Friday, March 18, 2016

'Hows' and 'whys' of active listening

One of the abilities of a coach is the being able to listen - to try to understand another person’s reality, and how they experience and interpret their world. Active listening has been identified as an “important way to bring about changes in people” and an “effective agent for individual personality change and group development” (Rogers & Farson, 1987, Para 3).
Most people have heard of active listening; however, it is a tricky skill to pin down. Active listening (sometimes also known as empathic or reflective listening), is described by Salem (2003) as “a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding and trust” (2003, Para 1). On the other hand Castleberry and Shepherd (1993) see active listening as a “cognitive process of actively sensing, evaluating, interpreting, and responding to … verbal and nonverbal messages” (p. 36). There are overlapping aspects to each of these two definitions including (on an intellectual and emotional level) listening to:
  • focus on verbal and non-verbal cues,
  • check accuracy of understanding,
  • acknowledge what is being heard (and observed), and
  • respond appropriately.
Note that the second definition mentions “evaluating”. However, in most coaching contexts the listener ideally reserves their own opinion or judgement (Whitworth et al, 2007) and doesn’t try to change the mind of the speaker. The listener’s removal of their own agenda, and potential associated criticism, is an integral part of being able to “demonstrate a spirit which genuinely respects the potential worth of the individual, which considers [their]... insights and trusts …[their] capacity for self-direction” (Rogers & Farson, 1987, Para 2). It also helps signal to the speaker that the listener sincerely considers them worth listening to, and that they believe the speaker has something to contribute.
So, active listening in coaching is about you focussing on the other person and listening to what they are saying without interrupting them. It’s about using your own words to act as a sounding board and reflect back to the speaker that you hear their point of view. When someone is listened to, “they tend to listen to themselves with more care and to make clear exactly what they are feeling and thinking” (Rogers & Farson, 1987, Para 3). As such, you need to check your understanding of what has been said - or hasn’t (for example, the gaps and hesitations that reveal feelings and attitudes underpinning the words). This approach enables you to find out more and explore possibilities, as well as to establish real empathy, trust, and mutual respect.
Essentially there are three aspects to active listening: comprehending, retaining and responding (Rothwell, 2010).
  • Comprehending: encapsulates the notion of shared communication, and indicates that meaning will need to be identified, negotiated and acknowledged. The aim is to be attentive to what is being said, as well as to other verbal and nonverbal cues. Because there is often other noise, the listener may need to filter it out so that they don’t become distracted.
  • Retaining: Memory is an integral part of the listening process and is part of how we process sounds into meaning. Focussed, mindful listening are therefore essential, because momentary lapses in concentration (sometimes caused by visual distractions) can affect memory and retention such that you hear inaccurately, or have to ask for clarification or repetition.
  • Responding:  Both the speaker and the listener in a successful communication, are interested and active. The listener will be providing feedback that they are interested via noncommittal responses (e.g. “uh huh”), or short questions (e.g. “I’d like to hear more about that”). In face-to-face contexts they may use other visual nonverbal cues too. Depending on the feedback the speaker is receiving, there may be the decision to adjust the communication approach, or even bring the communication to a close.
Active listening is a skill on which you can work. It takes practice to listen and focus on what is being said without bringing in your own agenda. It is a skill that develops the more you use it, and is likely to need you to also reflect on your own underpinning beliefs. Is it worth the effort? In groups that use active listening people are likely “to listen more to each other, to become less argumentative, more ready to incorporate other points of view” (Rogers & Farson, 1987, Para 3). Also, those who develop their active listening skills are likely to establish deep relationships, while also positively impacting their own attitudes; truly a “growth experience” (Rogers & Farson, 1987, Para 3).


Castleberry, S., & Shepherd, C. D. (1993), Effective Interpersonal Listening and Personal Selling, Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, XIII(1), 35-49.
Rogers, C R., & Farson, R.E. (1987). Active listening. In Communication in Business Today. Eds. R. G. Newman, M. A. Danziger, & M. Cohen. Washington C.C.: Heath and Company.
Rothwell, J. D. (2010). In the company of others: An introduction to communication. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Salem, R. (2003). Empathic Listening. In Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Retrieved
Whitworth, L, Kimsey-House, K, Kimsey-House, H, & Sandahl, P. (2007). Co-active coaching: New skills for coaching people toward success in work and life. Palo Alto,California: Davies-Black Publishing.


In conversation. CC ( BY ) licensed Flickr image by Catriona Savage:

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Contracts for group assignments

Beverly Taylor works at Wintec in Hamilton, and she is one of the first to tell you that group assignments offer a range of challenges.
One of the strategies she uses, however, is to ask students to create a contract between the group. This includes understanding the task requirements, taking responsibility for learning, communication,  co-operation between group members, and group cohesion.
Beverly started using the contracts a while ago, and has now amended the initial version so that it works in a number of disciplines. She begins by starting (a lively discussion) by asking the questions:
  • Have you ever signed a contract that you didn’t read?
  • Have you ever signed a contract that you didn’t understand?
After this the purpose of the group learning contract is introduced, and pairs are allocated. Break out rooms are provided for discussions, and tutor and student learning advisors assist with the contract discussions. The contracts are collected in and copies given out to the students. Students are able to alter and add to the contract.
The next move is maybe to encourage students to create their own contract … although this may be time-consuming.
Students, Beverly has found, are more engaged, and take the contract seriously. The initial activity helps forge the team, and this results in fewer emails along the lines of ‘who is in my team?’, ‘what are we doing?’. She has found that there needs to be prevention and resolution of group work issues, but this has only occurred on a couple of occasions (in class groups of 45 to 50 students). And after the assignment is complete, the contract works as a reference point to discuss what was, and wasn’t, done by each student.

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Monday, March 7, 2016

Eight steps to a great coaching session

When we learn something, we change. However, it may take several steps during a coaching session to help a coachee become aware that they have learned, and recognise the relevance and application of their learning, which in turn, can help them realise the power of a coaching session. 

While each coaching session will be different (Haynes, 2005), there are eight stages that are common to them all (Southern Institute of Technology, n.d.). The structure can help the coach and the coachee prepare for sessions, select and prioritise a focus for a session, and make the most of the time during a session by ensuring that the conversation doesn’t go astray. The structure also encourages regular evaluation of progress (meeting of agreed deadlines, and the results of the action plan), and process (how satisfied both parties were with the session).
The eight stages are:

Stage 1 - Rapport

Successful coaching sessions are, in part, reliant on the ability of the coach and coachee to foster a connection, which will help them develop the trust required to move into spaces that aren’t comfortable and to “explore what is true” (Allen, 2013, Para 18). To help (re-)build rapport it is useful to start is with a ‘what’s on top’ type questions that will check how the coachee is. This will also provide an opportunity for the coachee to share (or do) something that, before the coaching starts, might otherwise distract them.

Stage 2 - Evaluation of progress and main focus / goal for the session

The format for stage 2 depends on whether this is the first, or a follow up, coaching session.

If it’s the first coaching session the coach works with the coachee to identify their goals for the session by asking, for example, ‘what would you like to get from the next 30 / 60 minutes?’, or ‘what do you want to cover today’? (Southern Institute of Technology, n.d.). Where possible the goal(s) for the session should come from the coachee, but sometimes it may be the coach suggests a focus that can then be negotiated (or dismissed) by the coachee. The session goal should be achievable, unambiguous, and preferably easy to measure / evaluate.

However, if this is a follow up coaching session, the coach and coachee would revisit the agreed actions and outcomes from the previous session to evaluate progress. The coach might support the coachee, by asking open questions, to reflect on what they did and what happened as they worked through their previous agreed action points. They might also delve into what they felt worked well, what needed further work, and what, based on their main take away, they might do differently next time. This process can help guide a coachee to find out why something was (or was not) as successful as they hoped and to start to consider next steps, as well as helping to foreground details that they may not have been consciously aware of (Roesler, 2005). This process will also confirm the focus (and goal) for the session - the context for learning - and also establish the topic the coachee would like to move into first.

Stage 3 - Current reality

During this stage the coach will ask questions about what is going on for the coachee to help establish the coachee’s perception of their current situation. The coach helps the coachee reflect and evaluate without becoming side-tracked by the ‘story’ - something that can be worked on in follow-up coaching sessions if required.
The questions should be designed to encourage the coachee to identify what they have already done, to see patterns and progress, as well as to identify what is and is not within the their sphere of influence. Digging deeper into a coachee’s current situation can help provide information about ‘gaps’ (what isn’t being said - or recognised by the coachee) and connections that can help shape the questions the coach asks. Sometimes the coach will need to ask questions to untangle overlapping themes until a point of clarity is reached (Roesler, 2009). The coach may also recognise learning that has not be consciously noticed, and help the coachee ‘see’ the learning and how they might apply it (which can in turn help a coachee realise how valuable the coaching process is for them) (Allen, 2013).

The coach has to avoid taking responsibility for carrying out any of the actions or for the outcomes (Southern Institute of Technology, n.d.), although they may help with accountability (for instance, the coachee might ask to email them once they have completed an action).

Stage 4 - Finding a solution

This is sometimes considered the most rewarding stage for both the coach and coachee. During this stage the coach supports the coachee to find a way forward by helping the them consider their options and generate ideas for solutions to issues - without judging factors such as practicality. This will initially involve questions about what the coachee can do about their situation, if they want to do anything, and whether they need to do something. The coach can then encourage free-form brainstorming to collect as many creative ideas as possible, including some that may appear slightly ‘mad’ but that can end up starting a train of thought that can lead to a great solution. The coach can offer suggestions here especially if the coachee is struggling (Southern Institute of Technology, n.d.).

Sometimes this stage can be tricky, especially if the coachee appears to be focussing only on what is going wrong and why possible solutions couldn’t work for them. To help them move from this point a coachee can be encouraged, for instance, to imagine what it would be like if the perceived barriers didn’t exist - if this were an ideal situation for them.

Stage 5 - Choosing a solution

Part of this stage involves the coachee considering the options to identify whether any are appealing. The coach will then work with the coachee to evaluate each option to find a preferred one. Questions will be phrased to refine and prioritise the decision criteria, as well as to encourage comparison to select the option the coachee feels is best.

Stage 6 - Session evaluation

During this stage the coach and coachee check that they have achieved the result they agreed on at the beginning of the session, and if they are satisfied with the session. It may be that the goal for the session has not been achieved, and this will be the opportunity to discuss why and to agree whether to revisit it in the next session (Southern Institute of Technology, n.d.).

Stage 7 - Action plan

This is the stage that focuses on the coachee’s volition, desire and intention - and what they plan to do before the next coaching session (Haynes, 2005). The coach and coachee work together to develop a plan of action (1 to 5 tasks) including what the coachee will do before the next coaching session, what resources are required, and how progress will be measured. A timeframe is put together, alongside an exploration of the coachee’s motivation. The coach will ask questions that invite the coachee to think through what they feel will be most important to achieve, do, or prepare before the next coaching session.
Accountability for action should be built into the action plan. This may be as simple as the coachee identifying who they will tell about their intention to do something, which will increase the likelihood of follow through (Roesler, 2009). The coach can ask questions such as ‘Who else will you tell about this?’, and ‘Who else needs to be involved to help you accomplish this?’.

Stage 8 - Closing

The closing stage is where the coach summarises key points from the session, and offers feedback and acknowledgement (Southern Institute of Technology, n.d.). They will ask for feedback on the session from the coachee, especially around what they feel could have made the session better. This stage can highlight ways of working more effectively together, as well as things that are going really well.


Allen, L. (2013). Tips for coaches: What to do when clients aren’t in movement. Retrieved from
Behavioral Coaching Institute. (2007). Establishing a coaching culture. Retrieved from
Charan, R., & Colvin, G. (1999). Why CEOs fail. Fortune 139(12), 68.
Clutterbuck, D., & Megginson, D. (2005). Making Coaching Work: Creating a coaching culture. London: CIPD.
Crane, T. (2005). Creating a COACHING CULTURE - today's most potent organizational change process for creating a "high-performance" culture. Business coaching worldwide ezine, 1(1). Retrieved from  
Hay, J. (1995). Transformational Mentoring: Creating Developmental Alliances. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Publishing Co.
Haynes, K. (2005). Ten tips for improving your coaching session. In ASTD Training and Performance Sourcebook. Mel Silberman (Ed.). Alexandria, VA: American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) Press. pp. 135-137.
Hoole, E., & Riddle, D. (2015). The Intricacies of Creating a 'Coaching Culture'. Retrieved from
Roesler, S. (2009). Four essential elements of a successful coaching session. Retrieved from
Southern Institute of Technology. (n.d.) Transformational Coaching and its outcomes (Module C) [Lecture notes]. Retrieved from CBC104 (NET).
The Open Door Coaching Group. (2012). How do I build a coaching culture. Retrieved from
Weekes, S. (2008, July). Catch on to coaching. The Edge. 28 - 32. Retrieved from


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That breakthrough feeling

Success has different interpretations, and not all successful coaching sessions will see progress toward a specific goal (A to B) or having developed a strategy or solution (Allen, 2013). Sometimes it can be a sense of the coach and coachee working together to uncover a hard-sought insight, which can feel as though “you’ve hit a home run and the crowd goes wild and your client feels as if s/he has won the World Series” [emphasis in original] (Allen, 2013, Para 6).
To help ensure that coaching sessions frequently achieve that home run feeling both coach and coachee need to be in the right ‘head space’. The coach needs to be authentic, genuinely interested in their coachee’s growth, open to feedback / self-reflection and willing to be vulnerable (Allen, 2013). On the other hand, the coachee needs to be engaged, open to sharing, enthusiastic, willing to learn, and open to coaching.
It is important to pay attention to preparation to make sure a session is successful. For example, the coach and coachee need to have agreed on a central theme that can be woven through the session. This theme should align with the coachee’s needs for the session, as well as raise really clearly their awareness of the value of the session - what they have heard, thought, seen, felt and gained (Allen, 2013). As a coach, therefore, it is necessary to both support the coachee’s learning during the session, as well as be able to ‘see’ the coachee’s learning, and help them recognise that it has occurred, the value of it and its application.
Sometimes sessions don’t flow and it is important that the coach moves rapidly to address the issue otherwise it can negatively impact the coaching relationship. One effective way of doing this is to explore, with the coachee, what just happened. Usually it will be one of two things - either the session itself (comfort with the process, a sense of purpose / engagement, rapport), or the coachee’s current context and experiences (level of perceived well-being, state of mind, or situation at work and/or at home).
You know when a coaching session has been successful when…

Before the session

Before a session the coach and coachee will have decided what they want to cover during the session, as well as agreeing on expected outcomes - and this may include engaging with an article or video, for instance, that the coachee has been working with in connection to a specific goal. A mutually comfortable space with the minimum of distractions will have been agreed on (and this may be online via a VOIP tool such as Skype, or by phone).

During the session

At the start of the session coach and coachee will have worked on building rapport, with the coach asking some simple questions to get the ball rolling. As the session progresses the coach will have asked carefully selected open questions to help the coachee unpack their situation, while also listening deeply and actively (for instance by summarising and paraphrasing to check understanding with the coachee). Remaining non-judgemental and non-directive (Haynes, 2005), the coach instead will have encouraged the coachee to explore options and make decisions. The coachee will have been open to formative feedback, supportive challenges, and a sense of ‘discomfort’ or dissonance, which is likely to have led them to insights into their own values or behaviour, as well as wider possible implications and impact on others.
By the close of the session the coachee will have a realistic plan of action, with specific next steps, intended outcomes, and timeframes, as well as a clear idea of who else will need to be involved, resources, and accountability. The coachee will have supported the development of the action plan and encouraged the coachee to check its feasibility, as well as offering assistance, if necessary (Haynes, 2005).
To wrap up, the coach and coachee will have evaluated the session and identified any ways to make following sessions more effective. The coach will also have summarised the main points of the session, and double-checked that they both know what each has agreed to do before the next meeting.

After the session

After a successful session, the coach will have taken notes (if they haven’t done this during the meeting), and will share these with the coachee. Both the coach and coachee will have followed through with agreed actions, and before the next session the coach, if requested by the coachee, will follow up on progress, provided support, and / or shared resources.
The coachee may also have reflected in writing on the session (either privately or via something like a blog post - following protocols of anonymity and confidentiality of others). In this reflection they might consider their satisfaction with the session itself, what might have made the session better, and how well it worked within the overall coaching process. The coach will also have evaluated the session, checking on how well the agreed outcomes and focus were covered, as well as the coaching process. As such, they will have reflected on went well (and why), what was challenging or frustrating, and how well they managed it. They will also have identified main take-aways and things they will do differently next time to help make it the session more effective.

When it isn’t successful

There are a range of elements that influence the success of a coaching session; all require input from both the coach and the coachee, and not every coaching session is successful. Some of the key reasons for a session to not be as positive as it might include a lack of an agreed focus for the session, an ill-defined focus, or differing expectations between the coach and coachee. Also, a coachee might be working through crises that are distracting them, or may be short of time / feeling pressured which impacts enthusiasm. In addition, the coach may be inexperienced, might mix approaches in a way that is confusing, or may appear disinterested.
The main thing is that the experience will be an opportunity to learn, and perhaps work out how to work more effectively together going forward.


Allen, L. (2013). Tips for coaches: What to do when clients aren’t in movement. Retrieved from
Behavioral Coaching Institute. (2007). Establishing a coaching culture. Retrieved from
Charan, R., & Colvin, G. (1999). Why CEOs fail. Fortune 139(12), 68.
Clutterbuck, D., & Megginson, D. (2005). Making Coaching Work: Creating a coaching culture. London: CIPD.
Crane, T. (2005). Creating a COACHING CULTURE - today's most potent organizational change process for creating a "high-performance" culture. Business coaching worldwide ezine, 1(1). Retrieved from  
Hay, J. (1995). Transformational Mentoring: Creating Developmental Alliances. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Publishing Co.
Haynes, K. (2005). Ten tips for improving your coaching session. In ASTD Training and Performance Sourcebook. Mel Silberman (Ed.). Alexandria, VA: American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) Press. pp. 135-137.
Hoole, E., & Riddle, D. (2015). The Intricacies of Creating a 'Coaching Culture'. Retrieved from
Roesler, S. (2009). Four essential elements of a successful coaching session. Retrieved from
Southern Institute of Technology. (n.d.) Transformational Coaching and its outcomes (Module C) [Lecture notes]. Retrieved from CBC104 (NET).
The Open Door Coaching Group. (2012). How do I build a coaching culture. Retrieved from
Weekes, S. (2008, July). Catch on to coaching. The Edge. 28 - 32. Retrieved from


'Dancing Through Life.jpg' Found on

Staying on track and motivated

Ever find yourself with a to-do list with things that just don’t get done? Sometimes these are tasks or activities that are in someway off-putting to you, so how can you motivate yourself to do them?

Louise Barnes-Johnston suggests an approach that enables people she is coaching to acknowledge (and celebrate) the fact they have completed something - and it’s the completion that matters rather than what a coachee may think about the ‘quality’ of the outcome. She suggests that coachees focus on mini-goals, and notes down 5 achievements every day “especially if they tend to dwell on all the things they ‘should’ have done but didn’t!”. The mini-goals can be tasks such as sorting out filing, going for a run with a friend, or even doing the ironing! Louise Barnes-Johnston indicates that once you get into the habit you may start to enjoy the sense of achievement you get from acknowledging and recording things you get done in a day, to the point where revisiting your list makes you feel good even after a day of challenges.

I frequently work across several projects so being organised and remaining motivated are a must. However, I find that there are things I need to do but don’t necessarily want to do (the uncomfortable phone call or email for example). I have two systems that help me stay motivated (less likely to procrastinate) and organised, both with an element of visual ‘reward’ when I’ve accomplished something.

The first is a Kanban board app on my phone, which enables me to colour code according to project, and to shift things from ‘to do’, into ‘next’, and then either ‘working on’ or ‘waiting’, until the task can then be moved into ‘done’. The notes area down the bottom provides space for recurring tasks (ones that happen every month), or to jot down a reminder of things to have a look at that haven’t, as yet, become tasks.

The other system is a good old-fashioned book. I have 2 pages with the names of each project across them, and then ‘to do’ lists underneath. Once something has been accomplished I cross it through, and if it requires follow up I write that in below.

The two systems mean that I remain on track. I really like the combination as the Kanban board allows me to capture the more detailed aspects of a project, whereas the book seems to work slightly differently, partly because of the process of writing things down rather than typing them in.

So, to build on Louise Barnes-Johnston’s exercise you could work with your coach to identify a way of recording tasks in a way that feels most comfortable. The discussion might be around trialling different ways of acknowledging progress until you find one that you feel will continue to work for you, such that you continue to use the approach. The keys are usability and sustainability. If it feel like more work to keep track of your tasks, it possibly isn’t the approach for you because it’s likely that once the pressure goes on the planning and tracking are likely to go by the wayside.

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