4 Ways to Be a Better Listener

I have spent the past three years in the Office of Health Promotion working as a wellness coach.

In high school I read books and listened to podcasts about health. I applied to be a wellness coach so that I could help students by telling them how to be healthier.

However, on the first day of wellness coach training, we were told to “NEVER give advice in a coaching session.”

I was shocked. What the heck is the point of coaching if not to give advice?

Over time, I learned that people don’t need advice. People need someone to listen to them.

Wellness Coaches are training in ‘Motivational Interviewing.’ As part of motivational interviewing we learn how to be a good listener using the acronym OARS.


OARS stands for

  • Open-ended question
  • Affirmation
  • Reflective Listening
  • Summarizing

Open-Ended Questions

Open ended questions require more than a one word (yes or no) response.

Typically these questions begin with ‘How’ or ‘What.’

This allows the client to guide the conversation without your biased input.

For example:

Open-Ended QuestionsClose-Ended Questions
What is your relationship like with your parents?Do you have a good relationship with your parents?
What happened today?Did you have a good day?


Affirmations recognize strengths and behaviors that lead in the direction of positive change. Good affirmations are genuine and specific. They point out something that the client is doing well.


  • You handled yourself really well in that situation.
  • I’m really impressed with the way you…
  • I can see you’ve thought about this before

Reflective Listening

During reflective listening, you repeat verbally what the other person is saying. You can use their words or your own words.

Reflect twice as often as you ask open-ended questions.

Often the person will elaborate on what they have already said if you simply repeat it back to them.

Wellness Coach: So I’m hearing that you want to get more sleep, but you also want to spend time with your roommates at night. Am I getting that right?

Client: *Yeah and the other thing is…*

Examples Reflective Listening Statements:

  • So you feel___
  • It sounds like you___
  • You’re wondering if___
  • Im hearing ___


Summarizing is a special form of reflective listening. In wellness coaching sessions, summarizing is used to transition from listening to goal setting. We recognize what is going well, what the client wants to change and provide an opportunity for them to make a plan for how to act going forward.

It might start by saying : “Here’s what I’ve heard, let me know if I am missing anything…” Or “So it sounds like…”

If they are ambivalent about a subject, it can be helpful to include both pros and cons in your summary: “So on the one hand, … but on the other hand …”

Examples of Summarizing: 

  • Let me see if I understand so far… [Summarize]
  • Here is what I’ve heard. Tell me if I’ve missed anything… [Summarize]

OHP’s mission is to make BC a healthier place. We do a lot of education and promotion on campus. Students learn that a 20 minute nap is better than a 60 minute nap or that 5 oz of wine has the same amount of alcohol as 12 oz of beer. This information is helpful, but at the end of the day students do not need advice – they need good listeners. For BC to be a healthier place, not only physically but also emotionally, socially, racially, and culturally we need an army of good listeners. If everyone at BC understood and practiced the fundamentals of motivational interviewing I believe that we would have a more inclusive, equitable, understanding, and empathetic community.

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