Research Paper By Lynette Baker
(Executive and Leadership Coach, UNITED STATES)
This work is meant to support a foundation and practice of coaching with the highest ethics and standards, through utilizing the coaching competencies developed and defined by the International Coaching Federation (ICF), the gold standard in coaching. This work is written to demonstrate how embracing and focusing on one coaching competency could have such a positive impact.
I’m curious. What would life look like if there was one competency that we could put into action and implement in our coaching process, in our relationships, in our workplaces, and in our homes, that would change the journey and change the outcome for the betterment of all involved? What matters about this? What impact would this have in our homes, in our communities, in our country, and around the world? What do you think? I’m curious.
Coaching is becoming a widely spread industry and profession. According to Forbes.com, coaching is a $2 Billion global industry. This industry continues to grow.
Many people call themselves a coach and even start a practice or open a business of coaching, without having a clear understanding of what coaching is and is not, by the standards and the regulatory framework set forth by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). Some have completed certifications and trainings. Other coaches show up, bringing the goal, the topic, the actions, and the desired outcomes to the client. Coaches go as far as including this in their marketing materials. This is not considered coaching, according to the industry ethical guidelines and professional standards. The competency of ethics and standards, outlined by the International Coach Federation, is not met when this happens. Coaching presence may also suffer if the coach is focused on his or her own opinions and outcomes.
The International Coach Federation competency of Active Listening can support a positive coaching practice of standards and ethics. A positive coaching practice means that the coach is present with the client. Full attention is given to the client’s goals, challenges, and perspectives. The coach meets the client where the client is, in the present moment. Through active listening, the ego of the coach falls away, without concern.
This paper is the summary and representation of my personal understanding of analysis and study of the research materials and references outlined at the end of this paper, with emphasis on coaching and communication, specifically, the competency, active listening. This paper also integrates my learnings from my time and study at the International Coaching Academy (ICA), an International Coaching Federation (ICF) accredited school. This work integrates my takeaways from over a decade of working with and observing the modeled behaviors of a successful and industry respected Executive Coach.
Active Listening- What is It?
Research shows that humans need a sense of belonging. It is feeling included. It is inclusion. Humans need empathy and they need acceptance. One way to have this personal need met is to feel understood. Active listening is the mechanism that provides this feedback. Active listening is the mechanism to help the coach understand the client, and in return, the client feels not only understood, but also accepted. This human, innate need is met. Looking at a Center for Creative Leadership process, it is the process of intention, focus, paraphrasing, and giving feedback until an understanding of perspective is reached, that enables a beneficial coach/client relationship.
Wikepedia defines active listening as follows:
Active listening is a communication technique that is used in counseling, training, and conflict resolution. It requires that the listener fully concentrate, understand, respond and then remember what is being said. This is opposed to reflective listening where the listener repeats back to the speaker what they have just heard to confirm understanding of both parties.
Active listening has the power to change people and relationships. It is a behavior of the coach. It is not always easy. It is a skill and with much practice, this skill is developed. Active listening is a form of feedback to show the client that the coach understands what is being communicated. Research shows that we do not really understand something unless we can communicate it, speaking the understanding and the perspective, with words of choice. With the coach’s ability to mirror back, paraphrase, and speak directly about the awareness and understanding of what the client is saying, and even feeling, this is the human connection in the communication process of listening actively.
Active listening is a mechanism and a tool the coach will learn to use. It is this mechanism and communication style and skill that is crucial in effective coaching and the coaching relationship.
Application of Active Listening to Coaching
Coaching- What is it?
ICF defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.
Coaching is something that usually takes more than one session, more than one conversation between coach and client. The relationship, the intimacy and trust, and the progress is developed over time. So many times in coaching, we mirror and repeat back to the client what they were saying. When we can incorporate active listening, this way of communicating ensures that the coach understands what the client is saying. In Dr. Thomas Gordon’s work, he talks about the coach’s impression aligning with the client’s expression. Active listening supports this process. This is not only helpful in coaching relationships, but it is also helpful in conversations with children, partners, and conversations with employees in the workplace. It is this process of feedback and clarification that supports a positive experience during the conversation. According to Gordon, active listening facilitates problem solving. It is the vehicle for communicating acceptance.
From a historical perspective, we can go as far back as Socrates and the Socratic Method. When this method is used, the participants in the conversation must listen carefully. Active listening is a part of this process, although it may have not been labeled as this, years ago. It is this historical approach that incorporates feedback to confirm understanding. This method is used mostly in a learning and personal development environment. Coaching aligns with these areas of work. The Socratic method creates a natural way for effective feedback. Similarly, when we actively listen and provide the feedback of understanding to the client during coaching, the client hears and experiences the mirror, the reflection of what they are thinking. It is this feedback that is most effective. It is the feedback of hearing own self- thoughts.
As coaches, we want to support our clients. We want to establish rapport. We want to create a trusting environment for our clients. When we actively listen, these things happen. Our character is shown. We motivate our clients, making the shift to action-oriented behaviors. Active listening supports open- ended powerful questions. When we actively listen, we avoid interrupting the client in dialog and during the coaching process. When we actively listen as a coach, our biases and ego are dropped and set aside. We develop a healthy relationship with our clients.
Co-Active Coaching talks about the levels of listening. This offers the coach a way of measuring the progress in communication skills, specifically, active listening. It can be difficult to engage in the conversation, when thoughts are going on in one’s own mind. This is level 1 listening. We shift, we learn how to listen to what the client is saying. We move to level 2. After much practice and through the power of intention, we finally have confidence. The coach knows the clear role and responsibility of coaching and they understand the benefit of active listening. This is Level 3. It is called the dance.
Active listening may have the greatest impact on coaching presence. By active listening, the coach experiences an inner shift. This inner shift is reflected in the coaching presence with the client. The coach cannot actively listen, while paying attention to their own voices in the head. It is a mechanism for building self-awareness and self-management. Active listening and the benefits of active listening, result in uncovering the underlying beliefs of both the coach and the client.
People communicate in every day life, whether or not they are aware of the communication style, the understanding that does or does not take place, or the level of trust and intimacy that is built. Active listening builds relationships. Outcomes are realized efficiently and effectively. With active listening, both the coach and the client gain confidence. For the coach, this confidence is demonstrated as self confidence. For the client, this may be demonstrated as confidence in the coach and the process of coaching. As awareness improves and the client realizes they have the capacity to work through their own goals and challenges, self-confidence is gained.
When we actively listen, we gain an awareness that is not possible with other ways of communication. When we understand what we hear, we become aware of our own beliefs, our own understandings, and we learn from the relationship. Actively listening provides us with an opportunity to see and understand a different perspective. This mechanism can open the coach and the client to new ideas, new ways, and can ultimately lead to letting go of judgments that we may not have understood. With new perspectives and understanding these perspectives, we can release judgment. When we communicate with judgment, we are not listening.
Daniel Goleman, specialist in Emotional Intelligence, outlines in his work several characteristics of selfmanagement. These characteristics are self-control, transparency, adaptability, achievement, initiative, and optimism. Active listening requires the coach to have self-management skills. The coach must have selfcontrol and have the ability to adapt to the client situation and viewpoint. The coach must have optimism and be open to hearing the ideas and beliefs of the client. Being open, coaches and clients observe reasons why clients are stuck. These reasons may be underlying beliefs. If we actively listen, deeply listen, with great focus and understanding, we can become aware of these patterns and we can then, as a coach, with a powerful question or even an observation, help the client shift, and take actions forward. We often ask ourselves or wonder, in contemplation, what is our purpose? Why are we here? When we listen intently, we help the client and we help ourselves have more self- awareness. This self-awareness can show us our values. It can show us our life purpose.
The International Coaching Federation (ICF) outlines the following competencies to be used in coaching: Ethics and Standards, Coaching Agreement, Establish Trust and Intimacy, Coaching Presence, Active Listening, Powerful Questioning, Direct Communication, Creating Awareness, Designing Action, Planning and Goal Setting, Managing Progress and Accountability.
With these competencies, there is one competency that can help fulfill other coaching standards. It is the competency of Active Listening. When we actively listen, we also create awareness. We establish trust, and we have strong and powerful coaching presence. We are able to align with ethics and coaching standards. We are also able to set the foundation and the coaching agreement.
Benefits of Active Listening in Coaching
Active listening during the coaching process provides greater personal awareness. It gives us an openness to experience many different perspectives. Trust and confidence is built in both the coach and the client. Judgments are dropped. Underlying beliefs are challenged and even removed. Awareness is increased. Respect is obtained. Action is realized. Commitments are made. Both coach and client experience gratitude. Inquiry happens through dialog between coach and client. This inquiry can happen in both coach and client as conversations progress and deeper learning and understanding are achieved.
When the client feels like they have been heard, and their perspective is understood, trust builds. It is trust and intimacy that creates a healthy relationship, in coaching, and in general. The client is ready to share and do the work necessary for self-improvement. Any obstacles of not sharing all of the detail may fall away, naturally. With the ability to solve one’s own problems, motivation is increased. Much greater efficiencies may be realized through the powerful communication tool of active listening. The client responds. The client moves forward in action. Lightness is expressed through energy shifts. There is intent to follow through.
When we actively listen, as a coach, we personally grow. We learn to experience the perspective of another, not only as a witness. Research says that we do not understand until we can speak the understanding. In coaching, the coach does this. The coach understands. It is through active listening that this occurs. The coach is vulnerable in this process of personal growth. The coach offers truth in reflection. Diversity is experienced with the different ideas, problem solving, and perspectives. There is structure. There is accountability, and there is acknowledgement.
Impacts of Not Listening Actively
When we do not communicate effectively and when we do not actively listen, we may risk trust and we may risk a successful coach/client relationship. Others may not have the motivation to enter into conversation or the coaching process. Others may leave us out of conversations. As a coach, we could have the potential to lose existing and potential clients. Poor communication can lead to reputation loss and character loss. As an individual, we may lose support. As a coach, we may lose connection with our client. Not listening well also leads to misunderstandings.
Reflections and Conclusions
Active listening is more than a competency. It is more than a communication style. It is more than a feedback mechanism. Active listening is the framework where the coach trusts that the client can make his or her own decisions and be his or her own leader. Coaching is not prescribing. Through active listening, there is no prescription. The coach trusts the client, and in return, the client trusts the coach.
According to ICA training, when the coach gives advice or leads the client, the coach is no longer listening and no longer coaching. Active listening ensures that the client talks more than the coach. Active listening encourages being present with the client, in the moment, with great awareness and openness to different perspectives. This is awareness. This is inclusion. This is diversity.
It is active listening that has the power to change relationships. With relationship change, also comes people change. When a person changes, the other person adapts to the change, reacts to the change, and/or responds to the change. When people are heard and understood, there is the potential for transforming the challenge and the outcomes. People are encouraged to continue sharing. The relationship is built on a strong foundation. This foundation is one of trust. The coach fulfills the obligation to support. The client is able to move forward and experience positive change. The human needs of belonging and being understood are realized.
What would life look like if there was one competency that we could put into action and implement in our coaching process, in our relationships, in our workplaces, and in our homes, that would change the journey and change the outcome for the betterment of all involved?
Humans would come together, in greater collaboration, problem solve, and possibly overcome the challenges that exist in lives and in the world, at any time and any place.
What matters about this?
The lives of others would be supported. Our own life journey would be supported.
What impact would this have in our homes, in our communities, in our country, and around the world?
Shared respect, shared understanding, shared responsibility, and shared principles and
values could be realized.
Dr. Thomas Gordon, “LEADER EFFECTIVENESS TRAINING, L.E.T.”
Dr. Thomas Gordon, “Parent Effectiveness Training P.E.T.”
Henry Kimsey-House, Karen Kimsey-House, Phillip Sandahl and Laura Whitworth, “Co-Active Coaching”
PhsychologyToday.com, Feeling Understood- Even More Important than Feeling Loved?
International Coaching Federation Website and Competency PDF
International Coaching Academy Training Notes from Class and materials
Center for Creative Leadership.com, The Confident Coach: Facing Your Challenges