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December 2020 - Year 22 - Issue 6

ISSN 1755-9715

Not Listening – an Apology: Listening Authentically in the Context of Ontological Coaching for Adult ESOL Users

Robert Feather has been a teacher of English as a foreign language for 40 years in a range of contexts. He has worked in Egypt, Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, Russia. It was at Pilgrims in Canterbury where he learned about and began to practise the humanistic approach. This has led him to the latest personal and professional transformation – that of becoming a coach in the field of EFL.


Not listening

I realised I wasn’t listening to you Isabelle.

You were talking and, for some time, I had been nodding and making the right noises when I realised I just wasn’t taking in anything you were saying. It was all just slipping away from me as soon as you uttered it.

When you finished what you were saying, I apologised saying something like: “Sorry, I’m just not listening to anything you’re saying. You’re speaking clearly and my hearing isn’t too bad, and I want to listen, but for some reason I just don’t hear what you’re saying.” You replied saying something like: “What! You’re not listening to me!”

This was the first authentic exchange we had had. And I remember your wonderfully bemused and warmly scolding expression to this day as one of the most direct and authentic communications I have ever had with a person in a work context. I don’t know how (or if) you remember this exchange. Or if you are still angry!

What was it about me and you that was preventing me from listening? On the previous two afternoons I had fallen into the role of being your ‘teacher’ and had been giving you ‘speaking practice’ by asking questions to get you to talk. But I hadn’t really been interested! I had been being ‘professional’ and letting a ‘student’ ‘practise speaking skills’ which, in the world of EFL teaching is surely accepted practice. But I hadn’t been making any authentic contact with you or having a genuine conversation.


Why was I not listening to you?

Why had I fallen into this devalued and devaluing mode? I hate to admit it Isabelle, but up to that moment what you said didn’t have any impact on me, it seemed to bounce back from me without leaving a trace. I didn’t find it interesting. I’m really very sorry for this. But what had been blocking me from listening to you?

One thing is that I was ‘already always listening’ to my interpretations of what you said and not to your actual words and how you were being as you spoke those words. In spite of my intention to listen to you Isabelle, my mind was blocked by my listening to my internal chatter. If you are like me, this chatter is something that is constantly happening. I’ve noticed it when I try to meditate. And, as my coach, Kevin Batchelor demonstrated to me, if you ask yourself “What will my next thought be?” the chatter will stop for a moment just before it gets going again. Maybe everyone has this ‘automatic chattering device’ or ‘meaning making machine’ in their head.

There are and were a thousand and one thoughts going on in my mind: my preoccupations, my opinions, plans, reasons, when the next coffee break would be etc, etc. And as part of the structure of this inner language there is the mental programme of generalisation which categorises events and people. Probably there was something about you – your way of dressing, your way of speaking, your age, that made me slot you into a category of person. “Oh, she’s such and such a kind of person.” And in doing this I was unable to see you as a living individual with your own way of being. We were speaking in English and your English was enough to carry on an authentic conversation but there was an invisible wall between us.


Manufactured interest

There are many other reasons why I was not listening to you. Over a career of 40 years in EFL I have come face-to-face with people of so many cultures, ages, professional backgrounds, communicative power, and felt I had to accept and find an interest in these things so as to create a kind of ersatz relationship with those people. I had been manufacturing an interest in people for so long that I had forgotten what it is to listen to someone as a human being.

I was listening to you poorly because what you were saying and the way you were saying it was not interesting to me as the personality I am – the Robert Feather constructed out of my habits of thought deriving from past. I was not listening to you as a coach. “When you coach people, it is NEVER about you,” as Kevin Batchelor says. As a coach I am there to provide an opening through which the coachee can find their own way. And to create this opening, as coach I listen to people in their common humanness, not in their personality, nor in their identity, nor in their functional needs for English. But for themselves alone as humans and as a human myself.


My promise: I will listen and be present to you

If I meet you again Isabelle, I promise to listen differently. I will listen from not trying to ‘fix’ you, (which is based on ‘I see that there is something wrong with the way you communicate.’ That is, ‘You are wrong and I am right!’) I will listen from openness and emptiness where I have no agenda, and my mind is empty of any interpretations of my own. That is, listening from ‘over where you are’. I will listen from ‘I am human like you’, from the love that comes with acceptance of our common humanity. I will listen for the brilliance in you. I will listen from gratitude that in speaking, you are sharing yourself with me at this moment, a moment which will never be repeated.


Thank you, Isabelle

Wherever you are Isabelle, your smile and gentle scolding are still with me. Thank you, I esteem you very highly. You have helped me to be a coach. I wish you well in everything you do.


Please check the Pilgrims courses at Pilgrims website.

Tagged  Various Articles 
  • Not Listening – an Apology: Listening Authentically in the Context of Ontological Coaching for Adult ESOL Users
    Robert Feather, UK

  • Ontological Coaching for ESOL Speakers in Professional Life
    Robert Feather, UK