14 April 2020


And why it matters.

In my blog posts to date, I have looked at what executive coaching is, how my life experiences shaped me as a coach and the benefits you can expect from coaching.

In this post, I am going to look at the key coaching skill of active listening in more detail to understand why it plays such an important role in helping the client to think through their objectives.

So, to begin with, think of a time when a friend listened to some problem or challenge you had and did so in such a way that, afterwards, you thanked them for being such a good listener. It probably felt that the problem or challenge had lessened in scale and you felt more empowered to tackle the issue at hand and was moving towards a plan to do so. Your friend probably said very little in comparison to you, asked relevant and considered questions, was supportive and helped you focus your thoughts on what you were going to do next. 

This is an example of good listening and creates a safe space for you to be open and verbalise your thoughts, and in doing so, to work them through.

Good listening such as in the example above is often referred to as active listening. In such active listening the listener will, typically:

- Show interest

- Listen for feelings

- Show encouragement

- Observe non-verbal behaviour

- Avoid interrupting

- Probe

- Reflect

- Avoid prejudice

- Use open and closed questions

- Clarify

- Summarise

Now, think of how many times you have been telling a friend about a problem or challenge and they seem to be finishing your sentences, telling you about the time something similar happened to them and telling you what you should do. 

This is not good listening (although it might be satisfying!) and typically, after such a conversation, you may well find that your problem or challenge has not lessened, and you are no further forwards in knowing what to do next.

As a coach, I play a similar role to the friend above who is a good listener, as my focus is on the client and listening to what they have to say. This is because at such times it is their time to talk and my place is to support them and create a safe space for them to think.

In coaching, as well as being described as active listening, you often hear of 3 levels of listening:

Level 1 – General listening: This is listening to your own thoughts. It is what we do when we are thinking things through.

Level 2 – Focused listening: This is when you are listening intently to another person and you are focused on what they say and how they say it. This is most similar to active listening.

Level 3 – Whole body listening: This is more about sensing where the client is, what they are not saying and exploring their use of metaphors. It is a level above focused listening and comes with practice and a focus on being aware of the client and the relationship between the client and coach.

In coaching the client typically uses Level 1 listening, thinking through their thoughts and verbalising them, so you, the coach, can facilitate them in shaping them.

The coach should be using Level 2 and 3 listening and avoiding their own Level 1 listening (often called “inner chat”, the thoughts that go on in our heads that distract us from the world around us). At such times the coach is “in the moment” with the client and there for them. 

It is quite unusual to have someone listen intently to you for an hour or so these days and it creates a powerful state for the client, in which they feel enabled to unpack their thoughts.

It is this focus on listening in coaching that differentiates it from advice-giving services, i.e. consulting or mentoring. Good listening in coaching helps the client to achieve a greater and richer self-awareness of their challenge and, in doing so, greater responsibility for working on the challenge, whilst moving it forwards.

I hope the above gives an understanding as to why good listening plays such an important role in coaching and life in general and, if you have any questions or thoughts on the topic, or would like to work on your own listening skills, let me know and I would be happy to help you do so.

David Alcock

From the author:

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