Executive Coaching – How Understanding Helps the Client

December 22, 2011  |   Executive Coaching Blog   |     |   0 Comment

In this article I look at how important it is for six executive coaching clients that their coach was able to demonstrate an understanding of their thoughts, feelings and situation.

This was about more than being able to listen well; it was about being able to show that the information had been ‘absorbed and analysed’ to make sense of the clients’ situation. The ability of the coach to demonstrate understanding had an important influence on the client’s perspective of the executive coaching relationship.


This study is based on research with clients in executive coaching. The identification of the participants and their companies is confidential. It was agreed that the research can be published as long as anonymity is maintained. The figure in brackets after the quotes is the number assigned to each research participant.


Active Listening Skills


In their accounts participants appeared to consistently notice and welcome their coach’s listening skills in their executive coaching.  This was often one of the first attributes mentioned in the interviews.  The perceived ability to listen seemed to encourage these executive coaching clients to ‘open up’ and speak freely. “…he’s an excellent listener, every session just starts with’ tell me how it’s going’…” (P6) and “I think he creates an environment where it’s easy for me to speak; I think he’s a very good listener.” (P2).  Another dimension that arose in some accounts was the perceptiveness of the executive coach linked to active listening.  An example of this was the value of the coach’s ability to notice potentially important throwaway remarks in the executive coaching sessions:


“…He has the ability to grab, even if it just seems like a bit of a throwaway comment, he’ll say ‘can I just come back to that’…he obviously thought this [throwaway comment] is probably very important…and then we actually ended up spending a lot of time talking about how I would approach that which was incredibly useful.” (P1)



From Listening to Understanding


The coaches’ ability to listen was clearly important for the majority of participants, but the real power and benefit for them in executive coaching was the coach’s skill of translating what was heard such that it demonstrated an understanding of their individual thoughts, feelings or situation.


These executive coaching clients knew whether they had been understood by the coach’s use of a range of non-directive approaches.  These included reflection or clarification, “He is very good at holding a mirror up to me verbally, in terms of ‘I’ve just heard you say this and can I check understanding’ and he does this a lot” (P3).   Also noticed was the coach’s ability to listen, process and summarise information:


“He’s highly on receive mode but…he’ll then very quickly summarise what he’s heard, and then off the back of that make some suggestions and that tells me not, that there’s some kind of physical receive, there’s machines in there working it all through, a very succinct summary of it and how do we move that forward?” (P2)


Along with reflection, clarification and summary the coach’s ability to listen and interpret also had a significant impact:


“Probably the most powerful [initial perception of the coach], just thinking specifics, in the way we started out by me just talking and from that she noted down my current beliefs, what she heard me say reflected my current beliefs and we then moved on to resourceful beliefs” (P1)


The use of the verbal techniques described above enabled the coach to demonstrate to participants that they had listened and understood what was being said.  However it also emerged that for some participants the use of tools and models in executive coaching acted as a means of knowing how well they were understood, for example:


“I would download and you always wonder how much of that makes sense to people and I think he’s actually quite good at taking that all on board and then potentially pulling a piece of theory… he’d go ‘OK  think of these four quadrants and here’s a theory that says da, da da’ and I’d go ‘Yep, that’s it’.  So almost like a validation that what I’m talking about he’s got.” (P1)


How Understanding Moves Executive Coaching Forward


It was possible to discern from the accounts of all participants how being understood played an important role in moving their executive coaching topic forward.  Knowing they were understood gave participants confidence that the coach was equipped to help them with their topics.  For example:


“So he understands enough about the people, the dynamics, the overall political environment to listen to what I’m saying and either challenge me around my approach, give me confidence in what I’m doing in terms of approach…” (P2)


The coach’s ability to play back what had been heard in a structured way appeared to help the executive coaching participants make sense of their thinking, feelings or situation, for example:


“…it’s very active listening…at a point he will say ‘so this is what I heard’ and what impresses me is that he has taken what I have…and then he seems to have this ability to kind of bucket stuff together and get some key threads that then give you something to say ‘right, well let’s look at this…’”, (P6)


Feeling understood had a positive influence on the executive coaching relationship for all participants.  In contrast a failure to understand appeared to have a negative influence on both coachee attitude and perspective of the executive coaching relationship:


“Ok [coach]…you haven’t quite listened to where we’re at and now you’re giving me advice that doesn’t quite work…and that’s where you kind of think, you go back to your, I go back to my default mode which is sceptical because you’re now giving me advice where you haven’t understood the issue…” (P2).


In Summary


The value and strong influence on relationship of demonstrated listening and understanding, reflected by participants in this study, is also found in the therapy and coaching research literature. This is the same quality as Rogers’ (1967) core therapeutic attitude of demonstrated empathic understanding, which is important to clients in both executive coaching and therapy.  Stober (2006) translates this for the coaching context as ‘listening for understanding’ and describes the benefit to the client as providing the ‘opportunity to reflect on and consciously process more of his or her experience’ (p. 31), and this was the experience of the executive coaching clients in this study.


The coach’s ability to show understanding seems to be important to establishing a strong executive coaching relationship.  It is therefore important that Executive Coaches are aware of the ways in which clients may determine whether or not they have been understood. There were examples of understanding being judged by the way in which the coach summarises a situation, as well as by the tools that are suggested. There is clear evidence of the risks to the executive coaching relationship of giving advice, particularly where the Coach has not understood the client’s situation.




Tony Goddard




Rogers, C. (1967) On Becoming a Person. London: Constable & Company Ltd.

Stober, D. (2006) ‘Coaching from the Humanistic Perspective’. In: D. Stober and A. Grant (eds.) Evidence Based Coaching Handbook. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons. pp. 17-50.




Keywords; Executive Coaching, Executive Coaching Company, Executive Coach, Executive Coaching Provider, Executive Coaching Company, Executive Coaching Research, Executive Coaching Relationship, Rogers Core Therapeutic Attitudes, Carl Rogers

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