The rarely taught but important skill of listening

November 27, 2017—It was about seven or eight years into my marriage when I learned a very important needed lesson.

When Sandy would get home from work, we’d usually talk about our day while I made dinner.

Every once in a while, she’d be frustrated, and vent about a problem at the office, which invariably involved various people.

As she was speaking, I would start formulating my solutions to her quandary, cut her short, and prescribe my brilliant answers, “Well, here’s what you do…”

I wasn’t helpful. In fact, Sandy was now also frustrated with me. She’d react with something along the lines of, ‘I don’t want your freaking solutions. I just want you to listen.’

When I finally got that through my thick skull, our kitchen conversations became more peaceful, and Sandy got what she really wanted: to be heard.* Most married guys I know have grappled with this at one stage.

Every person has a core need to be heard. We want to know in our bones that you get me.

I gained new insights into the importance of listening at a recent golf coaches workshop in Palm Springs, California led by legendary coach Fred Shoemaker, founder of the Extraordinary Golf schools, and his coaching partner Garry Lester. (That’s Fred in the white shirt in the photo.)

Rather than focusing on the brilliant things that we are supposed to say as coaches to students, Shoemaker demonstrated that listening is by far the more important skill.

Most of the participants were PGA of America coaches: 18 guys and one woman. The workshop began with everyone seated around a rectangular table. We were asked to introduce ourselves and describe what we were seeking from the workshop.

As we went around the table, some people were fairly concise and others took longer. Every person spoke until his or her well was emptied, regardless of how long it took.

As we got about a quarter around the table, I kept waiting for Fred or Garry to say, ‘Thanks very much, but we need to move along. Can you wrap it up?’ That never happened.

I realized that I wanted this introductory bit to end fairly quickly, so that we—more correctly I—could start to hear all the great wisdom that Garry and Fred would say and make me a better coach.

That’s when I realized I frankly didn’t care much about the other people. I was focused on my agenda to learn as much as I could in three days. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to learn, but I wasn’t fully hearing everyone in my impatience.

I also realized that I was starting from a place of judgment that I didn’t have enough knowledge, that I’m not good enough. It’s an old message that I’ve been carrying around my whole life like a sack of rocks.

When I released my agenda and judgment about myself, I began to absorb each person’s story. I was getting to know complete strangers after only a matter of minutes, and that our experiences were simillar. I could learn from them too.

Fred and Garry established a non-judging and safe environment that defined the workshop. No one laughed at another person’s foibles. No one said ‘you should’ do this or that.

Rather, we all felt heard.

We felt safe to go deeper, and talk about the limiting judgments and stories that we had about ourselves as coaches. We were willing to take risks and ask questions that some of us might normally have been afraid to ask for fear of sounding stupid.

Remember that this was a group of mostly guys, a species not generally known for saying what’s really going on underneath the hood.

And thus, feeling heard, we learned more about ourselves and embraced new possibilities for being more effective coaches and, I would argue, more skillful listeners.

When people fully listen to each other, they develop trust, which is the foundation for all great communication and close relationships.

That seems like a pretty good deal to me whether you’re standing on a lesson tee, in an office or in your kitchen.

*To learn more about how men and women communicate, check out Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus by John Gray.

About Tim O'Connor

Tim O'Connor is a golf coach, an award-winning writer, and speaker. Tim takes a holistic approach, coaching golfers in the physical and mental aspects of golf. He co-hosts the Swing Thoughts podcast with Howard Glassman, and is the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story. He plays bass in CID—a Guelph punk band!