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From the Toolbox: Emptying the Vessel

Posted by Kyle Dooley Kinder and Kathy Munoz | December 8, 2014 | Comments (2)

Core Competency #5: Active Listening
Ability to focus completely on what the client is saying and is not saying, to understand the meaning of what is said in the context of the client’s desires, and to support client self-expression.


It’s been a busy day and you’ve been multitasking, doing work and taking care of some personal business. All of a sudden a reminder pops up on your computer: “Coaching session—30 minutes!” You scramble to pull your client’s file and review your notes. As the session draws closer you close your eyes and breathe deeply. You know you won’t be effective if you’re listening to all of your own “stuff.”

No one can be an effective active listener unless they create space in their mind that will allow someone else’s words and thoughts to come in. If your mind is already occupied with preconceived beliefs and assumptions, it’s like a full container: It has no more room. Unless you can create this space, the best you’re going to be able to give your client will be Level 1 listening (see ”The Three Levels of Listening” on page 9). You won’t be providing the maximum value for your client.

We all have assumptions, biases, judgments and beliefs that can get in the way of truly hearing what another person is saying—or not saying. That is why coaching is so powerful. As coaches, we are trained to filter out these thoughts and allow words, behaviors and energy to enter our minds, where we can effectively synthesize information on behalf of our clients.

Even so, active listening is a competency that coaches must work on constantly. We must use all of our bodily senses—ears, eyes, heart and gut—to fully tune in and actively listen to what our client is saying and feeling. A powerful way to get to this place is to imagine yourself as an empty vessel that is open and ready to be filled by your client’s “stuff.” You become the safe repository and accept your client’s information without judgment or assumptions. Once the vessel is full, your curious and intuitive mind takes over and is able to pull out relevant pieces of information to present back to the client for discussion. This is active listening at the highest level; i.e., Level 3

Are you listening fully with an empty vessel, allowing your client to fill it up, or is the vessel already filled up with your stuff, leaving no room for your client?

Here are a few simple steps to get to listening actively:

1. Prepare to listen. 

Empty your vessel by getting out of your own head. Remove distractions by turning off technology and finding a quiet space where you won’t be interrupted. Defer judgment by being aware of beliefs and assumptions that might prevent you from fully hearing your client.

2. Take in your client’s information.

Absorb and digest your client’s words, tone of voice, omissions, energy and emotions. Allow it all to enter your body.

3. Synthesize information received. 

Scan all the information brought forth by your client. Trust your intuitive skills to process and retrieve the pieces that you know and believe will help her achieve her goals.

4. Provide engaged feedback. 

Active listening is just as described: It’s active. This means the next step is to engage in conversation with your client in the form of feedback, reflection, powerful questioning and paraphrasing around what you heard her say.

As you no doubt tell your clients from time to time, you can only master something through mindful and deliberate practice. For coaches, mastery of active listening is at the core of the value we bring to the coaching relationship. By repeatedly calling on the image of the empty vessel and practicing the four steps above, hopefully that 30-minute reminder alarm won’t be so stressful next time.

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Kyle Dooley Kinder and Kathy Munoz

Kyle Dooley Kinder, PCC‘s passion for coaching was ignited more than 10 years ago when she had the opportunity to conduct a statewide, year-long program for high-potential healthcare leaders. In 2006 she started her own company, Heart and Head Leadership, LLC, so she could work exclusively with organizations to develop and prepare their leaders. In the process she has become a certified Mentor Coach, become a certified practitioner of several leadership assessments and been an active member of ICF Michigan, where she has served on the board of directors and several educational committees. Kyle holds a master’s degree in counseling and psychology from Western Michigan University. Kathy Munoz, PCC is an international coach trainer/facilitator and Director of Mentor and Supervised Coaching with the International Coach Academy, a Board Certified Coach, and the founder and CEO of IMPEL, an innovative international coaching company focusing on personal and professional branding and development.   The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

Comments (2)

  1. Thank you for the reminder!

  2. Great reminders, I appreciate the image of being an empty vessel. I also have found it is helpful to put myself in a clear space away from technology. I personally have use a huge canvas portrait I have of very tall trees with light shining through as a way of clearing and keeping my mind open to possibilities. Thanks for your article clarifying the Levels of Listening. Very helpful reminder.

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