This section looks at three main skills of coaching tht we will use in Career Coaching: listening, questioning and reflecting back.

We will draw on a number of publications that service as handbooks in coaching skills. They all have chapters covering a wider range of skills and we hav chosen to dip into them all to give a grounding. Further reading will enable you to draw on what they all say about these key skills.


The fundamental skill in career coaching is the ability to listen empathically to understand your client and their perspective, creating rapport between you.

Listening creates relationship between you and your client. By listening well, you show respect and empathy and this in turn helps create rapport, through which they will respect you and your perspective. Good listening is often described as ‘active’ or ‘attentive’ listening and creates an environment through which the client can learn.

Levels of listening

There are different ways of listening to someone and these can be presented as a listening ladder’.

We can see many of these listening levels in everyday life. Over the next week, see if you can note down behaviours which demonstrate these levels of listening either in someone listening to you, or in your listening to them.

First is not listening at all.

Listening, waiting to speak sometimes even manifests as an interruption in mid-sentence, finishing a sentence or turn-taking in conversation

Listening to disagree is typical of the kind of listening that goes on in many meetings or in media interviews with politicians. The listener is paying attention to the weak points in what is said – it is essentially adversarial - it is about winning and losing.

In career coaching we will need to use different levels of listening:

In listening to understand, the listener is not thinking about what they will say next. Instead, they are trying to see the world as it appears through the eyes of the person they are listening to.

Finally, and even more helpful in coaching is listening to help the client to understand. As long as your client understands, you don’t have to know what they are thinking. In any case, you won’t fully understand their reality in all its complexity and subtlety anyway.

Figure 1.2 Levels of listening (click on image to enlarge)

listening ladder

In ‘First steps in coaching’, Bob Thomson writes about listening with the head, the heart and the gut:

First, listening with your head means focusing on the words that your client actually says. At a thinking level, they are communicating facts, information, arguments, ideas and concepts. You might imagine that they are communicating from their head to your head, and you may speak back from your head to their head.

However, people communicate at a feelings level too. They may vocalise their feelings – I’m angry, I feel sad, This is so exciting, etc. Often, however, the words spoken may be only the tip of the iceberg and the feelings that lie beneath the words may be expressed non-verbally – through tone of voice, or body language, or facial expression. To listen effectively you need to tune into what is not being said. You might call listening at a feelings level listening with your heart.

At a deeper level still, you might listen with your gut – that is, with your intuition – and pick up messages that are there but again are not spoken. Sometimes your gut tells you things well before your intellect catches on. With your gut, you might hear about your client’s fears or hopes or needs.

(Thomson, 2014)


Learning to handle silence, and indeed to listen to it, is an essential skill in coaching. It can seem threatening to the beginner coach, but learning to relax into it and even to use it can be very powerful. Lots of learning can be happening as the client thinks in silence.

Silences often feel longer to the coach than to the person being coached.
Silences can become awkward or tense, but before breaking a silence, do consider why you are doing it. Is it because you feel uncomfortable? Does your client uncomfortable? Then try breaking the silence with an intervention that will enable them to sit in comfortable silence next time one emerges.

Listening to yourself

Finally, listening to your own inner responses and reactions to your client is important too. It can help you to understand your own worldview and be useful basis for reflection on your personal career theories. It is a useful basis for reflective practice, either after a career coaching session or for the reflection-in-action that forms part of professional practice. See section 7: developing as a career coach for more to explore this further

All other coaching interventions, a question, a statement, a piece of information or a suggestion, will depend on listening, through which you have developed your understanding of your client

Activity: Here is a list of interesting quotes on listening from different authors. As an exercise, read through the quotes and pick out one or two phrases that particularly resonate for you.

Anyone who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others. There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the other and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

Attentive listening is creating space – it is constructive. It is not sitting passively in front of a verbal water jet. It is actively applying often intense concentration to facilitate the person we are listening to, to help them move on in their journey.

Michael Mitton, A Heart to Listen

Why is being heard so healing? I don’t know the full answer to that question, but I do know that is has something to do with the fact that listening creates relationship.

Meg Wheatley, Turning to One Another

During my conversations with the people most important to me, silence has become my favourite sound, because that is when the work is being done. Of all the tools I use during conversations and all the principles I keep in mind, silence is the most powerful of all.

Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations

To relate effectively with a wife, a husband, children, friends, or working associates, we must learn to listen. And this requires emotional strength. Listening involves patience, openness, and the desire to understand – highly developed qualities of character. It’s so much easier to operate from a low emotional level and to give high-level advice.

Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Now, please share any comments or reflections on the forum thread: 'listening'

Video examples: Accompanying his book 'An Introduction to Coaching Skills', Christian van Nieuwerburgh have made a series of filmed snippets of coaching conversations available, exemplifying aspects of coaching. Spend some time watching these examples of listening in action, following this link.


Questions in our every day conversation take many forms and fulfil many purposes.

Over the coming weeks, consider your own use of questions. Take time to note down the questions you use:
• In everyday conversation
• In helping conversations
• In career coaching

What patterns or habits in your use of questions can you see? And what responses do you notice that different types of questions generate in you?

Some basic distinctions between questions are:
Closed questions (yes/no answer) such as “have you…?” “Are you…..?” “Did you…..?”

Note: These do have their place in coaching conversations in managing a conversation, and encouraging a client to be specific. However, they don’t generally open up discussion at all. Forced choice questions can be useful at times too “would you rather do a or b?”
Open questions, which require a more fulsome response – what? When? How? Where? Who?
• Note: Why? Questions are also open. However, they can sound very accusatory. This effect can softened with a lead in such as “Can you tell me about why…?”
Questions which stimulate thinking - Tell me more about? What else could you?
Note: These might well lead to a period of silence whilst that thinking is taking place.
A common pitfall in framing questions is to make them over long and complex. This can result in multiple questions, where the client doesn’t know which to answer first.

Jenny Rogers notes a number of characteristics of effective questions:
• They raise the client’s self-awareness by provoking thinking and challenge.
• They demand truthful answers by cutting through obfuscation and waffle.
• They are short.
• They go beyond asking for information by asking for discovery.
• They encourage the client to take responsibility for themselves.
• They stick closely to the client’s agenda.
• They lead to learning for the client.
• They are more than likely to begin with the words ‘what’ or ‘how’.

Now read chapter 4 'Simple but not easy: the skilled language of coaching' in Rogers, J (2012) Coaching Skills: A Handbook. Maidenhead: Open University Press, 74-102

Video examples: Some powerful questions are used in these clips.

Reflecting back

This general term covers a range of techniques, including summarising what a client has said, restating a single word or phrase or offering some feedback from your perspective on an issue. Here are some examples:

Summarising what a client has said to check understanding (and also for them to have heard someone else articulate their perspective), e.g.

"So, you've been working at XX for about 18 months now, and a few things have come together to make you feel like its worth thinking about a change"

Paraphrasing when a client has struggled to express an idea coherently, e.g.

"Client: I'm not sure I just feel like I don't know what sort of thing I might be able to apply to or could aim for or do next"

Coach: You'd like to feel like you know what this job could lead to in the future"

Restating a word or phrase that a client has used can be a powerful way to open up the thinking behind a metpahor

"Client: I guess I just feel like its a bit of a rollercoaster...

Coach: A rollercoaster..."

Immediacy involves drawing the clients attention to something in the present moment

"You look like you are about to cry."

Video examples are available here and here. What other examples can you think of?

Putting it together: A Skills Pyramid

Now we explore how these skills work together. Ali and Graham depict this as a pyramid, to convey how skills are used. This is interesting in that it incorporates giving information, one of the particular dimensions of career coaching (althought of course Ali and Graham use the terms 'counselling' and 'guidance' in their work.

Ali Graham skills pyramid

Click on the image to see a larger version

Active Listening Skills are defined as: observing the client's behaviour, listening to the client's words, listening to the adviser's (sic) feelings, listening to silence

Understanding Skills are defined as: restating, parahrasing, summarising and questioning

Interpretative Skills are defined as: challenging, being specific, self-disclosure, giving information and immediacy.

The pyramid structure reflects the way that the skills used increasingly rely on the empathy created by ongoing active listening. The higher up the pyramid, the greater the level of influence of the adviser.

Now read chapter 5, Counselling Skills, in Ali, L. and Graham, B (1996) 'The Counselling Approach to Careers Guidance'. London: Routledge.