Are you hearing what I hear? (The importance of listening in coaching)

Written by Matt Somers on . Posted in Coaching Skills for Managers

Coaching Skills Series

This is one of many articles I intend to post this year considering the range of principles, skills and experiences you’ll need to be an effective coaching manager for the people in your team.

Here we consider the art of listening. Next time we’ll move on to how all of these coaching attributes give the coachee the ability to find their focus.

ListeningI’ll assume here that your hearing is not impaired in any physical way and that your listening faculties are basically intact. How well do you listen? When people talk to you at work do you become oblivious to everything else or do you still partly monitor other conversations or watch what else is happening? Do you patiently wait while the speaker rummages in their mind for just the right word to describe their thoughts or do you finish their sentence for them; impatient to move on?

Listening is without doubt the key skill of the effective coach. In fact, it is the key skill of any professional engaged in helping others, from marriage guidance councellor to careers advisor. It is however a skill often deployed quite poorly because it is confused with hearing which we do all the time, and not recognized as a skill which needs attention and practice. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that when we talk of listening we are not talking about one thing. There are modes of listening or levels of listening if you prefer.

Level One is superficial

We hear the words of the other person, but the focus is on what it means to us. This brings about the problem that happens when coaching around an understanding of the current reality. That is, we worry about forming our own reality as coach, rather than allowing the coachee to explore and understand their own.

Level Two is passive

Here we tend to listen more carefully but are more concerned with content than feeling; we remain emotionally detached from the conversation. Useful for minute taking, essential if recording the content of a disciplinary interview, but not much use in a coaching conversation where it is just as important to demonstrate that we are listening as it is to listen in the first place.

Level Three is active

Hearing that picks up emotion, body language, and the context of what is being said.

Levels one and two listen primarily for words. Level three picks up everything else including all of the sensory data as well as mood, pace and energy.

For many of us the ability to operate at level three has dulled over time, but the good new is that it can be honed again quite quickly. Try to practice level three listening in situations other than coaching and see what happens to the quality of exchange. Try encouraging speakers by using verbal and non-verbal prompts. Nodding, raising eyebrows, smiling, using ‘I see’, or ‘Do go on’ are all ways to help you concentrate on your listening and encourage the speaker to continue. Summaries and using the speaker’s own words also serve to reinforce rapport and demonstrate that we are truly listening.

I sometimes think that coaching is like being a potter: you can do nothing without any clay. The clay in a coaching conversation is high quality thinking and its your listening that will really draw that out.


What are you looking at? (The importance of body language in coaching)

Written by Matt Somers on . Posted in Coaching Skills for Managers

Coaching Skills Series

This is one of many articles I intend to post this year considering the range of principles, skills and experiences you’ll need to be an effective coaching manager for the people in your team.

This post is about body language and will be followed up in a fortnight’s time by a further post on the subject of listening.

DogsWe know that developing our coaching skills has us asking carefully constructed coaching questions and listening intently to the response. We can also gain a lot of feedback about how well the session is progressing and the cochee’s readiness for change by monitoring their non verbal communication; that is their tone of voice and body language.

Professor Albert Mehrabian’s famous statistics back this up:

  •  7% of meaning is in the words that are spoken
  • 38% of meaning is paralinguistic (the way that the words are said)
  • 55% of meaning is in body language

In other words – and to paraphrase the song – it ain’t what the coachee says, it’s the way the coachee says it.

These statistics often seem odd at first glance, have been challenged widely and are often taken out of context but for now let’s you and I consider them merely helpful food for thought that makes intuitive sense.

Certainly words alone can be very confusing. Consider for example the sign at the start of this post that I saw on a recent trip on the London Underground system.

Simple enough sign, but I looked at it and thought What if you haven’t got a dog? My business brain got ticking and I began to think there might be an opportunity to rent dogs to commuters that they could carry on the escalator and hand in at the top. Someone from the dog rental firm would have to re-stock say, every half hour by bringing a big basket full of dogs back down to the beginning. How easily we can get side-tracked by unclear communication!

The power of paralinguistic communication – tone of voice – has been well known to politicians and those in the public eye for years. Just watch as any politician comes to prominence and you can almost see the work of the voice coaches coming through.

Body language consists of four elements. There is posture; how we hold ourselves whilst standing or sitting, gestures; the way we use our hands, expression; our eye, brow and mouth movements and adornment; the use of make-up, tattoos, jewellery and so on.

The good coach will monitor body language and tone of voice to check that these things are in sync with what the coachee is saying. If for example the coachee is claiming to be committed to the latest change project whilst slouched in their chair yawning, it’s clear what the real message is. Be wary though of taking non-verbal signals too literally. Scratching my nose may well mean I’m lying, but could also mean I have an itchy nose. Folding my arms my well be a defensive gesture or it could simply mean I’m more comfortable that way. It is groups of signals that give the real message, not single gestures.

As well as monitoring the coachee’s non-verbal communication, you can also use your own to help the conversation flow. Three ideas from NLP are particularly helpful: Try Pacing, that is, matching the coachee’s speed and volume of speech. You can also try Mirroring which is when you match the body language of the coachee (carefully and subtlety though I would suggest). When these have helped you establish rapport you can then use Leading which is where you change your own non-verbal communication and bring the coachee with you.


Coaching to establish the Way Forward

Written by Matt Somers on . Posted in Coaching Questions

Coaching Skills Series

This is one of many articles I intend to post this year considering the range of principles, skills and experiences you’ll need to be an effective coaching manager for the people in your team.

This post is about committing to a way forward; the final stage in a series of coaching questions Next time we’ll move on to consider some core skills, starting with body language

way forwardSo we’ve created a destination point by establishing some Aims and we understand the extent of the journey because we’ve taken time to understand the current Reality. A pause for Reflection has enabled us to clarify our thinking and understanding and we’ve generated a number of Options.

Now it’s simply a question of deciding which option to choose, right?


Deciding which option to choose is pointless unless we actually take action. It’s like deciding to move to a nicer area but never phoning an estate agent or deciding to get fitter without changing our diet or exercise habits. Thought without action is just an idle dream.

This then is the point of the Way Forward questions. Our intention at this stage is to turn thought into action. The following questions will help

In relation to your issue:

  •  What exactly are you going to do?
  • When exactly are you going to do it?
  • Who needs to know?
  • How and when will you tell them?
  • What resources do you need?
  • How will you get them?
  • Will this take you towards your aims?
  • What do you need me to do?
  • What is your commitment to this course of action on a scale of 1-10?

You’ll need to be quite tough but encouraging at this stage as human nature seems to get us quite attached to the status quo, even when our current situation is causing problems and anxiety. Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t so the saying goes. Hence using the word ‘exactly’ in the first two questions. The idea is to encourage coachees to articulate detailed action steps; making a commitment to themselves first.

Sometimes, you might need to hold your tongue if you feel that an action step described at the Way Forward stage is over optimistic or just plain wrong. Sometimes it might be better to let your coachee try and fail. At least they’re moving and at least they’ll learn from the experience. Of course, if an action step is against the organization’s rules, illegal, harmful or unsafe, you’ll need to intervene, but you can at least explain to the coachee why a certain plan may not be possible. It’s these sorts of judgements that make coaching an art form and a skill and so much more than just reeling off a list of questions which anyone can do.

The final commitment question is a good way of clarifying the extent to which our coaching has been successful. A response of less than 10 can be followed by ‘What would have to change to make it a 10′ to throw light on where any blockages may still remain. Other useful questions include:

  • What’s the best thing you could be thinking to get what you want?
  • What’s the best thing you could be feeling to get what you want?
  • What could you delegate?
  • What could you start today?
  • What do you gain/lose by this action?
  • What have you learnt today?