Active Listening

Active listening

You may have heard the old adage – you have two ears and one mouth and you should use them in that proportion. This applies to coaching – great coaches are outstanding at listening.

You know how to listen well. You have probably covered active listening on one course or another. Below is a quick checklist to remind you of the key facets of listening.

Good listeners Bad listeners
  • Make regular eye contact with the speaker
  • React non-verbally, with a smile, nod or frown, as appropriate
  • Ask questions for clarification
  • Restate or paraphrase some of the speaker’s words to show understanding
  • Display empathy by acknowledging feelings
  • Pay close attention and don’t let their minds wander
  • Listen for the key ideas
  • Listen to the whole message without prejudging
  • Use quick thinking to analyse, sort and store material
  • Remain objective and are aware of their personal prejudices.
  • Interrupt frequently
  • Jump to conclusions without waiting for the whole message
  • Are so busy formulating their replies that they don’t listen to the speaker
  • Let their thoughts take side excursions while the other person is speaking
  • Get distracted by details
  • Stop listening when the subject matter gets difficult
  • Don’t give any non-verbal indication that they are listening
  • Only listen for what they like to hear
  • Let their emotions take over
  • Get distracted by the delivery rather than focus on content.

Active listening takes solid practice. You need to focus on really listening to and understanding the message and communication from the other person. This is often easier said than done.

Face to face versus telephone

Research by Albert Mehrabian shows that the breakdown of how we perceive the meaning of the communication in a face-to-face conversation is as follows:

  • Words we say – 7 per cent
  • How we say the words – 38 per cent
  • Our physiology/body language – 55 per cent.

Mehrabian’s model has become one of the most widely-referenced statistics in communications. However, the figures from this work have since been misinterpreted or badly applied on a regular basis. The context within which these figures are valid is very narrow, and yet people often wrongly generalise the figures to apply to all communications.

Despite this, the theory is particularly useful in explaining the importance of meaning, as distinct from words. The relevance of the figures does depend on the context of the conversation, but the underlying fact is that when we are face to face, we can pay attention to the total communication and not just the words. This enables us to challenge more effectively and listen more completely. If it is not face to face, for example, when we are speaking on the phone, we do not have the visual cues to aid us in understanding the real meaning.

What does this imply for our listening and our coaching? If all we focus on are the words being said, we might listen to what we want to hear and miss the real message that is being communicated.

In a face-to-face meeting, you need to listen for whether the words match both the tone in which they are said and also the body language. If they don’t, you should challenge this with the other person, for example ‘I hear that you say you think you can achieve this, but your tone does not seem fully committed. Is there something here we should discuss?’

You need to avoid reacting purely to what is said, and consciously include how it is said in your quest for meaning!


Make your listening a focus for development. Think about it before you go to meetings and reflect afterwards on how well you did.

What did you do to demonstrate that you were actively listening and what impact did it have on the quality of rapport and the communication?

There is more on listening in the Listening Skills topic.