Techniques for Demonstrating Active Listening

Active listening lets your client know that they're being heard and that they're not just getting boilerplate copy-and-paste from you. This can be especially important to connect the dots between what the client is telling you and what you're advising them to do.

This can be as simple as just repeating back what you’ve heard. But if you don’t do this, you create three problems in your relationship with your client:
  • You will give incorrect advice and not know it. This is either because you literally haven’t heard your client’s problems because you’re not making listening a priority, or because your client doesn’t think you’re listening and so they don’t feel like it’s worth correcting you.
  • Your client will put less effort into their answers to your questions because they don’t feel like that effort will be acknowledged.
  • Your client will lose trust in your advice because they don’t feel that it is personalized.
You probably already think you are a good listener, but do your clients? Many of the patterns include some variation on technique from NLP  (Neuro Linguistic Programming) called keyword backtracking.
That’s a fancy way to say that active listening involved noting important keywords that your client uses and then repeating those keywords back to them.
Below are the most common active listening patterns in habit coaching.

1. Your first response

The first time you hear from a client is when they sign up and respond to your welcome message. Your response to that message should have three parts.

A. Active listening: repeat, restate, re-frame, and relate to what the client has said. You need to show them that you heard them. That way they know that all of your future coaching is personal to them and also that it's worth answering your questions. Most commonly, coaches screw this up by responding immediately with more questions or direct advice.

B. Your methodology. Now that you've done an initial assessment, let the client know where the coaching is going to go. This gives context for whatever next step you give in part C. Most commonly, you'll be using our Momentum Method as a guide, so say something like, "I follow the guidelines of's Momentum Methodology, which is to focus on consistency first, then grow technique/difficulty, and then find an early milestone where we can celebrate and evaluate your progress."

C. Next step. This could be more questions or a specific exercise that relates to the methodology you describe. In Momentum Method, you'll be turning a goal into a consistent habit.

Here's what this looks like in practice. Imagine a client who has signed up for meditation and who has described a golfing situation where he has felt anxiety.

[Active Listening: Relate to the person and restate their goal]

Great to meet you and thanks for giving me a try.

I'm a big believer in meditation for the goals you talk about. It's exactly as you describe, you build an awareness of the hundreds of strange thoughts that go through your head. And then one day you'll say to yourself, "Oh, I'm being watched by the fourball and that's making me feel nervous."  

Then you'll put that thought down and bring your focus back to your breath. And then you'll be calm again.

[Momentum: explain the basics of methodology so that the client knows what's coming.]

To set expectations, I follow the guidelines of's Momentum Methodology, which is to focus on consitency first, then grow technique/difficulty, and then find an early milestone where we can celebrate and evaluate your progress.

[Next Action: suggest a potential first exercise, but be open to the client's feedback because you may not have all of the information yet.]

First, our focus will be to build a regular practice that you can do daily or at least multiple times per week.

What is your experience with meditation? Have you ever meditated before? How did it go? Do you have an idea about when and where you want to meditate? How many times per week do you want to meditate?

Without knowing your experience with meditation, I would suggest something very small and simple. Here's a great minimal practice that you can do no matter experience or time pressure:

Sit down. Close your eyes. Take five deep breaths.

That might sound trivial, but if you can do that multiple times per week, then you're going to be able to expand that into a serious meditation practice.

If that exercise doesn't feel right, or you have something else in mind, let me know and we can talk though it.

2. Connecting your question or advice to something the client has said.

Clients don’t automatically know why you’re asking a question or giving advice. Here are two examples of how to ask a question and give advice while taking the time to connect back to something the client has already shared.
You say that after a few evenings on which you couldn't go to bed as early as planned, you decided to sleep in. When did you make that decision? Did you set your alarm to a later time in the evening or did you decide to sleep in when the alarm rang at 6am? 
I'd like you to add squats to your post-run routine. You've mentioned that you need to protect yourself from calf injuries, so I know that may sound surprising.  But I think it will help and here's why...

3. Showing Appreciation

Go beyond, “Great job!” and call out something specific about what your client has said.
I really appreciated what you wrote about your experience yesterday. You had a tough decision to make at lunch when your plans were changed by the group. And look how great you did!

4. Explicit Summary

Sometimes it’s good to just pause and summarize what you’ve heard back to your client. Do this when your client has told you important information that you’re going to base future coaching decisions on. Finish your summary by asking your client to confirm your understanding. This is an invitation to your client that you are open to their feedback now and in the future.
I want to be sure I understand your plan for this week: you're going to unplug the internet connection before going to bed and you're going to get up when the alarm goes off. Is that right?

5. Remembering has a notes field where you can save key details about your client. You will build trust with your clients when you remember these details weeks or months later.
When you first started you told me that your productivity was hampered by multi-tasking and having an overflowing inbox. Now that we’ve gotten your inbox under control, do you want to work on ways to reduce the amount of multi-tasking in your day?