Coaches use three main kinds of listening skills: listening to, listening for,and listening with (Whitworth, Kinsey-House, & Sandahl, 1998, pp. 9,257).
Listening to is what many people call active listening. Listen to what the client says-and does not say. Listen to the content and to what is beyond the words. This is the kind of listening that most of us learn readily to do as students, as parents, and as partners.A basic skill in active listening includes knowing when and how to mirror back to the client what was heard. When mirroring, the coach repeats back to the client what he said so that he feels fully heard. ArtfulListening as mirroring allows the client to hear himself. However, masterful coaches go beyond elementary mirroring. People new to practicing mirroring sometimes make the mistake of parroting back what they heard, rather than offering a nuanced interpretation that captures the client's attention. New coaches sometimes mirror too often, interrupting the client's flow.
Coaches also listen to by observing the client's body movements, gestures, tone of voice, speech pacing, pauses, and eye movements.Paying attention to the congruence of words and nonverbal behavior, the coach can begin to sense dimensions of the experience that clients may not fully have brought into their consciousness.
A second kind of listening we do as coaches is listening for. Laura Whitworth describes this well: "The coach listens for clients' vision, values, commitment, and purpose in their words and demeanor" (Whitworth,Kinsey-House, & Sandahl, 1998, p. 257).To listen for is to listen in search of something. The coach listens with a consciousness, with a purpose and focus that come from the alliance that was designed with the client. The alliance includes the client's goals and desires, what many coaches refer to as "the client's agenda." The coach listens to forward the client's agenda, not the coach's agenda. We sometimes call this listening for the large life.
For example, a particular client's agenda includes improving work-life balance. His coach listens for expanding the possibilities beyond just having balance, instead creating the most authentic and designed life that the client can imagine. The coach listens for the bigger picture, the richer possibilities available, beyond just the obvious improvements like reprioritizing time, focusing on time for self, and so on. What life can the client create so that balance would simply be a "given"?
The coach listens as if asking,"What crucible can contain the presenting goal, providing an expanded container to support the client's unfolding?"One kind of listening for that is not useful, however, is listening for"the solution." As coaches, we do not need to be the expert.People who enter professions such as coaching, counseling, and consulting are often under the impression that they need to know or are expected to know what's best for other people. Their impulse to make a difference can get confused with an inclination to impose their own values on their clients. Novice coaches, as well as coaches who have not devoted much attention to their own development and inner life, are especially prone to overlay their values onto clients.
More seasoned coaches with firsthand experience of how this orientation can distort or derail a coach-client relationship are clearer about the need to release their conviction that they know what's best for a client. Coaches learn to observe their own process and let go of their investment in being the expert and having the answer.
Coaching is not about listening for problems, pathologies, history, pain, and blocks-instead, it's about listening for possibilities, goals, dreams, and aspirations. It's about discovering, harnessing, and expanding on strengths and tools clients have, not about rooting out problems and tackling them (which, in addition to being disempowering, is not an appropriate focus in the coaching relationship). Listening for solutions is, in fact, a block to the coaching process: it distorts the process by superimposing an artificial agenda onto it.
The agenda might be:
To advise or teach something the coach is passionate about. While coaching sometimes includes brief moments of teaching, these need to be labeled as such and used at a minimum. A coach who has expertise in a domain needs to be vigilant about not listening for
opportunities in this area. One new coach we worked with was passionate about nutrition and tended to insert his knowledge in coaching conversations where it didn't belong.
In general we recommend that coaches steer clients to resources when the client needs to learn something. The new coach could easily have recommended specific texts or Web sites to clients who needed to learn more about nutrition. He didn't need to use the coaching time for teaching.
To find answers (often too quickly). The coach needs to avoid pushing for answers. New coaches can find it hard to not be hooked into a client's urgency around finding answers. To have the coach feel successful (fulfilling the coach's need, not the client's). This is a definite mistake. The coach in this case is listening to her internal dialogue or to her own needs, not the client's.
Listening as a Coach
A metaphor we use with clients is to explore the difference between flying from L.A. to New York and driving there. Driving allows for adventures, unexpected insights and meetings. Flying is more predictable and efficient. However, "flying" a client to his or her goal skips important steps and reduces the possibility that the growth will become grounded or rooted in the client's life.