Most coaches are good listeners…better than most other people. Almost everyone who’s ever attended our Coach Training programs has a comment similar to this one when we ask them why they want to Coach.
“People have always come to me with their problems. They say I’m such a great listener and they feel so much better after talking to me. And lots of times that’s all I do is listen!”
Clearly, listening is hands down the most important skill a coach employs. AND, there's always room for improvement. And there's a LOT more to listening than just hearing.
It's important to know how to optimize your listening skills so you don't miss a key piece of information when your client finally becomes brave enough to share it.
Most coaches these days practice over the phone. While many do use video apps like Zoom, many clients turn off their cameras.
And we’ve all been taught how to talk on the phone. You probably first used a phone of some kind when you were very little. You got to say hi to Grandpa or your aunt or Mom or Dad when you were separated for a short time. It was familiar and very comfortable and that comfort and ease translates well to coaching our clients.
But there is a downside of remote coaching sessions. Without visual cues, you can miss some critical information that is communicated non verbally.
You won’t. for example, notice that he just crossed his arms when you asked an important question.
You can’t see her break eye contact when discussing her mother. Body language can be an important tool in coaching.
That's why listening skills are particularly important now. Just like a blind person, you have to power-up your other senses to make up for what you can't see.
To help you tune in more effectively, this quick read on listening skills will help you make the most of your sessions. I hope you find some of these ideas useful… even surprising. And I hope you pass them on to your clients. Everyone can improve their communication skills by learning to listen better.
It's much easier to get distracted while talking to someone on the telephone than when you’re sitting right across from you.
Think about your last few telephone conversations. Other people, email, texts on your smart phone, daydreaming, other calls, dogs barking, computer games, your kids, etc. are just a few of the multitude of distractions when you work with clients remotely from home.
The number one priority before you begin all of your coaching sessions is to remove as many distractions as possible. So do your best to avoid multi-tasking.
Settle down in a quiet place so you can concentrate on your client. They deserve it (and so do you!) Audio cues
One of the best ways to let someone know you’re listening is to give them some sort of encouraging response. We do this all the time when we're listening to others in person – we're just not aware of it. We nod, smile, reach out.
For excellent listening skills on a call, notice how often you give your clients audio cues that you are listening. These are the times you want them to know you’re present, that don’t call for a specific response. There markers that remind them that you’re paying attention and want to hear more.
These cues include saying:
Ask a Factual Question
Every now and then, ask a simple question. It’s not giving your opinion, or asking them “why” questions. Just ask clarifying, factual questions. “When did that happen?” “Where were you?” “Who else was there?”
Have you ever been on a phone call with someone and you weren't sure if they were still there? That's because they quit giving you cues they were listening.
They may be multi-tasking, daydreaming—OR they might be simply processing what you’re saying. And everybody has had “that call” where they've continued talking after a dropped cell phone call. And that always happens when you or your friend was sharing something important, right?!
You can offer encouragement by letting clients know that you are interested in what they are saying. Here are some techniques to help them feel like they can reveal more and that you are listening to them.
REINFORCEMENT: When they have touched on a new topic or something you think is going to be key to helping them meet their goals, say something like, "Let's talk about that," or "Tell me more." You've just told the client you heard what they said and are interested in exploring the matter deeper.
RECALL: Ask how they are doing with previous concerns. If a client has talked to you in a previous session about a particular topic and then starts talking about something completely different in the next one, you can ask her to bring you up to date on the previous subject. She'll know, and appreciate, that you remembered what she said before.
CLARIFYING: Don't let something slip by that you don't understand. Sometimes a client talks fast, drives through a tunnel while on their cell phone, or simply just doesn't communicate an idea well.
Be sure to ask them to repeat themselves so you can understand their point. If you still don't understand, let them know what might be interfering – "Your cell phone is cutting out.” and ask them to repeat it. Be sure to avoid blaming them for the miscommunication. Make it about your ability to understand.
VALIDATION: Letting somebody know they've done something well shows that you're listening and makes them feel like they’re making solid progress. Say things like, "I know that was difficult for you to discuss. You’re being very courageous."
Or, "So you did x, y, and z this time when your ongoing problem occurred. That's a huge step in the right direction."
Refer back to your initial sessions when you learned what motivates your client to offer validation. Being engaged and validating your clients will let them know you’re present and actively listening. And guess what? When you practice being engaged, you're less likely to get distracted!
Listen for the sub-text
Coaching people can be like being a detective. You don't always just pay attention to the obvious clues. You have to listen closely to pick up on the sub-text, or underlying issues the client is communicating.
In face-to-face communication, it's easier because of the visual cues. (A client sniffling over the phone could have allergies or be crying. You would know for sure if you could see her with tears streaming down her face.)
Here are some of the things to listen:
Is there a longer than usual pause? What was happening before the pause? You can bring attention to the silence. “You got quiet . . .” and pause. Or, “I’m wondering what you might be thinking in the silence?”
Or, if that doesn’t elicit a response. Wait and then ask a safe factual question. “How’s the weather there today?”
Do you detect a little anger in a statement? How about sadness? Is your client sounding incredibly joyful discussing a possibility or reaching a goal?
Listening for emotion is a powerful tool. It keeps you focused on what the client is saying, and it gives you information you wouldn't have otherwise.
For example, a client may say she is OK with a decision at work, but if she sounds angry, she may not be as happy as she is letting on. If you aren't sure if a client is experiencing a particular emotion, you can clarify with a simple statement like, "You said you’re excited about your decision, but I think I might hear something in your voice…” Dare to be wrong and admit it. You’re showing interest and that counts the most.
Part of a great coaching relationship is brainstorming ideas.
There's always more than one way to build a mousetrap, as the old saying goes. And sometimes, even after a client has made a decision about a particular course of action to reach a goal, they may come up with a kernel of an idea which represents a much a better solution.
Often clients have great ideas they’re afraid of even mentioning. They may be afraid of failing at something, or have talked themselves out of trying because they don't think they have what it takes to make it work.
Listening for ideas helps you uncover some of those secret dreams your client may be frightened to pursue… And bringing them to the forefront gives the client the experience of “thinking new thoughts”… something they’ll thank you for again and again!
Better listening skills help us in every aspect of our lives.
They help us become better spouses, children, siblings, friends, employees, employers, and coaches.
People are hungry to be heard, and good listeners instill trust, confidence, and make people feel like they matter. Improving your listening skills is one of the key elements to engaging people. It will keep your old clients coming back and will help you get new ones.
And you can teach the same listening skills to your clients so that they can improve their relationships as well.