Posted on: 26/10/2021

Listening, to understand, not to reply

By Dr Kay Guccione, Head of Researcher Development at the University of Glasgow, and FLF+ Network Mentoring Specialist.

This blog is part of a series written for our FLF+ Network Leadership Mentors, and is provided open access so that it can be used by anyone who is interested in improving their listening skills. I draw my examples in this post from across the different mentoring programmes I’ve worked on, but you will recognise that these ideas also apply to personal tutoring, doctoral and masters supervision too, as well as to line management.


Are you really listening, or are you thinking how to reply?

A common expectation for mentees is that they’ll be able to get answers to their questions by asking their mentor. Not a terrible assumption. A good mentoring partnership though, if fulfilling more than the bare minimum transaction, should not come across like a Q&A session where the mentor supplies the answer to the mentees queries.

You may have noticed that your mentees (or whomever you’re working to support or develop), will often come along to meet you for the first time, and adopt this model: either coming with a list of questions for you to answer, or none at all, but sitting down attentively to hear your oration about ‘what they should do.’

This is antithetic to the idea of mentoring as person-centred learning, as it makes the conversation all about you, the mentor; your advice, your wisdom, your opinion. The short time you have together is filled with tales of your experience, and any actions coming out of the meeting are then yours to own.

It’d be preposterous to say there should be no advice given, or stories shared, there’s a right time and place for advice within your mentoring practice. A good mentoring partnership offers more than that though. I wrote more here about the pros and cons of giving advice if you’re interested to know more.

The idea I want to focus on in this post is the idea of the role you can play as a ‘sounding board’. A sounding board is an acoustic device that is put in place to ensure the speaker’s voice is heard and as a metaphorical sounding board, you act as a listener who amplifies the learner’s voice, not your own. By listening to understand, not to reply, you support the mentee to think out loud, to externalise their thoughts, in order to support a sense-making process: This helps them to:

(1) articulate what they have experienced, how they have reacted to it, what they understand about it and what they learned form it; and then (2) to decide how to proceed and move forward.

Many of us often need to get complex intertwined thoughts out of our heads (and their associated feelings, off our chests) in order to make sense of our experiences. Once we have the chance to talk it out, and hear what we have said, we can start to understand what we think. The ‘giving advice’ model skips step 1, the important sense-making step, and offers a way forward that’s not based in the learner’s experience and preferences, but in yours.

Additionally, being listened to and getting things of our chest gives us emotional relief. Not being listened to because the mentor-is-talking-now, or being constantly interrupted with well-meaning advice, anecdotes, or related topics, does the opposite. It can be experienced as frustrating, invalidating, and disempowering, and perhaps ultimately as a waste of time.

Real listening also means you will retain more of what your mentee, (or colleague, student or team member) is telling you. Meaning that the frustration of repeated conversations or ‘I told you this last time’ can be avoided. Retaining information about people and their work helps you to make connections when opportunities arise. It also supports understanding and therefore trust building between you both, and makes for great working partnerships.

Listening to reply  is how we converse most of the time. Instead of actually paying attention to and really hearing what the other person is saying to us, we are inside our own head, thinking about what we want to say in response, that might help them.

When I teach workshops on the principles and practices of mentoring conversations, I give participants a practice run of just 10 min where I ask them to keep the mentee talking, and avoid jumping in, even if that means long pauses or awkward silences. I then ask the conversational partners how it went, and we unpick the impact of that act, on the quality of the conversation. Mentors will tend to feed back that they experienced the exercise as ‘hard work’ because it’s an ‘unfamiliar’ way of working. And that’s OK, practice makes perfect.

But let’s listen to the mentees, look what they say about the opportunity to sound out their thoughts in an uninterrupted way [data shared with the mentee’s consent]:

“When I got a chance to talk it out and vocalise the ludicrous situation I was in, I had to put all my jumbled thoughts into a coherent sentence, that means that I had to make it make sense as a story instead of, you know, turning it over and over in my mind, going back and forth over bits of the issue in my head. So, like, then I thought about what the story I was telling actually was, and it meant I came to understand what my own role in that story was, and it all became a lot clearer that what I need to do is go back to my colleague X, who I’m feeling weird about. The one that I had the, er, awkward conversation with. I have to do now, what I wanted the person in my story to do, it’s the obvious thing to do, so, and when I laid it all out clearly it was very obvious.”

“When I got to the end of describing the problem I’m having with the new module, I felt like I’d already made up my mind about what I could do, I talked round in a circle and through sorting the facts I became very determined all of a sudden to do that thing, I went right off to do it. All my mentor said, was things to reassure me, like ‘oh that makes sense to me’. What I was saying wasn’t nonsense, and my choice about what to do about it also made sense.”

“It turned out, when I got to really going into detail, not to be one issue but three different things that need sorting out. Now I’ve separated them. It’s funny because I came here saying I wanted to get advice, but when it looked like my mentor was going to give me some advice, I was like, hang on through, I need to finish this thought, because I think I just had an idea. I want to get that out before I hear the one you’re going to say. I didn’t want my thought to be interrupted cos I was on a roll. My mentor’s cool and did a great job but he can’t possibly, well, get to grips with how complicated this is for me, and how much it’s ground me down We only had just a 10 min chat so not his fault that he couldn’t get the complexity of the situation.”

‘Listening to understand’ and to support your mentee to understand what they think and feel, is a practice, and it takes practice. Your role is not to hear the question and then to provide the solution. Instead focus on keeping your mentees thinking and processing their thoughts through talking. Keep them talking until you start to understand their perspective. Your key mentor tools here are ‘summary’ and ‘paraphrase’ — different ways of reflecting back what your mentee has said to you. Summary, is to summarise in their own words. Paraphrase, is to give a short recap using your own phrasing of the situation. Either way you are reflecting their experience back to them, not jumping straight in with your own.

Listen past the words too; when they discuss their work, listen for excitement, be sensitive to their energy levels, and notice what they are not excited or energetic about. Offer an observation to keep them thinking and talking e.g. “When you talk about X you get really enthusiastic, is that right?” or “I notice that when you talk about Y your head went down, what’s happening there?” 

By thinking carefully about whether we are really listening, how we listen, and what the impact of our listening is, we can start to develop new skills in developing others. Try this out in your next mentoring meeting, supervision, or staff one-to-one.

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