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Active Listening: 7 Don’ts of Active Listening

Remember the last time you were in a coaching session or conversation with a direct report and completely zoned out? As you resurfaced from your mental fog, you had no idea what the person was saying or how to respond. You scrambled as you tried to figure out what you may have heard them say before you lost focus.

A lot has been written about the do’s of listening. Here are a few of the don’ts. Elimination of just one of these will have a profound impact on your relationships.

Don’t anticipate what they will say. Doing this can entirely derail us from actually hearing what the person is saying. If we anticipate the future, we can end up directing the conversation to an area where we thought it was going or read what we thought we were going to hear into what the client is saying. Both are unhelpful. When we stop anticipating what someone will say, we can hear them in a way that is new and rare.

Don’t think of other things while they are speaking. Sometimes we enter a situation not fully prepared to listen attentively, with a mind that’s too cluttered to listen. It takes preparation and practice to be present for an entire coaching session, but it is worth it. You might try letting go of distractions by incorporating a mindfulness practice before you coach. Whether it is a favorite breathing technique or setting an intention, engage in a ritual that signals to your brain that you are closing down your self-focus and turning your attention to be of service. All the other moving parts of your life will be awaiting you at the end of the conversation or coaching session. Learn patience. You will get to deal with them next.

Don’t think of what to say or ask next. It is okay to have silence. Don’t fall prey to thinking you need to immediately begin speaking when your client pauses. It’s okay, actually it’s highly recommended, to listen fully while they are speaking, and then, think of your next coaching move after they have finished. Take time. Slow is better if you want to go deep. This means trusting yourself to know the next right thing to do or say when it is time to do so rather than frantically searching your brain or notes for what to do next. This kind of listening takes confidence and comes with practice over time.

Don’t get caught up in details. I talked about this in my article on listening perspectives. Details are interesting, but rarely transformational. Insights lie in the penthouse of thinking—how someone is thinking through something, what they are feeling and experiencing when they think it through, what their best thinking is at this stage. These higher levels of thinking are where you want the client to focus and where you want to actively listen. The magic is not in the details—ever.

Don't have a personal agenda. When we have an agenda for a client or colleague, we most often begin to hear what we want to hear instead of what the other person is saying. We take in the information in the conversation in a way that supports our theory, and we dismiss what does not fit in. Even as an expert in a certain area, our real facilitative power comes from our ability to hold back the reins and allow their brain to muddle through their conundrum. This is their right and responsibility. Allow them to own their learning by listening without an agenda. Trust that they will get where they are going.

Don’t have a filter through which you experience this person. We all have our biases. As coaches, it is crucial that we become increasingly aware of what our biases are and learn to set them aside in each session, so we can truly create a judgment-free zone for our clients and hear them in their fullest capacity.

Don’t get emotionally hooked into what the client is saying. It is easy to take on the emotions of another especially if we care about them. But if we become angry at their coworker with them, it will be more challenging for us to help them stay solutions-focused. Empathy is always good, and as Rumi says, we want to listen with an ear in the chest; but we don’t want to become enmeshed. Keeping a great enough emotional distance will help us help our clients do their best thinking. When we are not triggered and our prefrontal cortex is uncluttered by a stress response, we can listen at the highest level.

The impediments to active listening are many. To be fully effective we must not only be aware of our triggers and what throws us off course, but also be prepared to manage ourselves such that we can listen actively once we retrieve our presence.

The quieter you become, the more you are able to hear.


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