Learning to listen well

One of my favorite books on listening is called Listen Like You Mean It  by Ximena Vengoechea. It's an essential guide to improving your listening skills that is chock-full of practical tips and hands-on exercises to help you listen with empathy, humility, and understanding. I really like the way the author categorizes the types of questions and phrases we use in ways that lead to constructive sessions that also build deep connections.  Here are a few ideas that you may find helpful in your role as a coach.

Exploratory questions are the perfect starting point in a conversation. These questions usually beginning with “how” and “what. ” They are unbiased: free of assumptions. Nor do they suggest a binary - yes or no - response. Because they're open-ended,  these questions can lead us down many possible and unexpected paths.  They may give us more or different information than we expected and often help see our clients from new perspectives. These types of questions are particularly effective when you need to grease the wheels in a group discussion. Try the following exploratory questions to open things up:

  • What does “ideal” look like?
  • How would you approach . . . ?
  • What would you do if . . . ?
  • What’s the biggest risk to . . . ?
  • How do you feel about that?

Sometimes our clients need an extra nudge to open up. Encouraging phrases can give people permission to go to places they wouldn't have otherwise. Small nudges help us to peel back the layers and deepen a conversation, without pushing anyone too far. Encouraging phrases you may already use include:

  • Say more about that.
  • Tell me what this means to you.
  • Walk me through . . .
  • Tell me more.
  • What else?

Some phrases I use are even more subtle. They invite a client to share an idea or feeling based on a hunch I may have. A few samples of these phrases include:

  • It sounds like that was difficult for you. [pause] 
  • It seems like that was very exciting for you. [pause]
  • You feel that way because . . . [pause]

Sometimes our clients need space for thinking, feeling and reflecting. These questions prompting clients to think through topic that arises, helping them decide which course of action is better, what assumptions they're basing their decisions on, or which limiting beliefs are getting in the way of a preferred futures. Reflection questions often help clients recognize that. that there is more that one option for moving forward. Either-or questions can be immensely powerful. Suggest only one either‑or pairing at a time to avoid indecision paralysis; A few either-or questions I frequently use when coaching include:

  • Are you looking for something stimulating or low-key?
  • Is this issue a must-have or a nice‑to‑have one for you?
  • Would you say you feel more frustrated or disappointed?
  • Is it more about wanting a new role or wanting to be recognized?
  • Is this something you wish to address immediately or sometime in the not too distant future?

I invite you try on one or more of these approaches during a future coaching session.  Note which ones work for you and when they serve you best in a conversation. May these questions and phrases help you  get to the bottom of what your clients are feeling, and build better, more collaborative working relationships as a result.  Let me know which types of questions for phrases you'd like to experiment with this week.
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Saeed Richardson - April 7th, 2021 at 12:57pm

Although we've talked about this preciously, I wonder about responding when during the explanatory moment someone responds with something that is distressing, concerning, or worse in their response. E.g., someone suggesting an action or behavior that is physically or severely immoral (physically contemplating hurting someone or perhaps exploiting a personal secret, etc. on social media).

Although I truly do hope and pray for the best in a client's ability to resolve, I wonder about exploratory questions or phrases to redirect situations like my example. Or should we at that time put on a pastoral or consultant hat.

I've been in the mentoring and pastoral care case for so long, and in the given environments I serve, I've been in situations where the only way to divert is to intentionally do so and say "no," "you can't do that," "that's not legal," or "that choice will cause repercussions you can never recover from." I feel a little like I'm struggling in moments to apply the coaching model in light of cultural and communal "in situ" moments.

Kate Dalton - April 8th, 2021 at 3:11pm

I am a big fan of the encouraging phrases that essentially ask a client to elaborate. I have gotten caught with things like – it sounds like that was difficult or exciting – as the client has corrected my comment. While I know it’s not a bad thing for a client to correct my assessment, it makes me wonder if there have been other situations where a client has not felt comfortable correcting my assessment which makes me want to work at steering clear of these types of responses.

I’m not sure how I feel about the either-or reflection questions. On their own, they seem very similar to yes/no, closed questions. I could see myself possibly using them if they were paired with a second question of why or how do you feel when you make that choice.

And while I understand what Saeed is saying with regards to feeling the need to intervene, I wonder if the struggle is one of clarifying our role as a coach and letting go of responsibility for other people’s actions. I’m not saying it’s easy to let go of that struggle, but I can see the importance of embracing the idea that people need to come to an understanding of their actions on their own terms – telling them what they should/n’t do is not necessarily going to be effective in the long run.

Saeed Richardson - April 12th, 2021 at 10:28am

Thanks for that thought in the last paragraph, Kate. You are pushing me to elaborate more over where the challenges can be.

I think I'm continually bumping up against a cultural issue in the coaching world. In what I think was the first class, I asked about whether there had been much coaching in the African American community/congregations. I believe Jim answered that he had not seen it utilized as much and I know I don't either.

There is what I believe is a cultural expectation (of course, not universal or monolith) to safeguard and look out for each other that is hard-coded into my/our DNA. So while I'm also thinking about the need to question, co-labor, and walk with, and recognize that the "client" has all the answers, I'm also seeing that I/we have the responsibility to be each other's keepers because the client is also my sister, brother, elder, too.

Culturally speaking, I am also eyes, ears, and heart for my siblings and I just recognize that at some point client responsibilities bump up against cultural responsibilities.

Mike Marsh - April 12th, 2021 at 10:24am

I would like to practice the encouraging phases. I don't think I use them a lot. I feel more comfortable with the exploratory type questions. I like the idea of using the subtle phrases to follow my hunch but also wonder if this begins to be too directive. When would it be more appropriate to use that approach rather than asking the client to take the lead? I think it might be appropriate if the client is genuinely stuck. That also seems like a good time to try an either/or reflection questions though, like Kate, that feels a bit binary.

Jessie Bazan - April 12th, 2021 at 10:42am

I'd like to work on asking more either/or questions. I tend to offer a lot of encouraging phrases. This could be better supplemented with the either / or approach -- although I agree with Kate that the coach has to be careful that either / or questions do not get too closed.

Bill - April 24th, 2021 at 1:40pm

After reading Jim's blog posting I realize that I use encouraging type questions more than others, I would like to use other types like the exploratory ones or the either or type ones. I guess i get into a routine or habit and those are my "go to" questions. I would like to experiment with other types of questions going forward.

Carl Horton - May 3rd, 2021 at 12:28pm

In all 3 of the suggested categories (exploratory, encouraging and either-or) there are great sample questions that are powerful and I want to add to my compiled questions. The exploratory questions seem to be where I spend most of my time, especially because they are well-suited to groups/cohorts. I do need to spend more time practicing and utilizing the encouraging questions. They are EASY, support the client, demonstrate good listening and draw out the client. I'm with Kate in expressing concern about the "either-or" questions. I'm cautious about identify a binary or naming a feeling and being wrong or simply too narrow. I'm all for a client correcting me, but it does feel closed-ended by nature. Thanks to Saeed for opening up the cultural limitations of coaching. For those of us who are white dominant-culture coaches, we need to consider ways in which coaching might reflect a white-centered, dominate culture, and thus limited view of coaching methodology. Food for thought.