ICF Core Competency: Active Listening

Posted On: August 9, 2020

Written by: Jennifer Kumar (Managing Director, head Coach of Authentic Journeys) 


ICF Core Competency Area C: Communicating Effectively

[Check out our insights on the NEW Core Competency in 2021 Listens Actively]
The third ICF competency area after Setting the Foundation and Co-Creating the Relationship is Communicating Effectively. Some may argue that without good communication skills coaching can’t happen at all. In fact, Sean Smith exclaims that coaches are “linguistic surgeons” since coaches use language skills to facilitate clients to reframe their world. 

I would tend to agree with this. While coaches learn how to coach through a framework from their coaching programs, these frameworks help provide a baseline for the coach and should not be used as the be all end all to the coaching conversation, nor should the terminology of the profession be used to engage with the client. It is more important to lean on the language, ways of expression, metaphors and terminology the client uses. Trying to relate to the client in the way the client resonates with helps to move the conversation on more fluidly and will feel more natural than when the coach is trying to ‘show off’ by using fancy coaching terminology or referring to a list of powerful questions that may not suit the situation.

As noted in the earlier posts on competency studies, we will see that many of these competencies overlap. While there is plenty of overlap, calling out each competency remains important so that we can see how they all fit together to create a powerful coaching conversation.

The three competencies in this category include:

This blog will focus only one – competency 5 – as there is so much to say about active listening. Competencies 6 and 7 will be discussed in the next blog.

How we Follow the ICF Competency 5: Active Listening
There is no active listening without coaching presence. Coaching presence aids in true active listening. Listening is no easy task.

Many believe listening comes naturally because we do it all the time. However, how would we rate others on the ability to really, truly listen to us? Do they get a 100% mark on that? Is listening so easy? Is listening the same as hearing?

Listening experts say a resounding no.

As we go through today’s blog and competency review, I plan on discussing listening in great detail, debunking the myths, exploring how listening shapes a majority of our communication, types of listening, then talking about active listening impacts the coaching conversation and pitfalls to avoid in mentor coach recordings for this competency.


Myths of Listening

  • Listening and Hearing are Synonymous
  • Listening Competency Develops Naturally (Daily Practice Eliminates the Need for Formal Training)
  • Listening Ability is Largely Dependent on Intelligence
  • Reading and Listening are the Same Process, so if One Learns to Read, One Learns to Listen
  • Listening is Primarily a Passive Activity
  • Effective Communication is the Responsibility of the Speaker
  • Listening Means Agreement or Obedience

Source: Listening by Wolvin,Andrew; Coakley,Carolyn Gwynn. [1995,5th Edition.] Paperback Paperback – January 1, 1995


While we won’t dive deeply in to each of the myths in this post, we will notice through the study of this ICF core competency how most of these listening myths are easily debunked.

How easy is it to listen?
According to Lumen Learning:

…“listening is hard work. It is characterized by faster heart action, quicker circulation of the blood, a small rise in bodily temperature.” Consider that we can process information four times faster than a person speaks. Yet, tests of listening comprehension show the average person listening at only 25% efficiency. A typical person can speak 125 words-per-minute, yet we can process up to three times faster, reaching as much as 500 words-per-minute. The poor listener grows impatient, while the effective listener uses the extra processing time to process the speaker’s words, distinguish key points, and mentally summarize them.

True listening takes effort on many different levels, hearing the actual words is only a small part of that, as we will soon notice. Due to this listening can be and, often is, mentally, emotionally, physically and psychically draining (depending on what and who you are listening to).


How educated are we in the four main communication activities?

How educated are we in the four main communication activities?

Check out the source by clicking here.

While most of us agree that listening is a critical part of communication, according to Figure 1 (Percentage of Time Spent on Communication Activities vs. Years of Formal Education), humans spend more time listening (45% of the time) as compared to speaking (20%), reading (16%), or writing (9%). In studies conducted between 1930- 2006 (compiled by Janusik, Fullenkamp, Partese), it was noted that based on a person’s role (business person, students, homemakers and others), the amount of time spent listening was calculated at anywhere between 24 and 55 percent with the highest percentage being 66% for German primary school students. I think it would be interesting to see how much listening plays a key role especially in today’s #stayathome work from home virtual meeting culture where listening takes on a different role than in a “traditional” face to face environment. I did try to search for studies on that, but couldn’t find any at this point. Regardless of our role or setting, it is proven that while listening takes center stage as far as communication activities are concerned, we have the least formal education or training in listening (I may be one of the few who actually attend a 16 week college class in listening- one of the most useful and insightful courses I had ever attended). 

When we look at how we listen, we actually listen in many different ways. To think that we listen only with our ears would be, probably, the biggest myth of listening. Coaches who excel at listening at all levels of certification – ACC, PCC, and MCC, know that active listening is comprised of much more than just using our ears to hear the words.

Importance of Words, Voice and Body Language in Active Listening in Coaching

The Mehrabian Communication Formula

The Mehrabian Communication Formula


According to Albert Mehrabian (in Figure 2, above – original source not available), listening has three components, of which words is surprisingly (or not-so-surprisingly) the smallest at only 7% of a communication interaction. He proposed that voice quality and body language are more important elements in listening than actual words.

Let’s take a deeper look at these categories in terms of the coaching conversation and active listening.

Voice Qualities as a Part of Listening
When we talk about voice quality, we’re talking about aspects of a person’s voice that communicate meaning – tone, pace, speed, resonance, projection, breathing, and volume among others. In some rare cases some voice disorders like halting speech, jarring speech, mumbling or stuttering. (The coach could note if these speech impediments happen when talking only about certain topics or situations. However, as a coach is not a speech therapist, if the client requires more specialized help with voice or speech disorders, it would be pertinent to refer the client to a speech pathologist.) Also, as I tend to coach many English as Second Language speakers, I also look for other voice qualities like fluency, comfort speaking in English (without translating or using the structure of the Mother Tongue), and accent or tonality. Being able to tune in to the frequency of someone’s voice can be a window into a person’s deeper seated feelings and values when particular subjects are discussed.

The coach could consider some of these questions while listening to the client:

  1. How does the tone change? 
  2. Does the client speak more quickly or slower when talking about certain topics? 
  3. Does the client enunciate certain words with clarity, but stumble or mumble others? 
  4. Do the words match the energy or tone? (For instance, when a client says, “I’m excited about this…” but clearly sounds sad or disgruntled or when another client exclaims, “That makes me mad…” but sounds joyful, how can we address this with the client to showcase our listening skills?) What types of powerful questions could we as a coach use to dig deeper into those areas? (We will talk more about powerful questions below.)


Body Language as a Part of Listening
Last, but never least, is body language. When seeing another person, and, sometimes when we are not, we can understand how their day is going or how they are feeling even if they have not even said one single word. And, others can pick up on this about us as well. How many times has a stranger passed us on the street to try to cheer us up with a smile (realizing that we did not look happy on first glance)? How does a client’s slumped posture while talking about their situation differ from if they were pacing the room or sitting and refusing to face you while coaching? What about eye contact? Would the message appear different if the person made eye contact with you versus having shifty eyes? How can we address this as a coach? How would our impressions or responses differ if we were interacting and coaching a client from a different culture where the communication cues are not what we are used to?

Also, from a coaching perspective, something missing from this listening theory could be regarding a person’s aura or energetic field. Some may argue that when picking up on all other elements (words, body language and voice quality) we naturally would pick up on this, as well.

Listening Skills in a Virtual or Online Setting 
An added note about listening in virtual settings. Due to worldwide coronavirus lockdowns and work from home orders, more and more coaching is taking place online with or without the use of video, forcing some of us who do not prefer virtual mediums to perfect our listening skills in this arena. How do listening skills get tested in a virtual environment? Sometimes we may or may not use a video. We may or may not see body language. How can we work with a client who doesn’t use video? Is it possible to guess someone’s body language based on the clarity of their voice? How would that impact the conversation? (I may interject by saying, as I do a lot of voice coaching for ESL speakers, I am often able to identify when a person using a voice only medium is bending at the neck or even bending over the table as their voice becomes muted and doesn’t project as clearly with the same clear and even pace it would as if they were sitting with good posture.) Over a virtual medium of communication, how easy is it to identify the matching of words to tone or energy patterns in a client? How does connection speed and clarity of wi-fi or internet connections impact this? How can text chat be used in coaching to listen when the voice clarity is non-existent? Would there be a time while coaching over the phone or the internet that a coach would have to intentionally stop the session because the lack communication clarity (due to connection problems) is impeding a fluent and coherent conversation from both sides?

What impedes good listening?

Listening mistake #1: We are not in the moment
As a coach, we are thinking about our previous client, next client, what to say to the client we are talking with right now, we are too hot, too cold, hungry, thirsty, preoccupied with some ambient noise or we don’t feel good, we are not really listening to the client we are interacting with at the moment.

We are in a different moment than the client is.

This impairs listening, so when it comes time to respond, probably our response won’t be congruent with the client. Or, as a coach, we could take the client down the wrong path. Or we make a mistake in another competency (instead of asking a powerful question, we disguise advice as a question). Of course, we are all humans and can’t be ON 24-7, so we can always ask our client to repeat the sections we did not get, or we can ask clarifying or summarizing questions to gain clarity on the message and what we may have missed.

Listening mistake #2: We get trapped in the thought we can’t help because we don’t know enough
Many coaches on YouTube who talk about the competencies note this is a common problem especially for ACC coaches or coaches who feel they need to be more of an advisor or mentor  (focusing more on the WHAT than The WHO) than a coach. A coach is not there to provide a solution for the client. The coach is there to listen, help the client understand their situation on a deeper level or from a new perspective, help the client to think of solutions, prioritize and choose a solution and set a plan of action and accountability. In this entire process, the coach is not making a single decision for the client, but is facilitating this brainstorming session on behalf of the client.

Listening Mistake #3: We anticipate what the client may or may not say
Interestingly, in the article by the University of Missouri, they note that one way to improve listening is through anticipating what the speaker may say next. Maybe this may work while listening to a professor deliver a lecture or listening to a news bulletin, but not in everyday conversations, and certainly not in coaching conversations. I’d go so far as to say to NEVER do this in any circumstance, even when listening to a lecture or the news.


Because we are not really listening to the person. We are trying to think of what the other person may say.

How do we do that?

We do that based on OUR OWN [often biased] background knowledge and limited information. All of this is information we learned IN THE PAST, so we are not in the present moment, we will lose our coaching presence if we try, even for one second, to anticipate what the client may say next.

When we do this, some coaches believe that it’s offensive to the client.


Because by the coach anticipating and guessing what the client may say, the coach is not appreciating the full potential of the client to articulate their own experience in their own words. If we anticipate, we use our own words, not the client’s words, this takes away from the authenticity of the client’s expression.

When we anticipate what a client (or any person) is about to say, we not only base this up on our limited, past knowledge but our ‘unconscious biases’ of either the client or their situation could cloud this. These biases lead to assumptions. As we would not want someone to make an assumption of us (as assumptions are typically wrong), we should veer away from the same behavior. As Kain Ramsay reminds us to continually ask ourselves,


How mindfully aware are you of the assumptions that you make of other people?


Listening Mistake #4: We Interrupt
In coaching, interruptions can happen with a proper entry. The coach could say, “Sorry, one moment, may I interject.” While there are polite ways to interrupt, a better approach may be to allow the client to empty out their thoughts and feelings and when it’s your turn to talk, as a coach, you bottom line it.

While no one likes to be interrupted, the types of interruptions, ways of interruptions and polite ways to interrupt do vary from culture to culture. For instance, when I worked in India, while many did not like the idea of being interrupted, many accepted the idea that there would be interruptions and dealt with it more fluidly that I am used to seeing or experiencing in the USA.

The bottom line is interrupting, anticipating what the client is going to say can lead to incorrect assumptions, putting words into the client’s mouth that they would never say or thoughts into their mind they would never think, and keeps us as the listener in the past and not in the moment, where we need to be, actively listening. So, keep in mind that making any of the listening mistakes during a mentor coaching session would get you points off in this section. And, the higher the certification level you are attaining, the more of THE WHO you will be listening for and engaging with than THE WHAT.

Types of Listening
In ICF coaching competencies, the title is ‘active listening,’ but did you know there are at least 12 kinds of listening identified and defined?

From a listening course I took in college, our textbook has detailed these categories of listening:

  1. Appreciative Listening
  2. Comprehensive Listening
  3. Critical Listening
  4. Discriminative Listening
  5. Insulated Listening
  6. Insensitive Listening
  7. Mindful Listening
  8. Mindless Listening
  9. Pseudo listening
  10. Selective Listening
  11. Stage Hogging
  12. Therapeutic Listening

Learn more about some of the types of listening here.

In addition to the types of listening catagories in academic textbooks, a few coaches have also reframed and defined listening in their own words. Bettie J. Spruill has coined the term generous listening, while the term focused listening has been identified by Dr. Pat, MCC.

To sum up the active listening competency, there are many types of listening, listening is not easy. Listening requires attention on multiple levels:


  • Hearing the words being said
  • Hearing these words or metaphors which will then be mirrored back to the client through conversation or powerful questioning
  • Hearing what may be being said between the lines
  • Picking up on the tone of voice (possibly noting if or how the tone of voice matches the message)
  • Picking up on the energetic vibration of the client
  • Noticing body language
  • Noticing the voice qualities of the client 
  • Noticing anything else about the client’s aura or client’s atmosphere that may be impacting the conversation
  • …And for the higher level coaches… listening for and exploring THE WHO over THE WHAT 

To sum it up, while listening is about what is said, one can easily say listening is more about what is NOT explicitly said.

Have you learned anything interesting in this exploration of active listening that you had not thought of before? If you’re interested to discuss the competencies or schedule a coaching session, get in touch with me.

Or, check out our cross-cultural implications of the updated ICF Core Competency #6 Listens Actively


Jennifer Kumar, author and ICF PCC credentialed coach initiated the Coach 2 Coach Mastermind through the ICF High Country Chapter in 2021. Members who join the chapter can get a great deal on attending future cohorts, or look to this page for more information. The Coach 2 Coach Mastermind deep dives into the 2021 updated ICF Core Competencies 3 through 8 through discussion, application, peer coaching and feedback. Upon completion, you will receive a certificate of 7.5 CCEUs from the International Coaching Federation (ICF). We hope you can join us.


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