What Should Coaches Be Listening For?


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I’ve trained many coaches, all of them passionate about serving their clients, about helping them be their best selves. And yet sometimes they miss the mark through no fault of their own.

A client seeks a coach when they seek change, often after trying to make the change themselves, and the coach’s job is to facilitate them in achieving their goals.

One of the main skills they use is listening after they’ve asked questions to identify the problem. Then they provide solutions and often offer ways to make, and keep, any changes while maintaining a trusting relationship.

But sometimes, through no fault of their own, coaches don’t accurately hear what their clients tell them, making it difficult to achieve agreed-upon outcomes. It’s not their fault – it’s their brain’s fault. Let me explain.


When words are spoken, they don’t get translated according to the Speaker’s meaning but according to the Listener’s existing neural circuits. In other words, sometimes what coaches hear is not exactly what’s been said. Yet to achieve excellence, it’s vital they do.

You see, to hear others accurately, we all must avoid our ear’s natural, unconscious listening filters that could prejudice an interaction. And that’s pretty hard to do when it’s all happening unconsciously.

As I write in my book What? Did you really say what I think I heard? the problem lie in our brains. Words enter our ears as vibrations without meaning. They go on to become signals that eventually get dispatched to a ‘similar enough’ (the term used in neuroscience) circuits that have translated similar signals before. And – this part is the most disturbing – where the signals don’t match up, our brains kindly discard the differences!

In other words, incoming thoughts and meanings get translated in our brains according to our current biases and knowledge, often missing the client’s real intent, nuance, patterns, and comprehensive contextual framework and implications.

Below I’ll explain the downsides and I’ll end with ways to overcome them:

Bias. By listening specifically for issues – problems, hopes, missing skills or motivation – a coach’s brain will merely hear what s/he recognizes as missing. This causes a problem for a client: if there are unspoken or omitted bits, if there are meta patterns that should be noticed, if there are unstated historic – or subconscious – reasons behind the current situation that aren’t obvious, the coach may not find them in a timely way, causing the coach to begin in the wrong place, with the wrong timing and assumptions, leading to suggestions that may be inappropriate, potentially creating mistrust (best case) or harm (worst case).

Assumptions. If a coach has had somewhat similar discussions with other clients, or historic, unconscious, beliefs are touched that bring to mind questions or solutions they’ve used with others, coaches too often offer clients flawed or inadequate suggestions.

Habits. If a coach has a client base in one area – say, real estate, or leadership – s/he may unconsciously enter the conversation with many standard, automatic ways of handling similar situations and may miss the unique issues, patterns, and unspoken foundation that may hold the key to success.



One way to have choice as to when, whether, or how to avoid filtering out possibility, we can disassociate – go up on the ceiling and look down – and remove ourselves from any personal biases, assumptions, triggers or habits, enabling us to hear all that is meant (spoken or not).

For those unfamiliar with disassociation, try this: during a phone chat, put your legs up on the desk and push your body back against the chair, or stand up. For in-person discussions, stand up and/or walk around. [I have walked around rooms during Board meetings while consulting for Fortune 100 companies. They wanted excellence regardless of my physical comportment.] Both of those physical perspectives offer the physiology of choice and the ability to move outside of our instincts. Try it.

For those wanting more information on disassociation, I explain in What? how to trigger ourselves to new choices the moment there is a potential incongruence.

Phrase to use

Given the possibility that you may not be ‘hearing’ accurately, the best way I know to get it right is to say this:

“In case there is a chance I didn’t accurately understand what you’re saying, I’m going to tell you what I heard. Please correct me where I’m wrong.”

That way you both end up on the same page. And to help you enter calls with fewer assumptions, I’ll pose these questions for you to consider:

  • What would you need to believe differently to assume every speaker, every call, is a mystery you’re entering into? One you’ve never experienced before? To start each call with Beginner’s Mind?
  • What can you do to trigger yourself beyond your natural assumptions, and use them to pose a follow up question to yourself: What am I missing here?
  • What will you hear from your client to let you know that you’ve made an assumption that may not be accurate?
  • How can you stay on track during a call to make sure you’ve helped them discover their own unconscious drivers and aren’t biased by previous calls?

It’s possible to increase your brain circuits by helping your brain go beyond its natural, automatic translation processes. I can help you do this one-day program on listening if you’re interested. Or read the book. The most important take-away is to recognize your brain’s unconscious activity, and learn how to override it.

Sharon-Drew Morgen
I'm an original thinker. I wrote the NYT Bestseller Selling with Integrity and 8 other books bridging systemic brain change models with business, for sales, leadership, communications, coaching. I invented Buying Facilitation(R) (Buy Side support), How of Change(tm) (creates neural pathways for habit change), and listening without bias. I coach, train, speak, and consult companies and teams who seek Servant Leader models.


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