Research Paper By Scott Berry
(Life Coach, THAILAND)
The notion that in communication speaking is the active function and listening to the passive is persistent even in people who, on reflection, might think otherwise. It’s perhaps nowhere more evident than in the political sphere, where a leading voice—or one seeking leadership—articulates an idea its followers intuit without wholly grasping. Such a voice puts words to something listeners previously had experienced only as intellectual inclinations or vague emotions. In professional and/or life coaching, talking and listening are increasingly seen as dynamic, to the point that the literature now abounds with claims that one of the most potent items in the coach’s toolbox is what has come to be known as active listening, no oxymoron intended. The idea is now sufficiently advanced to count as settled, and a number of specific active listening strategies—the how-to’s—have been proposed and developed.
The Concept of Active Listening
Writing for the Canadian Center of Science and Education, researchers Frode Moen and Roger Andre Federici argue that two important principles that “define” the coaching process are “[t]he importance of asking the right questions followed by the ability to listen deeply to what the coachee is saying” (Kvalsund, 2005)[i]. “Powerful questions are supposed to open up and expand the information about the focused case, and the listening process is supposed to ensure that the coachee is respected, heard, and understood.”[ii] ‘“Attention to the coachee’s world is therefore essential in coaching.”[iii] “By using powerful questioning and active listening the coachee will become more aware of the focused case and increase his or her ability to take responsibility in his or her learning. The true nature of a coaching relationship is therefore based on mutuality[emphasis added], in which both parties are equal in the relationship and promote each other’s independence while working and learning together.” In short, in client-centred coaching, active listening on the part of the coach is not a series of one-way exchanges but, rather, participatory.
Noting in 2008 that “For more than 50 years, business professionals and some researchers have held that effective listening is a highly desirable workplace skill,” researchers Jan Flynn, Tuula-Riitta Valikoskia and Jennie Grau,writing in the International Journal of Listening, in “Listening in the Business Context: Reviewing the state of Research (2008) qualified that assertion: “However, listening as an organizational variable continues to be seen as a ‘soft’ skill worthy of little attention in the scholarly business literature, in the business classroom, and in organizations.”[iv] Three years later, Louise Wheeler, writing in the International Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring(2011) comments, “Listening behaviour was in evidence in statements from line managers such as: ‘I try and listen to what they are saying a lot’. This demonstrated that they valued listening as behaviour that helped them to develop their staff, echoing findings related to the use of listening by line managers identified in the preceding pilot study within the same organisation.”[v] She adds, citing Rogers (2004), “genuine listening is rare” [emphasis in the original] but […] it is essential to building rapport and confidence in a coaching relationship.”[vi]
In her book, Coaching for High Performance (2007), Vivette Payne writes, “Coaching is not a monologue and effective coaches listen as much as, sometimes more than, they speak.”[vii] In Essential Coaching, Debra L. Denis explains, “Active listening involves observing both the client and oneself. Observing the client includes listening to the client’s words, tone, observing their body language and every aspect of interpersonal communications that will help to form the full picture of what they are saying, and what they are not saying.”[viii]
What Denis adds to that observation increasingly has become a core principle in client-centred coaching: “Active listening involves observing both the client and oneself. [Emphasis added.] Observing the client includes listening to the client’s words, tone, observing their body language and every aspect of interpersonal communications that will help to form the full picture of what they are saying, and what they are not saying.
“The second part of active listening depends on a self-aware coach who recognizes his or her own filters, thoughts and reactions, one who does not allow those to influence the overall understanding of what the client is saying, and what the client may be thinking, feeling and/or not saying; in this sense, active listening is a way to demonstrate authenticity. Active Listening is about taking in all that is being offered by the client as well as full awareness of the impact of one’s own mindset on interpersonal communication.”
In that regard, Denis expands the definition to include something she calls “mindful” listening. “[The] mindful coach recognizes their own filters, judgments, reactions, and thoughts; acknowledges the presence of these potential distracters in one’s own thoughts; then consciously chooses to set them [aside]; this allows a focus wholly on the client. Client-centred psychology contends this is done by listening without judgment or bias, filtering the client’s words with unconditional positive
regard, with belief that the client knows his/herself best, is critical to establishing trust.”[ix]
This, Denis adds, places increased importance on what she names Core Principle #5: Mindful Questioning. Her emphasis is on asking the client “the right question the right way at the right time.” That helps a client to understand a situation more fully, and thereby “to better articulate the [client’s] influences on the situation and to begin to visualize the desired outcome and/or course of action.” Accordingly, she says, the first level of questioning is about the external circumstances of the client’s specific situation; the second level “gets at how the client influences what happened or what may happen…. [C]ontributions that the client has made to the situation, and therefore to what he can do to affect its outcome.”[x]
Techniques of Active Listening
The research-based, scholarly literature about active listening is not rife with examples, say nothing of “How-to’s.” But the examples it does provide are helpful, if broadly, suggestive. An example, from Excellence in Coaching: The Industry Guide(2010), names five “levels” of increasingly effective listening, as follows, culminating in active listening:
Level 1: Waiting for our turn to speak
Planning what to say rather than listening to what the speaker is saying. This is the most irritating level of listening because the speaker can tell that the listener is not listening:
Speaker: “I think we should arrange for a staff meeting about that.”
Listener: “Yes, but did you see the news this morning?”
Level 2: Giving our own experience
Giving a reply that is about the listener, not the speaker. This is probably how the majority of conventional conversations are conducted:
Speaker: “I don’t know what to do about getting a promotion.
Listener: “I’ve put in an application to move up a grade.”
Level 3: Giving advice
This is still more about the listener than the speaker and can be quite off course because the Listener has not explored what the Speaker’s real issue is:
Speaker: “I don’t know what to do about getting a promotion.”
Listener: “What you should do is….”
Level 4: Listening and asking for more
This is a great luxury which is often at short supply at work and outside:
Speaker: “I don’t know what to do about getting a promotion.”
Listener: “me more.”
Level 5: Active listening
The Speaker’s thought processes are helped by prompting, and incisive questioning:
Speaker: “I don’t know what to do about getting a promotion.”
Listener: “Tell me more.”
Speaker: “I have to arrange a meeting with the boss and I never seem to have time to do it.”
Listener: “What’s getting in the way?”
Speaker: “Oh, I don’t know. I’m busy, or she’s busy. I don’t seem to be able to stop long enough to work out how to do it.”
Listener: “Is there anything else that’s stopping you?”
Speaker: “Actually, I keep putting it off because I hate asking.”
Listener: “And what do you hate about asking?”
Speaker: “I’m afraid she will say no.”
In the example, the speaker in the final exchange at Level 5 has gained an important new insight—that fear of rejection is the block, not lack of time.[xi]
Recognized Active Listening Skills
In her distinction between “mindful coaching” and “active listening,” above,[xii] Denis notes that client-centred “psychology” requires that the coach listen “without judgment or bias, … with the belief that the client knows his-herself best, [which] is critical to establishing trust.” But that does not rule out that a mindful coach be aware of her/his own personal biases and judgments, precisely in order to separate and, when necessary, eliminate the application of them from the client’s words. The more management-oriented literature is in accord with this idea but generally places a greater emphasis on the first, the client’s fundamental self-awareness, and a nearly tacit assumption that the coach will be successful or even able to do the second, managing her/his own ideas, beliefs, and expectations.
One online guide, “Coaching and Active Listening,” begins its consideration of the topic with this statement: “Active listening requires [the coach] to put your own concerns, attitudes, and ideas to one side while you listen to your coachee. This demonstrates to that individual that you are giving them your undivided attention.”[xiii] While it goes on to say that “active listening is a two-way process,” it implies that a successful coaching outcome will result only from a singular concentration on the client’s words, even, and perhaps especially, “that you as a coach curtail any natural tendency you may have to rush in with suggestions or solutions. If you do not do this you will be unable to avoid acknowledging your own emotions during the communication.”[xiv]
Such emphasis on “allowing the coachee to present the whole picture” all but assumes that the coachee is able to do so without the coach’s specific active-listening skills, which help enlarge the coachee’s understanding of the situation in its largest possible context by drawing out the factors in a coachee’s situation that may be, prior to the coach’s active-listening assistance, unconscious or at least unacknowledged.
The management-oriented literature draws attention to specific techniques whereby what would otherwise be a mere conversation can be transformed into a coaching opportunity.[xv] Although there are differences of opinion about how many such techniques there are, there is broad agreement that they include 1) being attentive, 2) asking open-ended questions, 3) asking “probing” questions, 4) requesting clarification, and 5) being attuned to the feeling content in the client’s speech, including but not limited to the client’s choice of words. Some guides add that it may be helpful to “paraphrase” insights arrived at incrementally and to “summarize” the coaching outcome, including any specific action plans, at the end of a coaching session. The numbered techniques above are hereafter discussed individually and in that order, despite the fact that the order is arbitrary and that multiple skills may be required and used simultaneously in a coaching session.
Paying attention requires a coach’s awareness of many factors, including but not limited to noticing the client’s effect at the beginning of the session and first getting into productive synch with it. It requires paying attention to the client’s body language in addition to what is being said. It asks a coach to be aware of her/his state of mind before and during the coaching session, including necessarily unexpressed attitudes toward the client. It also entails staying “at the moment,” an often-overlooked particular aspect of which is being conscious of the length of a coaching session and working within an intuitive sense of what can be accomplished in that time frame.[xvi] The International Coaching Foundation further emphasizes the importance of identifying and adhering to the client’s agenda irrespective of what may emerge as the coach’s agenda for the client.[xvii]
Asking Open-ended Questions
By bringing genuine curiosity about the client and the client’s concern into the coaching session, the coach asks questions for clarification or more information without initially intruding on the client’s account of the situation.[xviii] “Open-ended” questions are ones that arise spontaneously from the coach’s curiosity and primarily seek clarity or expansion on the client’s current understanding of the situation that has given rise to the coaching session. Giving, as an example, “Will you further explain/describe…?,” the coach “encourage[s] the coachee to do the work of self-reflection and problem solving, rather than justifying or defending a position, or trying to guess the ‘right answer.’”[xix]
Asking Probing Questions
When the client arrives at the juncture where her/his own understanding or clarity fails, instead of providing advice, the coach might more advantageously ask what ideas the client already has about possible remedies for the situation or tactics to address it – or what solutions the client has applied to the problem previously and her/his assessment of the efficacy of the prior approach. The point is to bring the client’s awareness into aspects of the situation that she/he might not previously have considered, perhaps most importantly the role the client herself/himself plays in the situation for which an alternative is sought. Example questions might include: “What are some of the specific things you have tried?” or, more probingly, “Are there any issues in your leadership [/participant] style that might be contributing to the situation?”[xx]
In cases in which the coach is genuinely unclear about what the client has said, or ones in which there appear to be ambiguity or conflicts in the client’s account of the situation, the coach could profitably ask for clarification from the client, expressed in terms of the coach’s clarifying her/his own understanding of what is being said. Example questions are: “Let me see if I’m clear. Are you talking about…?” or “Wait a minute. Try that again. I didn’t follow you.” (or, less confrontationally, “I’m not sure I follow.”)[xxi] Such questions are, of course, especially appropriate in cases in which the coach genuinely does not understand, or is confused by, something the client has said.
Being Attuned to Feelings as well as Words
One effective way of determining and then tracking a client’s feelings about what she/he has said is by acknowledging them through repetition, sometimes in different words that have the same meaning. A simple example might be: [Client]: “I don’t know what to do.” [Coach]: “It sounds like you’re feeling pretty frustrated and stuck.”[xxii] It is also recommended that the coach listen, and watch, carefully for “subtext” as well as “context.” This entails paying attention to nonverbal communication, such as body language and the making or not making of eye contact. It also requires paying attention to the tone of what is being said as much as the words themselves and looking for confirmations or contradictions with/between facial expressions and gestures and the words they accompany or illustrate.[xxiii]
Other Active Listening Strategies
Additional techniques, strategies, and understandings that foster deeper listening include:
- “Developing empathy” for the client, both to validate the client’s stated experience and to allow the coach opportunity to ask, usually sub-verbally, herself/himself, “How would I feel if I were this person? What would I do in this situation?”
- “Paying attention to your own body language and posture” (this in reference to the coach’s own, not just the clients.
- “Stop talking,” not in a rigid, inflexible, or conclusory way, but to allow for silences that occur naturally in coaching sessions to accomplish that which only they can: allowing something that has been said by either client or coach to be “heard” by either party.
- “Get rid of your distractions” and, relatedly, “Noticing where your own mind is during a conversation, specifically, in a coaching session.”[xxiv]
As models for coaching go beyond instruction and advice-giving, attention in the coaching field is shifting to what is being termed “client-centred coaching.” In contrast with instruction and advice-giving, it is based on a participatory model of conversation in which the coach takes part as much through trained, developed keen-listening skills with regard to the client as by merely “hearing the client out” and then offering an opinion or proposing an action plan. When those skills are amplified with what is now being called “mindful listening,” the coach learns how to recognize her/his own attitudes, ideas and opinions as they are summoned by a coaching situation, both to disregard those things when they interfere with full understanding of what the client has to say and so that the coach can achieve empathy with the client and, when appropriate, relate her/his own experience in similar situations. The goal is heightened communication and insight achieved through the participation of both client and coach in a coaching “conversation.”
[i] Moen, Frode and Federici, Roger Andre (2012), “The Effect from Coaching-Based Leadership,” Journal of Education and Learning, Vol. 1, No 2, p. 2; cf. Kvalsund, R. (2005). Coaching, metode: process: relasjon. Norway: Synergy Publishing.
[iv]Flynn, Jan, Valikoski, Tuula-Riitta & Grau, Jennie (2008), Listening in the Business Context: Reviewing the State of Research, International Journal of Listening, Vol. 22, No. 2, pp141-151, DOI: 10.1080/10904010802174800
[v] Wheeler, Louise, “How does the adoption of coaching behaviours by line managers contribute to the achievement of organisational goals?,” International Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring (2011) Vol. 9, No. 1, February 2011, p. 1.
[ix] Ibid., Cf. Silsbee, D. K. (2004), The Mindful Coach: Seven Roles for Helping People Grow. Marshall, NC, Ivy River Press; Wilkinsky, W. (2006). Lectures: The Art and Science of Organizational Coaching. Philadelphia, The University of Pennsylvania: Class notes from lecture and discussion.
[xiii] “Coaching and Active Listening,” http://www.free-management-ebooks.com/faqch/models-02.htm
[xv] “Active Listening Can Turn a Normal Conversation into a Coaching Opportunity,” Center for Creative Leadership, https://www.ccl.org/articles/leading-effectively-articles/coaching-others-use-active-listening-skills/.
[xvi] Hoppe, Michael H., Active Listening: Improve Your Ability to Listen and Lead, pub. Center for Creative Leadership, cited in https://solutions.ccl.org/Active_Listening_Improve_Your_Ability_to_Listen_and_Lead
[xvii] “The Most Important Coaching Competency – Active Listening,” International Coaching Federation, cited in https://coaching-journey.com/the-most-important-coaching-competency-active-listening/
[xix] Hoppe, supra, cited in https://www.ccl.org/articles/leading-effectively-articles/coaching-others-use-active-listening-skills/, cf. “Improve Your Active Listening Skills with These 13 Strategies,” Forbes Coaches Council, November 14, 2018, cited in https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2018/11/14/improve-your-active-listening-skills-with-these-13-strategies/#3f8822a45827
Denis, Debra L., “Core Principle #4: Active Listening,” Essential Coaching, University of Pennsylvania 2008.
Flynn, Jan, Valikoski, Tuula-Riitta & Grau, Jennie (2008) “Listening in the Business Context: Reviewing the State of Research,” International Journal of Listening, Vol. 22, No. 2, DOI: 10.1080/10904010802174800.
Hoppe, Michael H., Active Listening: Improve Your Ability to Listen and Lead, Center for Creative Leadership, cited in https://solutions.ccl.org/Active_Listening_Improve_Your_Ability_to_Listen_and_Lead
Moen, Frode and Federici, Roger Andre (2012), “The Effect from Coaching-Based Leadership,” Journal of Education and Learning, Vol. 1, No 2, p. 2; cf. Kvalsund, R. (2005). Coaching, metode: process: relasjon. Norway: Synergy Publishing.
Moen, F. (2010). Coaching and Performance Psychology. Department of Education, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, NTNU, Doctoral dissertation.
Passmore, Jonathan, ed., Excellence in Coaching: The Industry Guide, 2nd ed. (2010), Association for Coaching, London: Kogan Page.
Payne, Vivette, “Attributes of a Good Coach,” Coaching for High Performance (2007), American Management Association.
Rogers, J. (2004), Coaching Skills: a Handbook, Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Silsbee, D. K. (2004). The Mindful Coach: Seven Roles for Helping People Grow. Marshall, NC, Ivy River Press.
Wheeler, Louise, “How does the adoption of coaching behaviours by line managers contribute to the achievement of organisational goals?,” International Journal of Evidence-Based Coaching and Mentoring (2011) Vol. 9, No. 1, February 2011.
Wilkinsky, W. (2006). Lectures: The Art and Science of Organizational Coaching. Philadelphia, The University of Pennsylvania: Class notes from lecture and discussion.
Zeus, P., & Skiffington, S. (2002). The coaching at work toolkit: A complete guide to techniques and practices. North Ryde, NSW, Australia: McGraw Hill.
“Active Listening Can Turn a Normal Conversation into a Coaching Opportunity,” Center for Creative Leadership, https://www.ccl.org/articles/leading-effectively-articles/coaching-others-use-active-listening-skills/.
“Coaching and Active Listening,” http://www.free-management-ebooks.com/faqch/models-02.htm
“Improve Your Active Listening Skills with These 13 Strategies,” Forbes Coaches Council, November 14, 2018, cited in https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2018/11/14/improve-your-active-listening-skills-with-these-13-strategies/#3f8822a45827
“The Most Important Coaching Competency – Active Listening,” International Coaching Federation, cited in https://coaching-journey.com/the-most-important-coaching-competency-active-listening/