Listening is a key counselling skill. It is the art of obtaining the information you need from a speaker, whilst encouraging them to open up and share their issues.
“You cannot truly listen to anyone and do something else at the same time.” M. Scott Peck
Thank you Mr Peck for this realistic evaluation of the importance of listening. Effective listening requires full concentration.
No matter how good we think we are at doing several things at once, good listening skills require us to give the person we are listening to our full attention.
Learn to listen effectively
When listening you should use the following strategies to acquire what you really need to know from either speakers, or anyone who is providing you with information you need to process:
Put them at their ease.
Converse in a friendly and relaxed manner to encourage them to open up.
Use positive body language to show you are listening.
Face the person and make eye contact. Smile and nod as they speak to inspire them to carry on with their story.
Another trick to show you are listening is to mirror their body position and lean slightly towards them as they are speaking to you. You should also stay still as you listen – if you fidget you’re showing distraction. Don’t cross your arms across your body.
Listen to the words the person uses to assess their emotions.
If they are using aggressive language they are likely to be angry and upset. The opposite of this is if the person is very quiet and hardly speaks and needs you to encourage them to open up.
What tone and pitch of voice are they using? A raised and high voice is also a sign of anger. Plus, of course, tears are a sign of emotional stress and losing control.
When listening to someone who is crying you should ensure you maintain a neutral position and don’t become emotionally involved yourself.
Paraphrase the main points of what the person has said to check your understanding.
This ensures the person knows you have been listening and you know you have gathered the right information.
Repeat what they have said in different words, which will also help them to realise what information they have given you.
*TIP*Never, ever, finish sentences for the person you are listening to. This says you know more about the situation than they do and implies you are cleverer than them. Let the person find their words in their own time.
Open and closed questions
Open questions are best asked when listening as they allow the speaker to recount their story in their own words and will provide you with the information you need to give the appropriate advice. Open questions also keep the speaker talking, as it is important they speak more than you. For example:
“How do you feel about ____________?” is an open question and encourages a much longer answer than “Are you happy with ________?”, which would prompt a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer and halt the conversation.
Other examples of open questions are:
- What made you come here today?
- What do you think caused the situation?
- What do you think you will do if __________?
- Tell me more about __________
Closed questions can be used to stop the conversation if the speaker is going off at a tangent.
Don’t interrupt unless you need to move the conversation in a different direction or bring it to a close. Otherwise, allow the client to speak freely. You should just interject with occasional comments such as ‘I see’, ‘I understand’, ‘of course’ and ‘mmm’. Interrupting is rude and indicates you don´t have time to listen.
You must remain neutral and only offer advice that is relevant to the speaker’s issues.
This is quite a difficult skill to learn as our instinct as human beings, particularly in our culture, is to fill the silence.
Tips for effective listening:
- Remember – silence is golden
- Empathise with what the person is saying, but don’t link their situation with your own. As a counsellor you should never bring your own personal experiences into the situation.
- Paraphrase to check and show your understanding.
- Wait for natural pauses from the speaker before asking questions.
- Give verbal (“yes, I see”) and non-verbal acknowledgements (nodding) to show you are listening.
- Maintain eye contact and face to face communication.
- Concentrate on what the person is saying. This can be hard as our mind often wanders after a short time (what shall I have for dinner? I really need to send that email). However, you must empty your mind of all distractions and really focus on listening to what the speaker is saying.
Listen to what’s being said and what’s NOT being said
The unspoken words are almost as important as the spoken.
You can identify these from body language:
If the person is slumped in their chair rather than sitting upright, they don’t make eye contact or they can´t sit still they are likely to be very agitated and perhaps want to say more than they feel able.
Your skill as the listener is to identify these signs and encourage the speaker to open up.
Tone of voice is also a giveaway for non-verbal communication. If a person is stressed they will speak very fast and in a high pitched tone. You may find it hard to listen to them as they are not making sense. A listening skill here is to identify the main point and encourage the speaker to focus on this in a calm manner.
*TIP*When listening avoid distractions such as the TV, mobile phones and other people. If someone has the courage to open up to you they should not be interrupted by the often unnecessary complications of everyday life.