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Listening Skills in Coaching – Encouraging Two-Way Communication

Listening Skills in Coaching – Encouraging Two-Way Communication

Coaching is a two-way process. As the coach you are in the position of looking for opportunities which will help to stretch and develop the people you coach. Just giving them the task or the responsibility for something is not enough. You need to get into a two-way communication process which allows the both of you to give each other feedback about how things are going and where they might be improved.

To make sure that feedback takes place you need to do more than just invite the other person to give you feedback from time to time. Set up regular sessions where you are able to give them feedback on how they are going and they can give you feedback about how they see themselves going, how helpful you are being, the kinds of problems they are having, that sort of thing. As well as general feedback about progress, you need to be able to give and get feedback on progress towards the goals which have been agreed. Planning the feedback sessions so there is time for both general and specific feedback and making sure that the feedback is given, received and understood should be the coach’s responsibility.

The “feedback hamburger” is a useful tool for a coach (or a line manager in a coaching role) when they are trying to give straight but balanced feedback. The “meat” of the burger is main communication, e.g. “Could I suggest that you use more graphs in your reports in future”. However around this meat are the “top” bread roll, e.g. “I’m really pleased with the quality of your latest reports” and the “bottom” roll, “The layout changes are very good”.

When giving feedback you need to make sure that you are being specific and that the feedback is focused on specific events or behavior. When you are going to be giving the feedback is also an important consideration. Will you be doing it before something is planned to happen or are you giving feedback after? If it’s before the event it’s likely you will be offering some advice and encouragement, whereas if it’s after it’s probably going to involve some positive feedback or some constructive criticism. Whether you’re giving feedback before or after concentrate on things they can do something about. It’s rather pointless and can be demoralizing to focus on things which are out of the person’s control.

In giving feedback it can be very helpful to use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. By doing this you will increase the possibility of being heard by diminishing the chance of the person getting defensive about the feedback. Also, be careful to avoid judging or using general labels in your conversations.

One of the rules that good coaches learn early in their careers – often well before they coach anyone – is that:

“People who don’t listen aren’t listened to”

If you want to be listened to you have to work hard at listening and not talking. Think about how you feel when someone talks at you. Do you pay attention? Do you maintain eye contact? Do you want to hear more? Do you feel that your contribution is respected? Well, why would anybody feel any different about you if you are talking at them?

Learning to listen and being able to provide feedback to people so that they can hear it and then act on it are skills which need constant honing. The key to good listening is to stop talking and to start asking questions. It sounds too simple to be true, but by asking questions we encourage the other person to talk and it allows us to listen to them. Hence, the more we listen, the more we understand.

Most of us have the greatest difficulty in listening when we have a vested interest in the conversation:

  • when we really want to “win” the argument or discussion,
  • when want to convince the other person of something,
  • when we have something at risk, etc.

Because of the interest you might have in coaching someone and helping them to do something better or to stretch and develop you might find yourself falling into “telling” mode and not listening enough. If you find yourself doing that, just try to slow down, relax and ask a question or two.

(Make a transparency of “Seven tips for good listening” from the following page and make sufficient copies of it to hand out to participants.)

Show the transparency to the group – “walk them through it” and try and generate some discussion about the tips and any tips the group would give to someone who wanted to be a good listener.

 Seven Tips for Good Listening

  1. Focus on the other person. Give them all of your attention. Don’t do other things like answering the phone.
  2. Look at them – listen with your eyes as well as your ears. What is their expression telling you? Try and understand what their face and body is saying as well as the words they are speaking.
  3. From time to time repeat what you have heard to check that you have understood correctly.
  4. Try and draw the other person out. If you start your question with who, what, where, when, why, or how, there’s a good chance that you’ll get more than just a one word answer.
  5. Try to hear more than just what they are saying. If you think the person has some “feelings” around the conversation, check them out by asking questions.
  6. Make sure you have understood correctly by repeating back what you have understood.
  7. Sum up the conversation to show you have understood the key parts of what the other person has been saying.
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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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