Listening Skills in Coaching

Highly developed listening skills sit alongside questioning skills as a core requirement of effective workplace coaches. Listening is something we all feel we do well but like any form of skill it needs to be practiced and developed to get the best from it. A coach who listens attentively in coaching session will feel tired at the end of it because of the effort expended.


The coach has to listen from the perspective of the learner, their situation and their view of the world and coaching area. The temptation for a coach is to only listen and be present from their perspective and not the learners. Leadership ‘guru’ Stephen Covey once said:

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

There are distinct levels to listening that a coach needs to be aware of and know where they need to be within this to not just be listening effectively but also demonstrating to the learner that they are listening. Different books and websites cite different models and whilst they are different it is the principle and process that are important and ultimately similar.

The Coach Business website identify a number of levels of listening and associated circumstances with each.


  • Deep – tuning in to the body language, tone, pitch and what isn’t being said. Zoning in and being present with them in their situation. Quieting our own thoughts and agendas to make space for theirs
  • Active – increasingly more in tune with the speaker, picking out key phrases, words, emotions. Listening to the language being used and how they are feeling. He was frustrated, he was angry, he was happy.
  • Conversational – listening from the perspective of ‘what’s in it for us?’ Building links and connections, gathering basic information. The ‘listener’ is processing information and thinking of the next question whilst the other person is speaking. A focus on ‘I want to know’, ‘I feel the same’ or ‘I want to ask’.
  • Cosmetic – social listening, focusing on day-to-day activity, how are you? How was your weekend? The focus is on small talk, not necessarily looking for the meaning behind words.
  • Ignoring – not present, physically, mentally or emotionally. This isn’t really listening!


When a coach is listening from the ‘deep’ perspective they allow the conversation to go where the learner needs it too, without fear. They give encouraging signals to the learner basically telling them ‘it’s ok carry on, I am listening’.

People can get confused between listening and hearing. Hearing is a physiological process it is passive and physical. Listening is a cognitive process active and mental.

However much the coach wants to deeply listen there are a range of barriers that can prevent or hinder this from happening that the coach needs to be aware of and potentially control where appropriate.

  • Rapid thought – we can understand speech rates of up to 800 words per minute, but the average person can only speak at up to 150 words per minute, so out minds fill the gaps in.
  • Content or message overload
  • Laziness / boredom and ‘pseudo listening’
  • Cultural barriers – corporate or personal
  • Personal insecurities
  • Physical environment and distractions
  • Internal dialogue and mental distractions
  • Defensive listening – mentally challenging or disagreeing with the speaker, without saying anything to them.
  • Assumptions by the listener
  • Selective listening – only picking out the parts which interest the listening

Which ones and how much these impact depend very much on the individual coach. The majority of the barriers are coach centric, that is, directly or indirectly caused or influenced by the coach.


How to improve a coach’s listening skills

As stated at the start to become an effective listener requires practice and developing an awareness of what is happening inside of you when you are listening to others.

a)    Prepare beforehand – get ready for your coaching or mentoring, set time aside before the meeting to prepare for it and clear your mind in readiness

b)    Don’t try and pick up everything, tune in for key words or phrases

c)     Learn to understand what internal dialogue is occurring within you; are there any triggers or themes?

d)    Learn to create good notes, not volume but succinct and meaningful that you understand

e)    Don’t feel that you have to respond to the learner straight away, capture the essence and come back to it when appropriate.

f)     Resist mental distractions – when you feel your listening veer off bring it back

g)    Hear the speaker out before you step in. Don’t argue, judge or interrupt, just listen!

h)    Be aware of none verbal cues and clues – facial expressions, tone, pitch, body language and movement.


Tools to aid listening and the relationship

Silence – however strange it may seem, the use of silence is a powerful tool for the coach. No one likes silence and the temptation is to fill the silence. The coach and mentor can learn to let the learner step forward and fill the gap. Or the coach exploring with the learner the reasons for their silence

Reflection – when a learner uses key words or phrases, or repetition of these, they do so often for a subconscious reason. The coach can identify these and simply repeat them to the learner, this tells the learner that you are both listening and have recognised that what they have said is important to them.

Summarising – replaying to the learner what they shared with the coach or mentor, using their words and language, primarily to demonstrate progress in discussion.

Clarifying – getting the learner to help you and them by demonstrating their awareness by gaining examples or exploration of what they have shared.

Body language – being able to recognise the body language they are using and mirroring this back to them. This demonstrates empathy and presence without expressing it verbally.


There is concern over the use of paraphrasing in coaching. It is felt that paraphrasing can lead the coach or mentor into using their own words to interpret what the learner has shared. In doing so they may well misinterpret the meaning in which the learner has used a word or phrase. This can intern either influence the learner to express something not representative of what they mean, or cause an impact on the relationship between coach and learner.


There is a move in coaching toward the use of clean language, where the coach and mentor use the exact phrases as used by the learner. There are distinct questions associated with and to aid clean language.


Another consideration when coaching is for the coach to coach the person and not the issue. Many coaches will through their questions try to ‘solve the issue’. Coaching is about helping the learner to identify their own ways forward, options and approaches to resolving their situation. So coaches need to ‘tune in’ to what the learner is saying about behaviours, language, relationships, confidence and competence.


Developing your coaching listening skills

  • Focus on your conversations in meetings, what happens when you try to listen? What are you thinking at the time and what thoughts creep in when you are listening?
  • Consider how you can focus when you listen, pushing out those distracting thoughts.
  • Once developed an approach practice it.
  • Try and use some of the ‘tools to aid listening’ and see what happens. Ask the person if they felt listened to.