1 November 2011

Key Coaching Skills: Active Listening


Flick through the index of almost any book on coaching, and you will find more page references to listening than any other topic.

Alison Hardingham asserts that active listening “is the single most important skill for a coach” and that “questioning is the second most important skill, and together with active listening probably achieves 80% of the positive outcome of coaching”.  

The criticality of deep listening is a common thread throughout coaching literature. No doubt is left in the reader’s mind that to be a good listener one must be an active listener. Hardingham explains that to be actively listening the listener must demonstrate their level of attention. This includes both verbal and non-verbal signals that they are genuinely absorbing and responding to what is being said. A good listener will be both audibly (through encouraging noises and words) and visibly (through attentive body language) signalling that the listener has their full attention.

As well as indicating their level of attention, good listeners are not just listening to what is said, but also to how it is said, and to what is not said. Julie Starr points out that paying attention to and picking up on the tone of voice enables the listener to hear beyond the superficial level of the words spoken and potentially uncover far more subtle information.

Bob Thomson describes Levels of Listening, the inference in each version being that the higher the level the better the listener. In Thomson’s version the steps are:
  • Not listening
  • Listening, waiting to speak
  • Listening to disagree
  • Listening to understand
  • Listening to help the client understand
Any coach must spend the vast majority of their time either listening to understand, or better still, listening to help the client understand.

Nancy Kline talks about the fact that people interrupting is a ritual of power, and in many organisations urgency is actively cultivated, leading to situations where whole organisations seem “pathologically incapable of listening”. The corollary is that, to be a good listener, one must be at ease with oneself. Being at ease with oneself makes it easier to operate at higher levels of listening, without feeling the need to interject. 
Almost everyone will tell you they are a good listener, but active listening, listening to help the client understand are skills that a coach takes years to master.

If you would like to experience what it is really like to be listened to then try a free trial coaching session.  You hold the answers to your own challenges in your mind - you just need someone to listen to you to help to break through all the noise.

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