Core Skills – Active Listening

Core Skills – Active Listening

Two questions

1 How do you know what the student is really talking about? What clues are there?
(It’s in discrepancies between their words, tone of voice, body language, gestures ect)

2 How can you use what you hear so that it supports the student in their coaching process? What are the techniques that you can use?


Here is how the ICF defines Active Listening, adapted for teachers coaching students.

The coach…

  • Attends to the student and the student’s agenda, and not to the coach’s agenda for the student. That’s a change from the usual teacher role, and will be discussed further in this chapter and book. There are usually several agendas in the room in any coaching. If these are allowed to interact there may well be conflict. You will notice when your agenda for the student is significantly different to their own agenda. At such a time you will need to self-manage, and be a coach rather than a teacher.
  • Hears the student’s concerns, goals, values and beliefs about what is and is not possible. Just hear them, without getting too involved in the background story. Your focus as coach is on helping the student describe their future, and finding out what the student can do right now in order to move in that direction.
  • Distinguishes between the words, the tone of voice, and the body language. The verbal and physical channels are separate communication channels, and you will receive streams of valuable information from each channel. Note especially when the channels give you clashing information, as this is often a call for support for a deep need for change.
  • Summarizes, paraphrases, reiterates, mirrors back what student has said to ensure clarity and understanding. These are tools for supporting your student, and will be explored more in this chapter.
  • Encourages, accepts, explores and reinforces the student’s expression of feelings, perceptions, concerns, beliefs, suggestions, etc.. These expressions are signs that the student is growing up, taking the responsibility for who they are, and naturally should be supported and encouraged.
  • Integrates and builds on the student’s ideas and suggestions. Again, these are signs of the student’s developing maturity and working with these will support the student in developing their sense of self.
  • “Bottom-lines” or understands the essence of the student’s communication and helps them get to the point rather than engaging in long descriptive stories. Bottom-lining is a tool for getting the student to focus on the present moment rather than getting lost in long stories. Just summarise in a sentence so the student knows that you are listening actively.
  • Allows the student to vent or “clear” the situation without judgment or attachment in order to move on to the next steps. Again, this is a tool for lightening the student’s emotional baggage so that the student can move on. Sometimes this process needs special attention, and I will discuss this at the end of the article.

Active Listening
What would a coach be worth if they didn’t listen? Listening is a coaching skill that can be forever developed to higher and ever higher levels.

Listening is good. What’s better than just listening? It’s called active listening and it is the ability to focus completely on what the student is saying, and is not saying. It is also the ability to understand the meaning of what is said in the context of the student’s desires. This is often called third level listening, and there are further levels.

Using what you hear to support the student’s self-expression will be of great service to them. Further, when you support the student’s self-expression you will see them grow, become more mature, more responsible for who they are and what they are doing in the world.

As coach, you simply act as a mirror – except it’s not light you are reflecting, it’s another form of energy. The greatest service you can provide your student is to be as neutral as possible in your reflection. And it’s hugely enjoyable. One of the curious aspects of coaching is that when it is done right, it is wonderfully rearding. Most teachers that I have spoken with agree that seeing students grow up is one of the greatest rewards for all their teaching efforts. With coaching these moments come more often, and more powerfully.

Here’s the situation I want you to have in mind

Imagine that you are in the middle of a coaching session, somewhere the middle of the planned time with this student.
You hear, in the student’s tone of voice, and read from their body language some indications of what the student is really talking about, their concerns, goals, values and beliefs about what is possible and what is not possible. It would not be easy to point out the actual details of how you know this, the impression came to you intuitively. And you choose to rely on your intuition and follow through using one of several techniques.

As coach the aim is to be a mirror for what the student is saying, so you can use any of the following techniques to reflect back to them about their goals, values and beliefs.

A) You can summarize, simply say what you heard in brief
B) You can paraphrase, say what’s been said in slightly different words – without changing the meaning, or interpreting what’s been said
C) You can reiterate, say exactly what the student said

The aim of this mirroring of what the student has said is to ensure clarity and understanding; their clarity and understanding, not yours.

The issue of Agendas

It is essential that early in the coaching, you identify and then keep to the student’s agenda. When you actively listen you will hear what the student is really talking about. You will hear their concerns, goals, values and beliefs. This is the student’s agenda and is the only one you shall work with when you are a coach.
When you summarize, be aware of what you are leaving out – and why.
When you paraphrase, be aware of the interpretations you make
When you reiterate, be aware of your tone of voice

Developing your skill in holding the student’s agenda in focus is a challenge. This is a skill that will greatly increase the value of the coaching for the student. To this end I recommend that you, as coach, have a coach!

An easy way to do develop your skills is for three teachers to coach each other. You can avoid possible confidentiality conflicts through the use of written agreements and adhering to the Coaching Code of Ethics!

​Not all the active listening skills belong to the coach, some belong to the student.

Some students will try to avoid being coached by telling stories. A skill that you can teach the student is to ask them to give the bottom line of any story they may want to tell you. It’s rarely necessary for you as coach to hear, or understand the whole story, a bottom line version is enough to establish sufficient background. Explain that you don’t need to hear the whole story and then say “Imagine that you have already told me everything you want to say… what comes next?”

Another skill that’s useful is getting the student to vent or clear what they are bottling up. Use it when the student is bottled up or overflowing with emotions and needs to become a little emptier in order to get to a place where they can do something about it. Ask “What do you need to say in order to be ready for coaching?”

This is part of a series of 12 blogs about the ICF Core Coaching Skills