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Empathetic Listening: The Key to Good Coaching


Co-Author of Conflict The Unexpected Gift

As an avid baseball fan all my life, sports writer John Shea’s account of the San Francisco Giants hiring three hitting coaches in the February 13th edition of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Sporting Green immediately caught my eye. Shea wrote that Justin Viele, Donnie Ecker and Dustin Land “will be using the latest analytics and technology to improve an offense that has been one of baseball’s worst for several years.”

I took particular notice of the approach Shea reported that Viele and Ecker plan to take in working with Giants’ hitters. “If we came in guns a-blazing and ‘you’ve got to do X, Y and Z or else it won’t work,’ players at any level don’t respond well to that,” Viele said. “Anybody sees right through that. I just try to take pride in being a listener first and prepare for the conversations I’m going to have. That’s what people respond to.”

“When I think about our group,” Ecker added, “we can spend time talking about our backgrounds in analytics, our backgrounds in technology. I still think the best thing we can offer is how well we can listen and how well we can take complex information and make it simplified for our guys.”

Viele and Ecker identified two time-honored communication principles that coaches must put into practice if they expect to work effectively with the players they are coaching: 


(1) A sincere desire to know what is going on with a player they are coaching. What does the player perceive to be her strengths, as well as the abilities she needs to develop further, if she is going to be an asset to the team?


(2) Anticipate that by modeling the qualities basic to empathetic listening, coaches may be able to call forth listening qualities on the part of their players.

As Viele and Ecker point out, a coach should focus primarily on being an empathetic listener to his players, rather than to simply be quiet until he can launch into giving players his preconceived counsel, advice and solutions. When a coach analyzes players’ motives, behaviors and self-assessments based on his own experiences, without taking into account the views of his athletes, he risks alienating them.

Coaches who are empathetic listeners pay close attention to what athletes communicate through their tone of voice and body language. Effective coaches realize that these nonverbal behaviors sometimes communicate more than athletes’ words do, and can be key to understanding what players are thinking and feeling. A sports writer once overheard former NBA head coach Phil Jackson saying, “Over the years I’ve learned to listen closely to players—not just what they say, but also to their body language and the silence between their words.”

Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski said to an interviewer once, “People talk to you in different ways—through facial expressions, moods, mannerisms, body language, the tone in their voice, the look in their eyes. As a coach, I must be able to read my players, to recognize these different things and then take appropriate action.”

A member of a Bay Area college varsity baseball team recently talked with me about his experiences with coaches. He said, “I think coaches who do a good job of observing and listening to their players, instead of just spouting off things they already know, can have a better sense of how to help their athletes succeed. They know that if you don’t listen first, you won’t understand what the other person is thinking or how much they know. Understanding what a player wants or is trying to achieve is very important when you are trying to help him. So a coach needs to listen to him in order to understand those things.”

If a coach can fully understand the unique situations and feelings of his players through empathetic listening, he may find that the players will be more receptive to his ideas and more likely to listen to him. As a result, he may also find that encouraging, motivating and leading his players will be easier to do.

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