What is Active Listening?

One of ICF’s core competencies is Active Listening but what does that mean?  I have had some recent success with being able to listen to my teachers. Upon returning from Spring Break I visited with a 7th grade teacher and began with the images-2usual check-in. She began to express how relaxed she felt and how much she enjoyed her time off from school, that she was refreshed and ready to complete the year strong.  I know this teacher well, we have developed a strong and trusting relationship over the school year and I can tell you that her BMIRS did not match her words. I simply asked her about it. Then the real conversation was able to take place. She was already struggling in collaborating with a team member and the negativity that was being brought to the CLT meetings. I actively listened to everything she was telling me, not just with her words but with her face and posture as well.

In a recent workshop Kim Richardson, coordinator of instructional coaching for Hampton City Schools, shared her thoughts on the active listening competency of effective communication and how to best use that as coaches. She discussed three elements of active listening: Story, Language, and Stock Phrases. When coaching, I should listen for those three elements and then hold them up in conversation.


When clients are talking I should be actively listening to their story.  It is amazing how many stories are told with each conversation and just as amazing how important it is to find the teachers role within that story.  I should be listening for the teacher’s 1) Position: What role they play, 2) Content: What they say, and 3) Perspective: How they feel.


While they tell their story, I should be active in my listening in order to capture items in order to use that story as the third party data piece to hold up.  In this way I am referring back to the story and not to the teacher’s feelings or actions. In doing so, I am able to create powerful questions that help change the teacher’s perspective on the story.  In talking about a teacher that is negative and unwilling to collaborate, I might ask: “What might she say about that?” or “How might she share on this matter?”  Taking it a step farther the client could provide a characterization of the teacher in the story to gain a better understanding of them and then in turn be better able to relate to them or at least approach them easier. Just imagine how powerful it would be to have the teacher look at a story from their student’s perspective.


The language or words a teacher uses can be very telling and if I am not actively listening I could miss a key component of what they are trying to relay to me even if they don’t know they are wanting to share it.

The use of metaphors or similes can be a powerful one and when a teacher uses this type of figurative language…go with it. Use it to your advantage to gain understanding of how the teacher feels. Don’t change the metaphor to one you understand better or can relate to easier. It is their metaphor and should be valued.  If the teacher expresses that they feel “like a pin cushion” explore it and help them define that feeling.

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 11.04.48 AMKey words are another use of language that can tell you a great deal.  Key words are those words that are repeated over and over in a single conversation.  When a teacher mentions that they are exhausted over and over until they have exhausted the word, listen, there is something significant there and should be addressed. In repeating that key word and sharing it back to them, “Gee, it sounds as if you are really exhausted” you have held it up and it might just be the first time they really heard their word and realized just how exhausted they are.

The final language to listen for are those pesky inconsistencies.  Inconsistencies are those conflicting ideas whether verbal or more subtle. The teacher may say one thing but their face says another, plan one thing in the lesson but deliver something entirely different for class, discuss how they are there for the students but then talk down about them, or are full of energy but look weary.  My teacher, that returned from Spring Break relaxed and refreshed, held inconsistency in her BMIRS that were not verbal but also not very subtle. Active listening allowed me to pick up on them and in holding the inconsistency up in conversation I was able to give the teacher more clarity in how she was really feeling.  If you are worried about pointing out the inconsistencies, put it back on your own need for clarification. “We had a great planning session last week, but I didn’t see the activities in your instruction today.  Just to clarify, did something occur that caused you to have to change the plans?”  Hold up the inconsistency and have an honest discussion about the why.


Stock phrases are those items in language that you hear all the time but have no real meaning. “I’ve got it,” “It’s going great,” “Going to spiral back,” “I’m doing that,” or “I’ve tried that.”  This phrases should not be taken for face value.  Mrs.  20150424_104127Richardson stated a metaphor for stock phrases, “It’s an oyster so open it up.”  I immediately thought, “Yes, because you may just find a pearl.”  These phrases need to be held up in order to clarify the meaning for the teacher and the coach.  In holding them up ask, “What did you get about that specifically,” “What is going so great for you right now,” “How do you plan to spiral back with this,” or “What worked well when you tried that?”  In holding up the stock phrases and asking the teacher to clearly explain what they meant a powerful conversation can occur.


As I actively listen to my teacher clients it is not enough to simply witness the struggle or paraphrase, but I must also Hold UP what they say.  In doing so it allows clarity to me in how to move forward with the conversation cycle and allows the client clarity in what they have just said through the language avenue they chose to use. I need to work on asking the questions that HOLD UP what the client has said so real growth can be produced.

How do you actively listen? When listening to a client, peer, or even a student how could you hold up their story? language? or stock phrase? to better their growth and in turn make you a better listener?

ICF:Core Competencies

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