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Active Listening: The Key To Transforming Your Coaching

By Elena Aguilar — April 27, 2014 4 min read

I’m just about ready to declare that active listening is the highest priority skill for a coach to master and that it must be mastered prior to success using any other strategy. This is because I have seen and experienced innumerable instances where a coaching conversation either results in deep insight and big changes as a result of the coach’s skill in using active listening or because a conversation has struggled because a coach didn’t use active listening.

Active Listening Defined

Active listening is a deceptively simple skill. It’s a communication technique which requires that the listener feed back what the other person has said and reflect that hearing the complete message that was expressed. Here’s the biggest challenge: You can only do this if you’re paying really close attention. Your mind can’t wander, you can’t drift into your own memories, you can’t start generating solutions for the issue at hand, and you can’t start mentally arguing with the speaker. You have to fully concentrate to get what it is the speaker is saying.

You’re probably familiar with active listening--or paraphrasing--statements. They sound like:

• I hear that you worked really hard on that lesson and it didn’t go as you wanted. You sound frustrated.
• It sounds like you’re feeling really good about that interaction, that it went the way you’d hoped it would.
• What I’m hearing is that you’d like more acknowledgement of your work. You wish your principal had appreciated your efforts at the staff meeting.

The basic active listening stems: I hear...It sounds like...What I’m hearing is...So...In other words...

Active Listening Challenges

There are a few tricky things about using active listening. First, it can be hard not to sound like a parrot. If you just repeat back what the speaker has said, he/she won’t feel heard, because it’s not about accurately remembering and repeating the words. However, using some of the speakers words can also help the speaker feel like you really listened--you paid attention to the exact words. Repeating a few words that might have been particularly meaningful to the speaker can be effective.

The second challenge is to be cautious that you’re not overly interpreting what someone else is saying. For example, you might say, “It sounds like you were really angry when your teaching partner said...” And the speaker might respond by saying, “No, I wasn’t really angry. I was just upset, I wasn’t angry.” If you overly interpret too much, you risk losing your coachees trust in your ability to understand him/her.

One of the ways to navigate these tricky parts is to always add a statement to the end of an active listening stem that is something along the lines of, “Did I get that right?” Or “Is that correct? Or is there anything else you want me to know?” This allows the speaker to clarify what was said, to take ownership of the communication, or even to change his/her mind. For example, someone might say, “It’s true--I did sound really angry. But now that I think about it, it wasn’t so much anger as hurt. I felt really disrespected.”

The Key to Active Listening: Empathy

One question I’m often asked about active listening is “How can you do it and not sound like a robot? How can you make it authentic?” I understand this question--when I first started incorporating active listening into my coaching (and into conversations with my husband!) I felt like those “I-hear-that-you...” came sputtering out. I was trying hard to show that I could do this thing and that I’d heard the precise language. But I hadn’t quite understood what the whole active listening thing is all about.

Here’s the key, the core, the reason why it’s so powerful and transformational: Active listening is about empathy. It’s not so much about the exact words that you use as the listener, it’s about the feeling behind them. It’s about who you are being when you use them--are you being a caring, compassionate coach? Or are you being someone who is trying to be right--to get the right sentence stem out of her mouth?

For me, once I’d tackled my own monster judgments, I was truly able to listen to another person and get their message. I learned to manage distractions and stay focused, to listen for the underlying sentiments, and then to find the words--simple ones often work best--to convey that I heard and felt what the speaker was communicating.

When someone actively listens to us with empathy, we feel it. We feel acknowledged and recognized. We feel that the listener has connected with us and seen us. It’s a powerful experience.

When a coach (or principal or parent or spouse) uses active listening it can create an opening into other conversations. I’ve seen this over and over and over again. Coaches who effectively use active listening can guide their coachees into all kinds of conversational explorations--into the scary realm of equity, into conversations about beliefs, and into making big changes in their classrooms. But without using active listening--without verbal ways to express empathy--those conversations struggle.

New coaches often ask me, “What’s the one thing I can work on to improve my coaching?” Active listening. It’s foundational for building trust and connection between you and your client.

Here’s aActive Listening.docxyou can print out and carry around with you, or post in a visible location, to remind you of these ideas.

The opinions expressed in The Art of Coaching Teachers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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