Chapter 8 Essential Skills for Life Coaches

Essential Skills for Life Coaches

There are a variety of coaching skills that are essential for a client to be familiar with in learning to be effective and efficient when helping their clients. There are 7 key skills in learning to be a masterful coach. These skills are outlined in the table below and will be explored in more depth throughout this section. Coaching skills may be the most important piece of becoming a coach as they set the foundation for how you interact with your clients.

Effective Communication

Effective communication cannot be underestimated in the coaching relationship. Clients look toward their coach to communicate effectively and expressly. Many people do not know how to communicate effectively. So the coach’s effective communication skills in session will help model for the client how they can communicate more effectively in all of their relationships.

There are a variety of ways that coaches communicate effectively in sessions with clients. First, a coach communicates with clients directly during sessions with clear language to help clients maximize positive impact. When clients give clear and direct communication it helps clients focus in on the heart of the issue that they’re dealing with rather than be distracted. A coach must also provide feedback in clear and direct ways so that clients are not confused or unclear about what they need to do to work toward their goals. Part of this is that a coach should help clients understand issues from a different perspective and help them find clarity when they feel uncertain. This includes using questions in effective ways to help client’s gain clarity on their issues and on how they can best work toward their goals. Coaches should also always use respectful and appropriate language with clients. The ultimate goal is for the client to really be able to hear what the coach is saying. So communicating in language the the client can connect with is an important piece of this. Another important piece is to use analogies and metaphors to help clients understand concepts with greater sophistication and depth.  


Helping coaches foster client awareness is an important piece of being an effective coach. Awareness is a necessary requirement for change. Unless a client becomes aware they cannot choose to make new decisions. So a coach must help clients to become more aware of their behaviors, thoughts, emotions, and beliefs. Coaches accomplish this through utilizing the other coaching skills we have discussed in this section.

Coaches need to help clients to integrate all the information that clients share to create coherent interpretations that help clients gain self-awareness. This means helping clients integrate their emotions, behaviors, beliefs, perspectives, and body language so that they come to a more holistic understanding of what’s going on. Part of this is exploring what is behind client’s words and not getting caught up in the “content” of what is said and instead focusing in on what underlies the words. It also means that coaches help clients explore how their beliefs, moods, emotions, background, thoughts, and behaviors are all linked and contribute to what’s going on in their life.

To help foster awareness coaches use a variety of techniques to help clients understand themselves and their circumstances in more detail. First, they ask questions to create more awareness and understanding. Coaches also pull main points, concerns, and beliefs out of what the client shares. They also help their client see the difference between beliefs and facts utilizing the skills described above.

Coaches also help clients to expand their perspective. They help clients see when they’re stuck in one way of perceiving the world by challenging them and supporting them to explore new perspectives. Coaches help clients discover new thoughts, emotions, beliefs, perceptions, and actions that might be more beneficial to their life and their goals. And they help the client become aware of new perspectives on their life and potential new ways of doing things.

Coaches also help clients see when their emotions don’t match the story they’re telling and help clients see when they’re disconnected from those emotions. Coaches also help clients with unique insights and understanding of their issues in ways that are specifically meaningful to the client. So this means using language that your client is using so that you’re literally “speaking their language”. But it also means using meaningful metaphors and analogies that your client can personally connect with. For example, a metaphor about tuning up a car as being similar to working on personal growth may be very meaningful for a male client but miss the mark with a female client. Whereas a metaphor about choosing the right outfit as being similar to choosing the right romantic partner might be a great and meaningful metaphor for a female client. Be sure to tailor the way you talk to each client’s unique situation.

Coaches also work with clients to help them become aware of times that they should celebrate their successes and become more aware of their strengths. Part of this is helping clients to identify strengths. Telling clients when you think they’ve done good work or have made changes that will benefit their goals. But coaches must balance discussing strengths and celebration with discussing areas where growth is still needed. Because both are needed to be successful. So a coach must help their clients celebrate successes while simultaneously exploring areas where more work is needed. Part of this is confronting clients when actions and words do not mesh, when the client is saying one thing but doing another. The key to successful confrontation is to confront from a place of empathy and care so that they client knows that they are supported, even when you are challenging them to do better.


Coaches also must help clients to find ways to continue improving and learning throughout life. A huge part of this is to help them focus on creating positive actions which contribute to their goals. So if a client is wanting to lose weight encouraging them to continue learning about nutrition and fitness is an action that will help them improve their life and reach their goals.

Coaches must also help clients think of new actions that will lead to client’s goals. This means creatively brainstorming new things that a client can try to do to accomplish their goals. Perhaps they don’t have time to work out? Then a coach might suggest doing chair exercises while working so that they can do two things at the same time and maximize their time. In this way, coaches help clients identify, explore, and implement alternative solutions to their problems and to help them discern what options are best for them and their unique circumstances.

Coaches must also help clients experiment with new behaviors to push the boundaries of what they thought was possible in their life. This includes helping the client to identify routes for new actions that they can take through exploring new ideas, beliefs, and perspectives. And to help the client consider new points of view that will motivate new actions. Part of this is helping the client find a balance between learning at a comfortable pace and stretching to get outside of their comfort zone. And one of the most successful ways to accomplish this is to help the client begin to utilize new behavioral strategies in session so that they can receive immediate feedback and support. So if the coach is trying to get the client to do chair exercises at work they might explain these chair exercises during the session and ask the client to perform these new behaviors during their session together. Then the coach can follow up with the client about what it was like to do these exercises so that the client can receive immediate feedback and support in doing new actions in their life.

Listening Skills

Active Listening

Active listening is a skill. Most people do not use active listening when they have conversations. Rather, most people just wait to take their turn to speak when they interact with others. Active listening is being fully and completely present with your clients and what they are saying. It’s developing the ability to keep your mind focused on the client and their issues and not turn inward and focus on your own thoughts.

Active listening also involves paying attention to the whole of what a client is communicating and not just focusing on their words. Body language can communicate a lot when working with clients. For example, if a client is telling you that they’ve had a great week but they’re clenching their fists or their arms are crossed that may be communicating that they have some frustration or anxiety about their week that they’re not telling you about. The client’s communication extends beyond words and the coach must listen to the volume, pitch, tone of voice, and word choice of what the client is saying. When a client is talking about something that they’re angry about but is talking in a quiet whisper and low tones they may be indicating that they’re actually feeling more sad than angry. The reason it’s important for coach’s to be attuned to these other means of communication is that it is then the coach’s responsibility to gently point out to the client the contradictions between what they’re saying and the other ways they’re communicating.

The coach also needs to utilize different listening techniques with their client effectively. Listening techniques are used to help clarify to the client that the coach understands what the client is saying. It also gives the client an opportunity to correct the coach if the information is wrong or mistaken. Each listening technique is summarized in the table below:



Stating back to the client what they said in different words.

Client: “I’m frustrated about my work because my boss doesn’t listen to me”

Coach: “So what I’m hearing is that you’re not feeling listened to at your job and feeling upset about it?”


Stating back to the client exactly what they said

Client:” I’m sad”

Coach: “So it sounds like you’re feeling pretty sad”


Repeating to the client what they said in your own words

Client: “Ugh, sometimes people are just so completely clueless!”

Coach: “Sounds like you’re feeling upset because you’re disappointed in other people”


Repeating back to the client in a nutshell the basics of a longer story they’ve told you

Client: “So yesterday at work my boss was telling everyone how much he hated people who have trouble with details and recently I got written up for missing details in my latest report. I felt really attacked by my boss”.

Coach: “So it sounds like you felt like your boss was making a direct critique of you to the entire office”


Giving the client encouragement and congratulating progress. Boosts self-confidence and shows client you’re paying attention.

Coach: “You handled that really well”

Short Interjections

Nodding, saying “yes” or “I see”

Client: “I was really hurt by what Sally did”

Coach: “Yes, I see”


Clarifying when you receive conflicting information and checking with clients to ensure that your understanding is correct

Client: “I didn’t think I’d see her again so I was relieved. But we were going to go out on Saturday and I was excited to see her”.

Coach: “So you weren’t sure you were going to see her again even though you had plans on Saturday?”

Client: “well, I wasn’t sure she would come”

Coach: “Okay, so you were excited when you saw her because you did get to see her after all”

Client: “yeah, I guess I wanted to see her even though I didn’t think I did when I was angry”


Mirror back expressions used by the client

Client: “I knew he would flip when she saw me with her ex”

Coach: “So did he flip out?”

Coaches also need to be sure that they really hear and respond to a client’s unique beliefs, concerns, goals, expectations, and past experiences about what they think is possible and what they expect to be difficult in coaching. This will give the coach an idea of what the client thinks about their goals and about the possibility of achieving their goals. And giving full attention to the uniqueness of what the client is presenting to the coach will also make the client feel really listened to and feel that the coach has genuine concern for them and their problems. Another aspect of this is that the coach accepts, encourages, and explores the client’s emotional landscape including difficult feelings, beliefs, and perceptions. This means not shying away from difficult topics that the client is ready to explore. It also means making space for the client to delve into emotions, beliefs, and perceptions which may be difficult for them to admit to or own. In this way, the coach must give the client space to express what’s going on in their life with empathy and acceptance.

Coaches must also help clients clarify what they’re thinking and feeling in sessions. This can show up in a variety of ways. First, coaches must integrate the client’s ideas into coaching so that the coach and client are co-creating solutions together. Second, the coach must help clients summarize and communicate what they’re talking about in simpler more basic terms so that they are getting to the core of what they’re talking about rather than lingering in story telling mode.

Non-Verbal Listening Techniques

Eye contact

Eye contact can be a powerful indicator of attention. When coaches maintain eye contact with their clients, whether in person or over video chat, they show them that they are sincerely listening to what they are saying. However, it’s important not to stare and to look away periodically so that your client doesn’t feel intimidated or weird in any way about the eye contact.

Facial expressions that indicate you are present and focused

Show your client with your facial expressions and body language that you’re fully present. Demonstrate with your eyes or your mouth when you’re following along with what they’re saying. Smile when they discuss good things going on in their life. And show empathy in your expression if they are discussing something difficult or challenging. Sometimes a facial expression can be far more encouraging of a client to go deeper into their experience and into their emotions than words can be since a client is free to interpret the facial expression however they choose.

Body language

Nodding or tilting the head can tell your client that you’re really tuned into what you’re saying. It can show that you’re really present with them as they’re speaking. A nod is often experienced the same way saying “yes, go on” is experienced in the world of the client. It encourages them to go deeper, to express their ideas with more depth, and to tell you more. All without you having to say a thing!


Silence is one of the most useful techniques in coaching and of listening specifically. Often when a client gets silent it’s because they are thinking, not because they are waiting for you to talk. The skill comes in allowing yourself to make space for the silence. In regular conversation people are used to filling silence with small talk or with a response. Silence is not frequently used in day-to-day conversation and will therefore feel a little odd when you first start using it. But it is indispensable in allowing your client the space and time to really think through what’s going on and to make room for them to fully experience their emotions. Silence also gives you time to collect your thoughts and think about what’s going on in the moment. You are in no rush. So don’t just rush a response because it will fill the silence.

Tips to use silence effectively

Start becoming aware of how comfortable you are with silence and how silence is filled in normal conversation. Start using silence more in conversations and even count in your head for a few seconds before responding to force yourself to insert silence into the discussion. It’s specifically important to allow time for silence after asking a thought provoking or complex question. And allow for some silence when you think a client is completed speaking to make room for them to add anything to their responses. However, one caveat is that silence shouldn’t be too long or it might make the client uncomfortable and make them start to wonder what you’re thinking about during the session! And if you need to take a moment of prolonged silence just inform your client of this need before taking it by saying “I’m going to get quiet for a moment to think about that”.

Questioning Skills

Questioning is one of the most useful techniques that coaches use in helping their client’s explore their issues. Coaches must ask questions that help the client get the most benefit from coaching and get down to the core of their issues. Questions not only help coaches to come to a deeper understanding of what a client is going through. But they also help clients get clarity on what they’re talking about and what’s really important. This is why it’s essential for coaches to ask questions that reflect understanding of what the client is going through. So rather than asking the client “what do you mean” the coach would instead ask a question that shows a deeper understanding of their issues like “tell me more about what you mean when you say you feel rejected by your father”.

Characteristics of Good Questions

Short and Simple

Questions should always be as concise and to the point as possible. Long questions are difficult for a client to follow and to fully understand. But the shorter the question the easier it is for the client to get to the core of what you’re asking them. A great technique to help with this is to ask your clients complex questions broken up into parts. So instead of asking “so did your mom really ask you that? What were the thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors you were feeling when she said that?” Ask instead “did your mom really ask you that?”; “what were your thoughts when she said that?”; “what were you feeling when your mom asked you that?”; “what beliefs do you think that activated for you?”.

Open-ended (find section above)

Open-ended questions are the most important tool in a coach’s toolbox of skills. Open-ended questions are those questions that cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no” or other one-word response. An example of a closed ended question would be “did you have a good day” whereas an open-ended question would be “tell me more about your day”. Coaches use open-ended questions to help client delve deeper into an issue and provide new insights and clarity into what’s going on. And it also helps coaches get a broader perspective on what the client is thinking since a client can go in any number of directions when answering questions open-endedly. Lastly, closed ended questions are less useful because close ended questions tend to end a discussion rather than expanding and opening up a discussion to wider opportunities for exploration.


Be sure that your questions do not convey judgment, prejudice, or bias. An example of this would be asking your client “why on earth would you do that?”. Interestingly, the tone of your voice and the reasoning behind the question will often differentiate between questions a client feels are judgmental and nonjudgmental. Asking a client with a sarcastic tone “what were you thinking?!” because you’re incredulous at their choice conveys judgment. Whereas a much different message is communicated when asking them “what were you thinking” in a straight tone because you desire to know their thought processes when making a decision. It’s also important that your questions do not convey that there is only one correct answer to the question or that there is some specific answer that you’re looking for as this will also come across as judgmental.

Language Mirroring

It’s important to mirror the language of your clients so that you are using the exact words that they themselves use when describing their issues and goals. This will help your clients to connect with what you’re saying and really be able to visualize it in their life. It will also help facilitate trust and rapport in your sessions because a client will feel really heard and understood by you.

Exploring Commitment

Coaches also ask questions that help clients explore commitment, willingness to change, and reasons that they haven’t changed in the past. These questions help to question the client’s assumptions.  Examples include “what’s stopped you from making these changes in the past?” This helps clients see why they may have made certain decisions in the past rather than making the changes that they’ve come to the coach for support with. And coaches also help clients focus on their future goals with questions rather than allowing the client to stay stuck in the past.  So when a client is focusing on past hurts a coach may ask them questions to help them focus on how to create change in the future to contribute to their goals.

How to use Questions Most Effectively

Using questions effectively is a matter of practice. Use the criteria above to work on your questioning. It may also be helpful for you to make a list of the most effective questions you have asked your clients, those questions that really open them up and make a difference in their progress in coaching. Those are questions that you’ll begin to rely on as a coach and making a list of these will make this process simpler.

Worksheets you can use for examples of coaching questions:

Following you will find a series of links to worksheets you can use to find example coaching questions to use with clients. However, it is important to note that you should not rely on these hand-outs. Reviewing these questions will give you ideas of questions you can use with your clients in session. However, utilizing these lists during your sessions with your clients would be impractical and unprofessional. Relying on lists of questions is therefore not advised if you wish to demonstrate your ability as a coach and build trust and credibility with your clients in your coaching.

107 Powerful Coaching Questions eBook:
Courtesy of The Coaching Tools Company

Examples of GROW Coaching Questions:
Courtesy of John Tomsett

100 Coaching Questions Plus!
Courtesy of Circle of Life Coaching

549 Powerful Coaching Questions
Courtesy of The Coaching Tools Company

Powerful Coaching Questions
Courtesy of Peggy Grall & Associates

Powerful Coaching Questions List
Courtesy of University of North Texas Health Science Center

Powerful Questions
Courtesy of Coaches Training Institute

ICF Coaching Questions
See packet
Courtesy of ICF group on LinkedIn

Chapter Review Questions

Descriptive Questions

  • Describe two nonverbal listening techniques.
  • What is an open ended question?
  • What’s the difference between rephrasing and summarizing?

Multiple Choice Questions

1. A good coaching question should NOT be _________________?

  1. Non-judgmental
  2. Short and simple
  3. Close-ended

2. Summarizing key facts is a helpful _____________________ technique.

  1. Emotional
  2. Listening
  3. Questioning

Answer Key:

1-c, 2-b

Further Reading

  1. “Coaching Questions: A Coach’s Guide to Powerful Asking Skills” Tony Stoltzfus
  2. “The Coaching Questions Handbook: 150 Powerful Questions For Life Coaching And Personal Growth” Tim Hanson