When a coach should not listen actively

Of course, a coach should always listen to the client! Our focus is with the client and they are the center of the conversation and deserve our full attention. One of the things that our clients is paying us for, however, is that we can help the client focus their attention in potentially useful places. We don’t decide this by ourselves but we partner with the client to check whether the focus of our conversation is what they would like to talk about.

So when should you not listen actively?

Sometimes the client wants to be helpful to you and share all the details of a problematic story. Who said what, what happened, whose fault that was and why this was difficult. Of course, we listen to these description and acknowledge the hardship. The client has every right to be speaking about whatever they want.

As Solution Focused coaches we know that talk about growth, desired changes, changes that happened in the past and that give hope for the future are signals for a successful coaching. That’s why we have a preference to invite talk about these topics.

Now you are confused, I guess: do we listen or don’t we listen?

We do, but we do not engage in what is traditionally understood as “listening actively”. A lot of the descriptions of “active listening” involve the coach paraphrasing, replaying, summarizing what the client has said — just look at one of the description of the PCC markers for ICF core competency 6: “6.7: Coach succinctly reflects or summarizes what the client communicated to ensure the client’s clarity and understanding”.

This is where we as coaches can make a difference

If the client is talking about what they do not want, what is keeping them from getting what they want etc., we can summarize or reflect using a “deictic expression”. A deictic expression points to something that was said without repeating it. For example:

Client: “I am fed up, I really don’t know what to do. I hate my work, my marriage is failing. This is all awful.”

Coach: “That sounds tough! How are you coping?”

The “that” is the deictic particle. The coach summarizes without repeating and thereby giving more weight to the problem description. Compare this with:

Client: “I am fed up, I really don’t know what to do. I hate my work, my marriage is failing. This is all awful.”

Coach: “I am so sorry! I am hearing that you don’t know what to do, you hate your work and your marriage is failing. And while you are saying this your facial expression is really sad. Can you say more?”

In the second example the invitation is to a description of the problem and its context. You can imagine that the second conversation is going to stay in “hopeless land” for much longer than the first.

A discerning use of “active listening” would be to know when to reflect back with deictic expressions (when it is about problems) and when to reflect back with key words (when it is about what is wanted, what is important, what gives the client strength and agency).

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