphrasing to be sure you understand what the person meant to express, ask questions when appropriate to draw out thoughts and clarify meanings, and use engaged body language. As coaches, we can become accustomed to assessing personal situations and prescribing solutions. But active listening requires that we avoid judgment and hold off on giving advice. When you are focused on listening and empathizing, focus on understanding your conversation partner rather than solving problems. Practice applying these fledgling skills to increasingly difficult situations including arguments with your spouse or other family members. can improve your ability to foster connection and empathy.

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