The importance of listening in coaching – and 5 tips to improve it

Are you good at listening? Now, be honest…

Let me be up front. If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know I believe listening is one of the 5 basic coaching skills coaches need to master if they want to offer the high level of service their coachees deserve. In fact, I believe it’s the MOST important skill. Why? Because everything that happens in coaching depends on it.

listening head silhouettesThe importance of listening

Think about it. Without listening, it’s well-nigh impossible to explore goals and current reality with coachees, because without attentive listening a coach is unable to base an intervention on actual coachee needs as opposed to the coach’s own predetermined ‘programme’. Relevant questions can’t arise in the moment if there hasn’t been an adequately deep, attentive process of listening from which those questions flow. And no-one can contract in coaching without listening, because listening is at the core of the process of discussion and negotiation upon which contracting depends.

Listening is a big deal. I’ve written elsewhere about the work of Nancy Kline, who has based a whole system of group interaction on the quality of listening participants bring to the endeavour. The principles of her Thinking Environment are as relevant to 1:1 coaching as they are to team meetings. At it’s core, the Thinking Environment depends on individuals listening to each other with utmost respect, interest and fascination, giving complete, empathetic, supportive and warm attention to each other simply by listening and not interrupting. As Nancy so perceptively states, listening of such a calibre,  

“ignites the human mind. The quality of your attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking.” *

Now that’s a thought. If the quality of other people’s thinking really depends on the quality of our attention, then highly-skilled listening on the part of a coach really is paramount.

A truly skillful, highly-aware coach with depth of listening capability can facilitate wondrous things. The outlook of a coachee can be transformed, not through the imposition of someone else’s vision, but through the balm of being truly listened to and truly understood. And when the outlook is transformed, so is the ability to achieve what previously might only have been a dream…

Fine, I hear you say. That’s all very well. If every coach were such a skillful and highly-aware listener, the world would be a wonderful place. But they’re not. irritated manAnd nor should we expect them to be – at least at the beginning of their journey into coaching. After all, everyone has his or her strengths, and everyone has areas to develop. Listening isn’t everyone’s strong point, and if you’re one of those get-up-and-go ‘do-ers’ who finds self-reflection hard and patience with supposedly ‘rambling’ coachees even harder, then sitting back and being respectful, interested and fascinated might be a demand too far.

So what to do? Here I’ll be suggesting 5 tips for setting ourselves on the road towards radically improving our listening abilities.

5  tips to improve your listening

1. Accept the situation and don’t beat yourself up.     Remember, everyone brings something insightful to their coaching, and I’m sure you’re no exception. At the heart of coaching is the belief that individuals have within themselves the knowledge and ability to find their own way towards improvement. They just might not be aware of it. We as coaches are no exception. So… if listening isn’t your forte, take heart and a deep breath. Believe it can be improved – with self-compassion, patience and a simple plan.

2. Understand what listening is     There are different levels of listening. The most commonly used is ‘listening to respond’, where as we listen we’re thinking about our own ideas, whether we agree or disagree, or how we want to answer. This is not the level of listening we want in coaching. Instead, we’re ‘listening to understand’. listening cartoon headsThe difference is crucial. Anyone who finds listening hard needs to think about this difference very carefully. Just patiently working to adopt the ‘listening to understand’ perspective might be the key to improving your listening skills. So what is it? In ‘listening to understand’ attention is focused purely on coachees and what they are saying – and not from the point of view of whether we agree, or deciding what we’d like to say next. We’re really listening and actually hearing what is said – in order to understand the coachee and to imagine being in her or his world. We’re trying to see things the way coachees see them. It’s not about us. It’s about them… Practise putting yourself in the coachee’s shoes. That is ‘listening to understand’.

3. Don’t just listen to the words     This might sound odd, but when we listen, we shouldn’t just be fixated on taking in the words. Words matter, but much meaning is transmitted through non-verbal cues – facial expression, body language, quality of silences, underlying emotions, what the coachee doesn’t say… Paying attention to these cues may reveal unspoken messages which contradict what coachees are saying, or which complement and support their words in surprising ways. How can we improve our attention to non-verbal cues? Try these steps:

  • Practise outside coaching sessions. Learn to be quiet and observe interactions between people. Watch facial expressions, body language and any other source of non-verbal communication you can identify.
  • Have a chat with individuals you think have good communications skills. Chances are they are skilled in taking in non-verbal cues, and they may have useful tips you can consider for your own use.

4. Feed back what you think you’ve heard     From time to time, check with coachees that you’ve understood what they’ve said. Summarise as best you can what you’ve heard – without interpreting it or twisting it to your own point of view. Practise this in everyday conversations as well, and make a habit of trying to recall what people have actually said. This will strengthen your ability to listen carefully because you will be calling upon yourself to check your understanding with the other person.

5. Let go of needing to find an answer or be ‘right’     Much ‘interference’ that gets in the way of listening and absorbing what a coachee says stems from the impulse to have an answer, solve a ‘problem’ or ‘be right’ about something. Sometimes this impulse is due to a particular personality trait, sometimes to insecurity (especially if someone is relatively new to coaching). Whatever the reason, it can be combated by embedding in your psyche the truism that the coachee is perfectly capable of helping him or herself. If as a coach you don’t hold firmly to this belief, and feel in your gut that it is your role to facilitate the retrieval of the coachee’s own knowledge rather than to ‘instruct’, then you need to radically rethink your approach to your coaching. Coaching is not training. It is not mentoring. It is a non-directive activity which relies on listening of such a calibre that without any other input it “ignites the human mind.” If you don’t really believe this and try to live it every day in your actions, all the listening in the world will get you nowhere.

So, there are my 5 tips to improve your listening. I hope they help and would love to hear your views.


*This quotation appears on Page 36 of Nancy Kline’s path-breaking book Time to Think. Listening to Ignite the Human Mind, published in 1999.

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