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Active Listening, a Basic Ingredient of Executive Coaching

Gepost 14/01/2015

Asking questions is a prime coaching skill but listening is as (if not more) important. Active listening is about acceptance. Active listening is also rare. Mostly what we experience is pretend listening. Listening is a prerequisite for any worthwhile relationship, and while most people think that they are good listeners, most are not. We tend to over-estimate our skills in communication. Humans will only allow themselves to be influenced after they’ve decided that they have been heard and understood. Remember the quote of Teddy Roosevelt, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” People who do not listen are just not interesting. They do not seem smart and are not taken seriously. Even so, in these fast-paced times, many coaches lack solid listening skills.  

It would be rare to confess to be a poor listener. However executive coaches can’t afford the luxury of self-delusion.

Apply active listening with clients. Active listening includes the following skills and behaviors:

•             Stop and pay attention

Although this step may seem obvious, it is shocking to observe how often it fails to happen. A good listener takes care to establish a comfortable, nonthreatening atmosphere for interaction, using physical listening, facial expressions, and tone of voice.

•             Use physical listening

Posture gives the clear impression that you are paying attention. Make eye contact. Congruence requires that physical messages be aligned and consistent with the verbal ones. When the way you look and what you say are in conflict, your messages become confusing. The listener wonders: Which message should I believe? He says he is serious, but he does not really look serious or seem to be serious.

•             Ask appropriate questions

Take time to ask good questions, questions that indicate that you are following the topic and find it interesting. Use questions to clarify the concerns of the speaker. Take care not to "shotgun" questions or interrogate the speaker with a series of yes or no questions. Use open-ended questions that allow the speakers to express what they have on their mind. Follow up with clarifying questions that seek to sort things out and make them clearer. Consider an occasional probing question that moves the discussion into challenging areas.

•             Restate

Repeat or summarize before responding.

Let me make sure that I've got this right. You think that finance is not allocating enough resources to your project. Is that what you mean?

This serves to clarify things and demonstrates that you are interested and accurately grasp what the other person is saying. This implies respect for the speaker.

•             Paraphrase

Summarize what the coachee has said, so that an important aspect of the message can be emphasized and explored.

It sounds like you are having second thoughts about the Acme project.

•             Reflect

Reflect back feeling states.

This can be very effective on occasion.

You don't sound very confident about the timeline. In fact, you seem a little worried about whether we can meet it.

•             Summarize

Take several statements, tie them together into a theme, and check them out with the coachee to see if the meaning is accurate.

All right. So, on the one hand, you think there is a clear opportunity here, but on the other hand, you are worried about whether we can convince the board to fund the project fully enough to make it work. Am I understanding you correctly?

•             Listen for feelings

Even when your client does not actually mention an emotion such as fear, hurt, anger, or embarrassment, it is important to notice what people seem to be feeling as they speak. You can never rely on what you imagine they might be feeling, but it is, nonetheless, important to wonder and to be interested in emotions, as they tend to drive the encounter. Sometimes the emotional basis for a statement is obvious, once you look for it, and then it reveals something important that you may not have previously considered. Sometimes, if you are paying attention you can spot a tiny flash of emotion. Interest in emotions has an added benefit: It makes conversations more interesting. However, overt talk about emotions is not always appropriate in the business setting, so discretion and judgment are important.

•             Share

Reveal important reactions appropriately. Use discretion here and share what you think and feel in a way that supports and moves the conversation forward in a productive direction.

•             Withhold judgment while listening

Allow the coachee to make his point, and listen with an open mind. Make necessary judgments later, after you have had time to think. A judgmental stance tends to foster unnecessary competition in conversation. This limits what can be accomplished.

•             Acknowledge difference

-          In any serious discussion there are likely to be areas of disagreement. It can be useful to politely acknowledge these differences in a matter-of-fact way.

As you know, we probably differ on this, but my opinion is that such-and-such is true.

•             Take your time

Time is on your side! Thoughts move about four times as fast as speech. With practice, while you are listening you will also be able to think about what you are hearing and really understand it.



There are several skill components to active listening. The most difficult to acquire is the ability to focus your attention on the coachee without being distracted by judgments and thoughts that you generate internally. However, if you do not learn how to focus your attention, you are not likely to understand the coachee sufficiently to coach effectively. 


Christiaan Janssens

Certified  Executive Coach