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April 22, 2015

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Listening is everything

There are three different stages of listening, argues Michael Emery, CMIOSH. Find out which you engage with most and how it affects your role as a safety practitioner.

In coaching, listening is everything – the gateway through which all coaching passes according to the authors of Co-Active Coaching.¹ They describe three levels of listening as follows:

  • Level I listening is the sort of commonplace, everyday listening we’re all guilty of; as we listen there’s an inner voice providing a personal narrative to accompany that of the talker and more often than not we’re more concerned with our reply than we are with what’s being said. Listening at level l we’re preoccupied with our own thoughts and judgments and prone to direct the conversation according to our own agenda.
  • Level II listening is the sort of focused, attentive listening which occurs when the inner voice is silenced. Again, we’ve all experienced level ll listening most likely with a close friend or loved-one. When we’re involved in a deep, close conversation, focused on what is being said and how, alert to the effect that our words have, we’re listening at level ll. Coaches describe the intimate nature of this deep conversation in which we become immersed, as dancing in the moment.
  • Level III listening is what coaches aspire to. A coach listening at level lll is aware of everything that is being communicated both verbally and non-verbally through body-language, gestures, expressions and metaphors. A coach listening at level lll listens with their eyes and pays attention to their feelings.

Gestures and expressions are one way in which people communicate non-verbally, sometimes subconsciously. Many of us gesture with our hands for example and most of the time we do this habitually without communicating anything in particular. Coaches believe that some gestures provide a window through to a person’s thoughts, allowing a glimpse of ideas that haven’t been properly formulated and haven’t been articulated verbally. The service the coach provides is to spot such gestures and reveal them. Often the coachee is completely unaware of having made the gesture but becoming aware of it reveals something. Such interventions can be conversation turning moments.

Metaphors can be similarly revealing. A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable but is regarded as representative or symbolic of something else. Again many people use metaphors habitually but occasionally, in the context of a conversation, if a coachee uses an expression like half-baked or drowning or lost at sea or off-the-hook a coach might think this unusual and want to reflect this back. Again, if the choice of words reveals something for the coachee this can change the direction of a conversation.

Listening at level III it’s not unusual to just sense something without being able to pin-point the exact source of the feeling. Coaches learn to trust this intuition and regard it as something that should be shared with the coachee. The coach’s role is to articulate such feelings accurately, without judgment and in a way that doesn’t direct the conversation.

Coachees often can’t see for themselves what’s going on and one of the coach’s principle roles is to help them join the dots. Listening at levels II and III and being fully engaged in the conversation provides a coach with a considerable amount of information about the coachee at a particular moment. The service the coach provides is to share this information with the coachee.

Why should safety practitioners be in the least interested in any of this? Because combined with the specialist knowledge and understanding qualified safety practitioners have about the law, and the standards that have to be achieved and how other organisations have solved problems, these highly-developed communication skills can help practitioners be the collaborative partners businesses need them to be.


¹ Henry Kimsey-House, Karen Kimsey-House, Phillip Sandahl and Laura Whitworth. Co-Active Coaching: Changing Business Transforming Lives.  Nicholas Brealey Publishing (2011).

Michael EmeryMichael Emery, CMIOSH, is owner of Lancashire-based consultancy Securus Health & Safety Limited. Over the course of a 25-year career he’s managed health and safety for several leading organisations, household names at home and abroad. As a qualified Executive Coach accredited with the Academy of Executive Coaching (AoEC), Michael helps other safety professionals be the best they can be, whether it’s 1:1 coaching support they need or training in the use of coaching skills themselves through his unique IOSH Approved Coaching for safety programme.

Sleep and Fatigue: Director’s Briefing

Fatigue is common amongst the population, but particularly among those working abnormal hours, and can arise from excessive working time or poorly designed shift patterns. It is also related to workload, in that workers are more easily fatigued if their work is machine-paced, complex or monotonous.

This free director’s briefing contains:

  • Key points;
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  • Case law;
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Barbour EHS

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Nick Wharton
Nick Wharton
5 years ago

Nice article Michael. These are really good points put across very well. This type of listening is exactly what we at JOMC try to achieve in people when we train them in safety engagements/discussions (we call them SUSA Discussions). It is a real skill that needs lots of practice but is well worth the effort as you can learn so much from what people do/don’t say and how they say it. Of course these are just great, general skills that should be displayed by all good leaders. We tend to put them to use most often in a safety context… Read more »

Stephen Butler
Stephen Butler
5 years ago

Interesting article