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 mea