Be an effective coach: 3 top skills to practice

This section will show you how to run through a session using relevant coaching skills. We will look at 3 skills in a greater depth which are:

  1. Listening
  2. Raising awareness
  3. Asking questions


For most of us, listening is something that is profound. Even as you read this text, there is silence between us but noise is formed as you start to think about what you’re reading and your opinions, expectations, assumptions all come to light in this very moment. Even at this very moment, you might actually be distracted by something else in your surroundings.

The same goes for listening. Myles Downing conducted an effective exercise with his students at a workshop to test their listening. He asked them what got in the way of their listening and to note it down. The responses were:

  • Other people talking
  • What I thought they were going to say
  • What I thought they should say
  • They were boring
  • I had already worked out what they should do
  • I had thought of what they were saying already
  • Think of the next question
  • Thinking of my response
  • What’s for dinner
  • Why is he wearing that tie?

As you can see from the results, everyone has a little voice in their heads that can go wild and distract you from actually paying attention to reality. When it comes to coaching, it’s very important to listen and understand your client. This is mainly because when you take the time and effort to actively listen to your client, you will witness something extraordinary that often takes place.

Your client will arrive at a point where they gain a better understanding of the situation for themselves, and when they see clearly they make better choices. Everyone has the answer within themselves, and it’s your job as a coach to allow your client to keep digging in their minds. To keep talking and for you to keep listening to the point where what they say sounds relevant and important.

On the other hand, if you refuse to listen to your client, and just assume that the first thing they say is enough for you to make a judgement – then you have not really learned anything at all and don’t have an outcome to provide.

Techniques to improve listening

It’s so important to have great listening skills when coaching a client. Below are 3 top techniques you can use to practice your listening:

  • Noticing when you’re not listening
  • Managing your communication cycle
  • Repeating, Summarising & Paraphrasing

Start noticing when you’re not listening

This is the first technique you can use to improve your listening skills. When you notice you are not listening to your client, you must gently bring yourself back to them. Sometimes it can be too late to get back to the client and they have stopped talking or expect you to respond. In this case, the best response is to be integral and own up to your mistake. You’ll be surprised how likely your client will show no surprise as the speaker often notices when the listener isn’t listening anymore before you do.

Manage your communication cycles

This technique is quite useful during times when you are distracted by your nerves, which prevents quality listening. This often happens when presenting or in a public space.

Use the communication cycle (pictured below) to help you manage your conversations especially when there is a need for quality listening order to understand. This doesn’t have to be practised every single time you are coaching as it would exhaust you. This is only used during the times of desperate need and when you feel your nerves are brewing inside!

If you look at the diagram below, you can see there are 3 parts to the communication style.

The first is initiation, where you as the coach will ask a question or give instructions to your client.

The second is a response, where the client answers back, having understood what the coach i.e. you have asked for. The response must be congruent with the initiation.

Here’s an example below:

  • Coach: Tell me how you got on with your action place from our last session (initiation)
  • Client: I had a horrible week. One of my kids got ill and I had so much to do at home… (incongruent response)
  • Coach: Sorry, we can speak about that if you want in a short while, but first could you tell me how the action plan went.
  • Client: Oh, the action plan. I got most of it done, I’d say about 80%. I completed most of the exercises you set out for me to do, which I didn’t find bad at all. (congruent response)

Once you understand the initiation and response and the importance of this, we move onto the next part. As you can see, the cycle isn’t complete and it’s only complete when the client knows that they have been acknowledged and understood. This is crucial for coaching as you want to make sure you understand the client 100% and they also feel that you have, otherwise, there will be room for miscommunication.

Example for acknowledgement:

Coach: Let me confirm that I have understood. Despite some problems at home and your kids not feeling too well, you got 80% of the action plan done. You didn’t find it worse than what you initially expected. Is that right?

As you get comfortable with the client, this method of communication isn’t required to this level. When it comes to showing acknowledgement, you normally will nod in agreement or say “I get it”. Another way to show you have understood is by asking a question in relation to what the client has previously mentioned. Such as, “tell me how your kids are doing”.

This method is great, especially when having difficult conversations with your client, or when you find difficulty understanding or being on the same page with them.

Repeating, Summarising and Paraphrasing

A powerful way to show you understand the client is to repeat their words, summarise what they have said and paraphrasing their sentences when in a discussion.

Repeating Words

This gives a clear sign to the client that you have at the very least heard their words. It may not show them that you have understood, but repeating their words is the first step to show that you are willing to understand what they are saying by giving their words importance.

Summarising or paraphrasing what they say

Another way to demonstrate your level of understanding is to summarise the client’s words in a shortened form or explained in a different way. This is effective, especially when the client has opened up and spoken a lot of dialogue. Your job as the coach and listener is to extract the important points and make sense of it. You want to relay what the client has said to show you understand and you have listened.

However, at times when you have misunderstood or got confused with what the client has said – this technique can also be used to combat that. You can ask the client to summarise what they have said by saying, “So if you could tell me in 2 sentences what you feel, what would that be?”.

When there is a distance between the one speaking and the one listening i.e. no attachment or relevance, things can become much clearer. This is due to the fact that there is less chance of being bias and judgemental when listening to the pains of the client since you have nothing to match it up against.

A great example to show the importance of having distance and seeing things from a neutral perspective is when a traffic jam has occurred. Every driver has their own pain and problem to complain about depending on what they see. But the one looking from above can see the bigger picture and the problem to why there is a traffic jam. The same goes for the problems we feel and complain about.

Using Silence

Often, people that are new to the role of a coach find it uncomfortable to feel silence during a session and this results in filling in the silences with extra discussions. This isn’t best practice and according to Myles Downey, a lot of valuable reflection can be lost.

Silence can be seen as golden during a coaching session. When your client is ready to respond, they will tell you. It’s better to give them space to think and ponder and use that time to not feel pressured to always talk, especially for the sake of it.

At times you might find that you lose your client’s focus and they end up thinking about something else and almost “stare out in space”. In these moments, you can fill the silence by directing the client to move on with the session.

Raising Awareness

One of the key elements of coaching is to listen to and understand the client. Another key element is to encourage the client to reflect and raise awareness of their situation so that they can make better choices.

Myles Downey uses a great example to show how you can raise the awareness to your client by simply learning technique. He uses an example of teaching the client on how to improve their forehand stroke in tennis.


As you can see, the client’s level of awareness about what he is actually doing is heightened with each stroke he takes. His learning instinct has kicked in, the more he is challenged and directed. As a coach, you want to be able to listen, ask questions, summarise and paraphrase, give feedback etc, to raise awareness.

Asking Questions

Another way of raising awareness and gaining a deeper understanding is to ask questions to the client. Below is a list of effective type of questions that are commonly used when coaching:

  • Questions that follow interest
  • Questions that clarify
  • Questions that tie things down

Questions that follow interest

A powerful way to engage the client in learning and raising awareness is by asking questions that show interest. Questions such as, “don’t you think…”… and “what do you feel about…”. These are more effective than making statements and totally disregarding the client’s current state of thoughts.

An example taken from the previous script about the ball catching shows exactly how showing interest is effective to the coaching session.


You can actually translate this type of questioning in almost any environment that you notice the client is in. For example, let’s look at a working environment. Asking similar questions can encourage the client to think deeper about their situation and move forward with more understanding. They became more focused and allow full access to their imagination and intuition.

Example script:

  • Coach: Hi, how’s it going today for you?
  • Client: Bad if you really want to know.
  • Coach: Really?
  • Client: Yes. We haven’t made a single sale this week.
  • Coach: Do you want to talk about it for a minute?
  • Client: If you don’t mind that would actually be amazing.
  • Coach: Tell me in what way it’s going really bad.
  • Client: In a few ways. We are way behind our targets at work.
  • Coach: Anything else?
  • Client: Maybe. The motivation at work isn’t the best. People are getting bored.
  • Coach: You’ve mentioned two things, lack of sales and motivation. Which would be the first to tackle?
  • Client: The lack of sales. I had it in my mind as I left work and it’s just stuck with me. It’s making my hair go grey.
  • Coach: Tell me about sales.
  • Client: Well, it’s just the overall sales. The team in the sales department are really slow at getting things done.
  • Coach: What do you mean by being really slow?
  • Client: You know taking 3 hours to do one task. Not completing the work I set them to do.
  • Coach: if you could change that, would it help?
  • Client: Of course. It would solve the problem.
  • Coach: What can you do about it?
  • Client: I could give feedback to them and sit them down. Maybe give them time management software.
  • Coach: Will you do that for them?
  • Client: I could yes
  • Coach: Do you want to talk about the other issue about them not being motivated?
  • Client: Maybe we can, but first I’ll figure out how to set the time management software.

As mentioned earlier, can you see how asking the right questions can result in the client becoming innovative and creative about solutions to their problems?

Questions that clarify

Using the What, Who, Where, and When is effective when clarifying what you have heard from the client.

Using the What question is useful especially when you hear the client use a recognised word in an unrecognised context.

For example:

  • Client: I have tried to speak to my husband, but he always said I’m just a lazy person”
  • Coach: What do you mean by lazy?

Or hearing a word where you have no idea what it means and you can’t afford to not understand the meaning.

For example:

  • Client: my husband calls me a cold person all the time.
  • Coach: what does he mean by ‘cold’?

Using the Who question is useful in 2 ways.

  • When the client makes a reference to someone you are not sure about. For example, “he said this… they said that…”. – whom are they referring to?
  • When you want to get a clear picture of who is involved in the situation or problem discussed. For example, “who else knows about this?”

Using the Where and When questions are great when clarifying the location or time of a situation being discussed. For example,

  • Client: I’ll talk to my husband soon.
  • Coach: when exactly?

You’ll notice we haven’t used ‘why’, and that is because asking why is a very sloppy approach to showing you are interested and understand. This should be avoided.

Questions that tie things down

When trust is built and a great understanding is formed between yourself and the client, it is also important at times to challenge them on areas where you genuinely see problems. This is because the client is trusting you to guide them and it is your responsibility to do something about it as the coach.

For example:

  • Client: Well, that’s been a useful conversation. I’ll try to do a couple of these exercises over the next few weeks.
  • Coach: Good. Tell me what you are specifically going to do? And by when?
  • Client: Oh, I think… hmmm… might have a go at the first exercise where I write a list of all the priorities I have in my daily life. But I’m not sure.
  • Coach: You showed a bit of hesitance. What are you willing to commit to?
  • Client: I believe I am not so bad with prioritising actually.
  • Coach: I’d like to challenge that. From my observation, you’ve been avoiding the various commitments you have to prioritise tasks because you’re not sure exactly what tasks you actually have to do on a daily basis. You over-estimate yourself and what is expected and that is what’s got you into trouble.

Don’t Get Stuck, Get Interested

When you are focused on your client during the sessions, your natural instinct to coach will manifest itself and you begin to ask appropriate questions. At times, you might find that you aren’t asking the right questions, or you’re stuck on how to approach their response. In these situations, it’s okay to show interest and be honest.

For example, there are times when you could find yourself asking the client “I don’t know what to ask next, do you?” and you will be surprised to find that the client actually has more direction and can help by discussing more with you.

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