Active Listening Can Turn a Typical Conversation Into a Coaching Opportunity

Giving feedback isn’t always easy. Daily pressures and demands often overtake our work, leaving limited time and energy to focus on coaching direct reports.

While formal coaching sessions may be limited, you can fit in coaching conversations and coaching moments.

CCL defines coaching as “formal or informal conversations between a leader coach (you) and a learner (someone else) intended to produce positive changes in workplace behaviors.”

To increase your opportunities to provide feedback, pay attention to the cues others are sending. If someone is upset, not ready to talk, or needing to vent, then just hear them out. They need a safe place to air thoughts and emotions, but aren’t ready for a coaching conversation.

7 Active Listening Techniques to Use

Coaches use active listening techniques when people are ready to identify problems and find solutions. Cues that someone is open to coaching include: “Can you help me think things through?” or “I’d like to bounce some ideas off of you.” or “Could you give me a reality check?” or “I need some help.”

In these moments, 7 active listening skills can help turn a typical conversation into a coaching opportunity:



1. Be attentive. Convey a positive attitude to the learner (the “coachee”) and a willingness to talk through the situation. If timing is a problem, let the other person know you’re interested and commit to a time for the 2 of you to have a focused conversation.

During the conversation, remind yourself that your role is not to interrogate the coachee, jump to advice-giving, or solve the problem yourself. Listen. Near the end of the conversation, you need to be able to accurately summarize the coachee’s main ideas, concerns, and feelings.

Allow “wait time” before responding. Don’t cut the coachee off, finish their sentences, or start formulating your answer before they have finished. Be conscious of your body language.

2. Ask open-ended questions. These encourage the coachee to do the work of self-reflection and problem solving, rather than justifying or defending a position, or trying to guess the “right answer.”

Examples include: “What do you think about …?” or “Tell me about …?” and “Will you further explain/describe …?”

3. Ask probing questions. Again, the emphasis is on asking, rather than telling. It invites a thoughtful response by the coachee and maintains the spirit of collaboration.

You might say: “What are some of the specific things you’ve tried?” or “Have you asked the team what their main concerns are?” or “Does Emma agree that there are performance problems?” or “Are there any issues in your own leadership style that might be contributing to the situation?” and “How certain are you that you have the full picture of what’s going on?”

4. Request clarification. Double check any issues that are ambiguous or unclear to you. If you have doubt or confusion about what the coachee has said, say something like, “Let me see if I’m clear. Are you talking about …?” or “Wait a minute. Try that again. I didn’t follow you,” if you have any doubt or confusion about what the coachee has said.

5. Paraphrase. Recap the coachee’s key points periodically. Don’t assume that you understand correctly, or that the coachee knows you’ve heard.

For example, your coachee might tell you,“Emma is so loyal and supportive of her people — they’d walk through fire for her. But, no matter how much I push, her team keeps missing deadlines.” To paraphrase, you could say, “So Emma’s people skills are great, but accountability is a problem.”

6. Be attuned to and reflect feelings. With active listening, you’ll be able to identify the feeling message that accompanies the content. This is an effective way to get to the core of the issue.

When you hear, “I don’t know what else to do!” or “I’m tired of bailing the team out at the last minute,” try to help the coachee label his or her feelings: “Sounds like you’re feeling pretty frustrated and stuck.”

7. Summarize. Give a brief restatement of core themes raised by the coachee: “Let me summarize to check my understanding. Emma was promoted to manager and her team loves her. But you don’t believe she holds them accountable, so mistakes are accepted and keep happening. You’ve tried everything you can think of and there’s no apparent impact. Did I get that right?”

Once the situation has been talked through in this way, both you and the coachee have a good picture of where things stand. From this point, the conversation can shift into problem solving. What hasn’t been tried? What don’t we know? What new approaches could be taken?

As the coach, continue to query, guide, and offer, but don’t dictate a solution. Your coachee will feel more confident and eager if they think through the options and own the solution.

Performance vs. Development

Although there can be considerable overlap between performance, development, coaching techniques, and conversational elements, the key distinctions are:

Performance Coaching Focuses On: Development Coaching Focuses On:
Short-term Long-term
Outside in Inside out
What the learner does Who the learner is and how he thinks
Problem solving Understanding
Judgment/evaluation Curiosity
Speed Patience
One right answer Multiple right answers / options
Tactical fixing of behaviors needed now Growth and learning over time

Emerging Leadership Trends Report

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22 thoughts on “Coaching Others: Use Active Listening Skills

  1. Jeff Keip says:

    Some very interesting nuggets here. I’d like to confirm that, although the seven skills are listed numerically, it’s not a case where they should be used in a specific order. Being attentive is clearly important from the beginning, and summarizing is clearly important at the end, but throughout the conversation, these skills are likely to get used in a wide range of orders, and often used repeatedly.

  2. Robert L Walker says:

    I would like to incorporate this into my HS classrooms.

  3. Quite helpful indeed, I want to be part of this, I am really impressed

  4. Jon Besag says:

    Solid Tips and Best Practices

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