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The Art of Listening: Elevating Coaching Sessions through Effective Communication

Effective communication stands as a cornerstone for achieving successful outcomes. It's not just about what is said, but how it's conveyed. Essential communication skills such as active listening, interpreting non-verbal cues, and empathy form the foundation of a fruitful coaching relationship. These skills not only facilitate a deeper understanding of clients but also foster their progress and development. Recognizing the critical role of active listening, this article delves into how you can refine your active listening skills and enrich the quality of your coaching sessions.

Mastering active listening

Active listening, a critical component of effective communication, goes beyond hearing. It involves fully engaging with the client's words, understanding their context, and responding thoughtfully. Coaches can enhance their active listening skills through techniques like paraphrasing, posing open-ended questions, and practicing reflective listening.

The Harvard Business Review conducted a comprehensive study involving 3,492 participants in a management development program. This research, focused on distinguishing the top 5% of listeners from the average based on 360-degree assessments, revealed several key findings about effective listening (Zenger, 2016):

  • Active Engagement: Effective listeners don't just hear; they actively participate in the conversation. They ask insightful questions that encourage a deeper understanding and constructively challenge preconceived notions.

  • Empowering the Speaker: The best listeners support and empower the speaker, enhancing their confidence and fostering a positive communication environment.

  • Constructive Feedback: These listeners provide feedback in a way that is helpful and non-confrontational, contributing to a more productive dialogue.

  • Offering Suggestions: Notably, good listeners are also recognized for their ability to offer thoughtful suggestions, adding value to the conversation. (Zenger, 2016)

Central to these insights are two crucial elements: the use of non-verbal communication and the practice of empathy. These components are indispensable for realizing the full potential of the listening skills outlined above.

This concept was vividly illustrated in a conversation with Karl Van Hoey (MCC), an executive coach and strategic facilitator at Otolith Consulting, and co-founder of the Team Coaching Global Alliance, featured on Episode #1068 of the Arete Coach Podcast. In a summarized excerpt from this episode, Karl emphasizes that active listening “requires more than ears." He describes using his body as an "organic antenna" to fully perceive and understand a client's non-verbal signals and overall demeanor. Karl explains how he reflects his observations back to the client for validation. This approach is not only integral to his own practice but also serves as a model for other coaches, demonstrating the depth and effectiveness of truly active listening.

Understanding and utilizing non-verbal communication

Non-verbal cues, including body language and facial expressions, carry significant weight in understanding a client's emotions and reactions. In fact, according to some researchers, nonverbal communication accounts for 80% of what we communicate, while verbal communication accounts for only 20% (Hull, 2016).

Coaches need to be adept at interpreting these cues to gain a holistic understanding of their clients' states of mind. Aligning verbal messages with non-verbal communication is essential in building trust and enhancing mutual understanding. Consider the following non-verbal queues:

  • Facial expressions: These are perhaps the most expressive non-verbal cues. For example, a smile can indicate friendliness, happiness, or approval, while a frown may suggest disapproval, sadness, or concern.

  • Eye contact: Maintaining eye contact often shows interest, attention, and engagement. Conversely, avoiding eye contact might indicate discomfort, disinterest, or shyness.

  • Gestures: Hand movements and gestures can express a range of emotions and thoughts. For instance, open palms can signify honesty or submission, while pointing fingers may be perceived as aggressive or accusatory.

  • Posture and body orientation: An upright posture can convey confidence and attentiveness, whereas slouching may indicate disinterest or discomfort. Turning the body towards someone typically shows engagement, while turning away might display disengagement or avoidance.

  • Proximity: The physical distance maintained during interaction can indicate the level of comfort. Being close can signify trust, while more distance might suggest formality or discomfort.

  • Paralinguistic features: These include aspects of speech like tone, pitch, loudness, and rate. A calm, steady voice often conveys confidence, while a high-pitched, fast-paced speech might indicate excitement, anxiety, or agitation.

  • Facial coloring: Blushing can indicate shyness or embarrassment, while pallor might suggest fear or shock.

  • Mirroring: Mirroring someone's body language often shows agreement or empathy.

  • Physical appearance: Dress and grooming can also communicate non-verbal messages, often influencing first impressions and perceived professionalism or status.

Cultivating empathetic interactions

In the context of coaching, empathy stands distinct from sympathy. It embodies the authentic understanding and mirroring of a client's emotions while maintaining professional integrity. To cultivate empathy, engaging in active listening, acknowledging and validating clients' emotions, and demonstrating sincere interest in their viewpoints are pivotal. Enhancing empathetic interactions further involves several key strategies:

  • Asking open-ended questions: By asking open-ended questions, you invite clients to delve deeper into their thoughts and feelings, going beyond simple yes or no responses. This approach not only signals your genuine interest but also aids in gaining a more holistic understanding of their perspectives.

  • Exercising patience in communication: Patience is especially crucial during emotionally charged conversations. Providing clients with the space and time to articulate their thoughts without feeling hurried or pressured creates a more open and trusting environment.

  • Empathy through perspective: Engage in role reversal by mentally placing yourself in the client's situation. This practice of empathy involves considering how you would feel and react under similar circumstances, fostering a deeper connection and understanding.

Implementing these approaches in coaching sessions enriches the empathetic quality of your interactions, thereby enhancing the effectiveness and depth of the coaching experience.

A step-by-step approach to effective listening

Becoming an effective listener is a skill that develops over time and with practice. The aforementioned Harvard Business Review study highlights six progressive levels of listening, each advancing from fundamental attentiveness to a deeper, more empathetic, and interactive form of engagement (Zenger, 2016). To methodically enhance your listening abilities, follow these outlined steps, ensuring a gradual and systematic improvement in your listening skills.

  • Create a safe environment: Focus on creating a space where complex, emotional, or difficult issues can be discussed openly.

  • Eliminate distractions: Clear any distractions, such as phones or laptops, to give your client your undivided attention. This includes making appropriate eye contact and showing through your behavior that you are fully engaged.

  • Understand the content: Here, grasp the substance of what your client is saying. This involves capturing ideas, asking questions, and restating issues to confirm your understanding.

  • Observe non-verbal cues: Pay attention to non-verbal signals such as facial expressions, body language, and other subtle cues. Since a significant portion of communication is non-verbal, listening effectively also means being observant and 'listening' with the eyes.

  • Empathize with emotions and feelings: Understand and acknowledge the speaker's emotions and feelings related to the topic at hand. Empathize with, and validate, feelings in a supportive and nonjudgmental way.

  • Clarify and contribute: Ask questions that clarify your client’s assumptions. At this level, offering thoughts and ideas could be helpful. (Zenger, 2016)

The main takeaway

Refining the art of communication within coaching sessions is a multifaceted endeavor, requiring a blend of active listening, observation of non-verbal cues, and the cultivation of empathy. These elements work in concert to create a dynamic and effective coaching environment. By methodically enhancing these skills, from creating a safe space for open dialogue to clarifying and contributing to the conversation, coaches can elevate their sessions to new levels of effectiveness and impact.


Zenger, J., & Folkman, J. (2016). What Great Listeners Actually Do. Harvard Business Review.

Hull, R. H. (2016). The Art of Nonverbal Communication in Practice. The Hearing Journal, 69(5), 22.

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