Listen with curiosity. Speak with honesty. Act with integrity. The greatest problem with communication is we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply. When we listen with curiosity, we don’t listen with the intent to reply. We listen for what’s behind the words.”

Roy T. Bennett

What stands out in the quote above is “Listening to understand rather than to reply.” Listening is fundamental to being human but has become one of the complicated skills because of the conditioning in our upbringing, the environment in which we grew and live, and societal expectations.

It is an unwritten rule to give opinions, advice, or solutions when someone speaks to us. We are conditioned to think that it’s rude to not give an opinion, or offer advice or solutions when someone says something to us. A few common statements that indicate to the other person that we are listening are “I know what it means”, “I have been in that position”, and “I think you must try this”.

It is a norm that I need to speak a few words to let the other person know that I am listening. In essence, the action of speaking must be responded to by speaking and there is no other way.

Curiosity! A child learns by observing, noticing, and responding to sounds (including voices). As a child grows, the curiosity comes down because of the expectations from the environment and self-consciousness. In the process, the curiosity diminishes and loses its sheen. The very fundamental nature that helped one to learn becomes scarce with time.

Levels of Listening

In the book “Co-Active Coaching”, the authors talk about 3 levels of listening. It is worth reviewing it as we get into the heart of Coaching Competency 6, Listens Actively.

Level 1: Internal Listening

  • The focus is on oneself.
  • The awareness is on ourselves.
  • There is only one question: What does this mean to me?
  • Paying more attention to his or her own judgements and opinions.

Level 2: Focused Listening

  • There is a sharp focus on the other person.
  • The awareness is totally on the other person.
  • It’s at the level of empathy, clarification and collaboration.

Level 3: Global Listening

  • Listen as if you and the other person are at the centre of the universe.
  • It’s about what you can observe with your senses: what you see, hear, smell and feel.
  • Level 3 is about action, inaction, and interaction.

Awareness is sometimes described as environmental listening

CC6 – Listens Actively

While we are evaluating what Listening is from the context of coaching, we also need to focus on the title of the core competency “Listens Actively”. It’s about listening on a continuous and consistent basis and not as a tick-in-the-box exercise. It’s the foundational quality which the coach must build and grow upon which every other competency will shine.

The core purpose of listening in a coaching conversation is to hear the client, help the client hear themselves, and make the client feel heard. It is also about what the client is saying, and not saying, with the intention of hearing the communication from the context of the client. As a coach, it is important to ensure that the client is feeling heard and refrain from adding or subtracting anything to what the client communicated.

A coach must “do” and “be” when it comes to listening. It means that there could be a natural trait in a coach to listen but that doesn’t take them beyond a certain level of depth in the conversation. The “being” level allows the coach to go deeper and partner with the client to go beyond the obvious.

In the “doing” level, the coach would look for words that the client uses and highlight or underline them so that the client can decipher what it means to them. It could also be about noticing a change in the body language of the client. As a coach, it’s important to notice that change and ask questions to the client on what they infer from that. On a few occasions, it could also be about some restlessness seen in the client – as a coach, notice, ask and get the client to help themselves.

The client is made of their identity, experiences, values, and beliefs and will speak based on that. One of the common pitfalls could be for the coach to see it from their context rather than from the client’s perspective. A coach must listen in with the backdrop of the identity, experiences, values, and beliefs of the client which helps them to get the context of the conversations and to know the client’s world better.

In the “being” level, the coach can hear certain nuances that were not said by the client – verbally or otherwise. It’s about how the coach is attuned to what is said and unsaid from the context of the client. The coach can notice the varied emotions of the client, inquire them about that without getting absorbed into those emotions, and help them see what’s on the other side of the emotions.

The coach is now able to notice more, they share it with the client and help them make new connections to their thoughts. They can now listen to the system and not just the words, given the larger context that has emerged in being a trusted partner. It is a state where there is lot of ease in the conversation and is getting effortless.

A child-like curiosity helps a coach to notice subtle changes in the tone, body language, emotions. It helps the coach and client to go beyond the obvious and get deeper on the goal that is being discussed. Otherwise, a content focused (rather than a context focussed) discussion happens, which is more transactional and the one that stops at seeing the obvious results.

A coach has the responsibility to offer a space where the client expresses freely and in an uninterrupted manner. In our regular conversations (or non-coaching conversations), there is a tendency to speak in between, stop the other person and ask questions, add the individual’s perspectives, etc. In a coaching conversation, it is about listening that allows the client to say whatever is there on their mind without being interrupted.

A coach also must succinctly summarise what the client said in a way that it can reinforce certain behaviours of the client, they can make new meanings of what is said or unsaid, they get clarity on the matter and feel confident on furthering the thinking, reflections and meanings leading to better outcomes.


A coach may be a natural listener, but the demands of the coaching conversations require them to work on this skill on a regular basis. Some coaches may not be natural listeners, but this skill can be developed with focused effort and dedication. The bottom line – Listening skill is to be nurtured whether you are natural or not! Each coach needs to choose the process that works for them to nurture their listening skills. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.

“The quieter you become, the more you can hear.” – Anonymous

In listening, the focus is on the other person. If a coach can defocus themselves and get the client on the spotlight, it becomes lot easier to tune in and listen. It’s about moving from Level 1 to Level 3 listening of the co-active coaching process. Listening gets hard only when there is an inclination from the coach to judge the client or what they said, form an opinion, offer solutions, or set directions.

If the coach can be curious about the client and their context, it helps them to skillfully navigate the conversation. The curiosity is not about being nosy on what’s happening in the client’s world but instead it is about seeing the client’s world from their context.

As we conclude, staying curious can be a single most effective tool that a coach can consider using in coaching conversations and every other nuance of listening will start to fall in place!

Happy Listening!!

Written by: J. Lakshminarayanan (JL)
Date: 6May2024

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