Develop active listening skills

By Jim LaDoux
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 give coaches greater insight and help clients gain new perspectives and awareness. Use the following questions to enrich group discussions:
  • 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 are more subtle. They invite clients to share ideas or feelings based on a hunch coaches 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 their preferred futures. These questions help clients recognize multiple options for moving forward. Suggest only one either‑or pairing at a time to avoid indecision paralysis. 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?
  • Do you wis to focus on staffing issues or structures?
  • 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.  
  1.  What questions do you use to engage clients at a deeper level?
  2.  Which of these types of questions would you like to use more often?
  3.  How do you listen well when clients respond to your questions?
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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.

Liz Miller - August 23rd, 2022 at 12:43pm

I use a lot of encouraging phrases - they are my go to when I don't know quite how to respond or where to go helps me let go and allow the other person lead us deeper. I would like to use more exploratory questions. This would bring the larger goals back into focus or provide helpful context to the conversation. I like that they can connect a singular response to the wider purpose of the conversation.

Lea Kone - September 12th, 2022 at 12:28pm

I'd like to incorporate more Exploratory questions into my repertoire. I am pretty good about utilizing encouraging questions. I like the Either-Or questions, but I fear that I might use them in an sub-conscious effort to steer the conversation. So I need to be a little stronger in the boundaries in my coaching before I implement these more.

Wendy Petrochko - September 14th, 2022 at 10:15am

I like the idea of utilizing either or and reflection questions, especially when you sense that a client is having a moment of indecision paralysis. The key is to make sure that you are not using that too soon because your client may be still processing a question that you had previously asked.

Encouraging phrases seem to be the most natural to me since I have been able to utilize these types of phrases in other areas of my life with people that I have worked with in a ministry capacity.

I think I would like to practice more in using exploratory language since dreaming and future thinking is not an area that currently have a lot of experience in using.

Kim Boldt - October 8th, 2022 at 6:28pm

I tend to gravitate towards encouraging phrases. I'd like to grow in using either-or questions. These could be quite powerful - particularly if you really have some perceptive insight that allows you to frame the either-or accurately. I would like to develop a larger repertoire of exploratory questions - these are the most interesting to me, for they really unlock someone's story, desires, or preferred destination.

Jeff Smith - November 15th, 2022 at 2:05pm

What questions do you use to engage clients at a deeper level? "Tell me more about that." "What would it look like if...?" "Where do you see God in this?"

Which of these types of questions would you like to use more often? The subtle encouraging questions.

How do you listen well when clients respond to your questions? I give them the space and silence to reflect and answer fully without interrupting.

Wendy Petrochko - November 28th, 2022 at 3:05pm

I could see using questions in along the line of "How do you feel about that" and "How do you see God working in this" as ways for a client to go deeper.

The go to "tell me more" is one that I use frequently.

I listen well by looking at the entire person when they speak, look closely in their eyes and look at body language too, what are their arms saying, their face, position of their entire body.

Mel Tubb - February 13th, 2023 at 3:20pm

What questions do you use to engage clients at a deeper level?

I tend to use exploratory questions the most and am working on incorporating encouraging questions more.

Which of these types of questions would you like to use more often?

I feel the least sure about either/or questions. I need to have some on deck to try out. They don't come naturally to me and I'd want to be careful to not be too limiting with the options I provide.

How do you listen well when clients respond to your questions?

I think I'm listening well to client's responses, but I think I'm mostly looking at their body language and voice cadence to tell if the question is helpful to them. It seems like folks will try to answer an unhelpful question even if it is unhelpful, so I would like to get better at adapting if they appear to be struggling.

Becky D'Angelo-Veitch - February 14th, 2023 at 12:36pm

Mel, I agree that the body language and all those other non-verbals (cadence, tone, hesitation, etc.) are such important parts of listening. I will also say that I sometimes have a mini crisis if a client looks confused or somehow shows that they aren't totally with me mid-question--I am not sure I am expressing that correctly--but I sometimes think over-analyzing those cues can somehow lead me to over explain (which I think is for sure a growing edge for me to overcome!)

Julie Gvillo - February 13th, 2023 at 5:18pm

As a huge fan of Worship and Wonder (formerly Children and Worship), open-ended "wondering" questions are a go-to for me in almost any setting. Therefore, the exploratory questions would be where I spend most of my time. That is followed by encouraging questions. I had a chiropractor who started every conversation with "Tell me about your week." I carried that into my ministry. It's AMAZING how much one can learn about a person by asking that one question.

I guess I need to incorporate either-or questions into my coaching process more, but in all honesty, I don't use them as much because I prefer the others, so to say I would "like" to use either-or questions more would be a misnomer. ;)

I'm a feeler, so I listen closely not just to words, but mostly to changes in voice tone and body language that conveys feeling. These are non-verbals I naturally cue in on quickly and respond to empathetically.

Becky D'Angelo-Veitch - February 14th, 2023 at 12:38pm

I love the word wonder!!!!!!!! :-)

Stephanie - February 14th, 2023 at 11:11am

I believe this topic is very important because I realize that my thoughts are always racing in my head. I compare Active Listening with Yoga. I have to be present and engaged to receive the message that the coachee is telling me. Once I receive this message, I can articulate what type of question I can formulate to help the coachee find answers to reach the goal presented at the beginning.

Becky D'Angelo-Veitch - February 14th, 2023 at 2:39pm

I love that yoga comparison--the idea of being present. My one yoga teacher used to always say, "if you are not here, you're nowhere" and I think it is so true in coaching. You are not in your next question, you are not in what your client just said--the only place you can and should be in in that moment. It reminds me of how in our first session, Jim encouraged us to realize when a 'great question' we had formulated was now past its time and let that go.

D - February 14th, 2023 at 7:43pm

"You are not in your next question, you are not in what your client just said--the only place you can and should be in in that moment." That stands out to me, Becky. I work to be fully present, but sometimes I get caught up in a person's rabbit trail. In the name of listening, if I'm not careful, I'll ask follow-up questions and inadvertently give them encouraging signs to go on talking. Here's where exploratory questions might keep me and the client on the intended road.

Madeline - February 15th, 2023 at 7:47am

What questions do you use to engage clients at a deeper level?

• I use exploratory but I confess I have used why, which I now know is a No-No. I must learn to use either or questions to get their reflective juices going.

Which of these types of questions would you like to use more often?

• Exploratory questions because I believe they help you dream or have a desirable state and either or questions to help them dig deeper.

How do you listen well when clients respond to your questions?

• For me listening well is having eye contact. I also look at body language, are they calm or fidgety? I listen to my gut instinct – not sure that is always a good thing.

Kim - February 16th, 2023 at 7:18am

The opening idea that questions and phrases help to build deeper connections has stuck with me in two ways. Coaching is an opportunity to help clients make their own connections and find their own answers by asking powerful questions. It also is a sacred gift of time and presence - by being fully in the coaching session, active listening, and searching for the client's God given gifts, we are developing deeper connections with another human. In a world that feels so divided and independent, the coach-client relationship is a lovely reminder of our interconnectedness.

More practically, I really appreciate the either/or questions. I read one comment where someone worried that they were too much like yes/no, but I see them as expansive if asked at the right time. They can help unstick a client. They can provide clarity. They can open up new possibilities of thinking. They also help you, the coach, to see if you've been tracking the conversation - if you pose two options that don't resonate, you know that you have missed something and need to jump back to asking for the client to tell you more, to explain further their thinking.

I have always thought of myself as a good listener, but I think I have been a good planner first. Listening with the goal of finding the next best thing to say or ask, rather than being present in the listening. These questions also allow me to trust the process and just fully listen instead of worry about what I'm going to say next. "It's not about me."

Shannon Guse - February 17th, 2023 at 2:27pm

"A sacred gift of time." Thank you for that phrase. I find that things move so quickly at my current job there's not always time for pause and many colleagues are moving quickly from one meeting to the next or one task to the next. Viewing time with colleagues and coaching as a sacred gift of time would change how I engage others. No longer would I think of my to-do list not getting done, but I would view the pause and presence as a gift to myself. Thank you!

becky D'Angelo-Veitch - February 28th, 2023 at 11:52am

"They also help you, the coach, to see if you've been tracking the conversation - if you pose two options that don't resonate, you know that you have missed something and need to jump back" YES!! Love that, Kim. Also, sometimes hearing two options gives the client clarity as to what the issue is not, such as, "actually it isn't fear or anxiety--I think I actually feel angry about it."

Shannon Guse - February 17th, 2023 at 2:22pm

One of the either/or questions I like to ask is "Does that give you energy or drain you?" It helps the client determine whether or not what they are talking about is the problem or the solution! Asking the client what the best outcome could be if they tried _____________ or what would happen if they did nothing are more questions I gravitate to in trying to help the client determine what they want to focus on and their next steps.

Nicole - February 20th, 2023 at 2:15pm

Tell me more is my absolute favorite question. People seem to respond so well to it and to dive deeper faster when I ask that question. It gives them permission to expand their usual telling and makes them feel like you genuinely care about the story they are telling. I've also realized that I use "say more about that" a lot both in my coaching work and my personal life -- my family immediately rolls their eyes at that one now!

Darren Sutton - February 26th, 2023 at 4:34pm

I love a good, pregnant pause. I used to be wholly uncomfortable with silence, but learning to keep my mouth shut has been the biggest gift - I need to get better at it!!

I love the either/or idea! I haven't used that.

Charity Cuellar - February 28th, 2023 at 7:32pm

I've enjoyed trying out questions that focus on value- What's more important? What is riskier? What's more valuable. Questions like these help me hear what's often underneath a comment they might make or how they tend to see a situation that's more grey than black and white.

Matthew May - November 6th, 2023 at 3:27pm

I feel like many coaches go away from the "how do you feel" question because they think it's too much like counseling. I have seen this question impact clients to actively understand how what the situation makes them feel like and if they want to have those feelings about the conversation. It has allowed them to take ownership of the topic and invite the coach into guide them to changing their feelings about a situation.

Sandra Miranda Duverge - November 8th, 2023 at 7:53am

These questions have certainly been inspiring and as someone already mentioned I will add them to my list of questions. Since I am new to Coaching in the formal sense, I focus more on creating space and waiting for the client to pause before I ask another question or reflect. This helps me be present since I am actively listening not to respond but to know where the client wants to go next.

Bob Hagel - December 23rd, 2023 at 4:58am

Curiosity is so important. Listening intently with the expectation that there is always more to be said. Sometimes I feel like I am trying so hard to figure out the perfect type of question that I miss out on what is being said. I wonder if this feeling ever goes away.

As i think of my coaching experiences, I would like to work on encouraging phrases more. They are short and ask the client to go deeper into the expereince.