Have you ever been having a conversation with someone about something you considered important, and you could just tell that they weren’t paying attention/interested? I’m sure we’ve all experienced this at some point or another in our lives, and it can leave us feeling ignored, invalid and invisible.
I for one have experienced this many times throughout my life, and it is never something I seek to experience again. These encounters have left me with a personal motivation to try and treat others how I would like to be treated. For those of you who are new to this blog, I am studying to become a counsellor, and it was actually a recent lesson that inspired this post. During this lesson I realised just how important active listening skills were to me achieving my aforementioned goal, and believe they would be an asset to anyone who finds themselves pondering the question, ‘How do I be a better listener?’.
In this post, we will firstly explore what active listening actually is, and why it’s useful. After this I will get into the skills themselves, and breakdown exactly what can be used in order to be a better listener, conversationalist and general helper to those around you.
What is Active Listening?
Active listening is a phrase first coined by psychologists Richard Farson and Carl Rogers, the latter of whom is extremely well known with regards to his humanistic approaches to counselling and therapy. In 1957, Rogers and Farson explored how actively listening, as a different approach from advice giving or attempting to change the ‘talker’ directly through suggestions, allows the listener to provide room for the talker to explore their own self-picture, whilst letting them know that someone is interested in what they have to say and what they feel.
Active listening isn’t just hearing what is being said, it’s taking that information, processing it and working to understand it. However, despite ‘listening’ being in the title of the concept, active listening can also be as much about how you converse with someone as well.
Why is Active Listening Important/Useful?
If you research the concept online, you’ll see that there are countless testimonies to the impact active listening can have on an individual/group with regards to development, which is why it’s no surprise that it is taught to those training to become a qualified counsellor.
There are many reasons why active listening is considered important or useful, and at the very centre of these is the most obvious; It allows the client, or talker in a less formal settings, to know that you’re actually listening, and that they are not only being heard but understood. This also allows a mutual sense of trust to be built between those conversing, allowing the client to explore the conversation from a different and deeper perspective, whilst not feeling pressured into doing so.
Whilst the reasons listed above are the more generally known benefits of active listening, I want to also note something I get out of the experience, warmth. When someone genuinely, actively listens to me, it makes me feel seen, valid and cared for, and this can make all the difference in how the conversation goes and my mental state during and after.
So now that we’ve covered what active listening is and why it’s important, let’s get into the skills themselves, and how you can begin to apply them in your life.
What are Active Listening Skills?
For those of you who noted the ‘ABCs’ in the title of this post, I understand that it sounds a little classroom exercise-ish, but this is just something I came up with in order to remember the skills more easily and hopefully it will allow you to as well. So, without further ado, here they are:
This one may seem like it goes without saying, but yes, the first step to active listening is to…you guessed it…listen. It definitely seems like a given, but it is so often overlooked by those who are trying too hard to deploy their other active listening skills. Nobody is saying you have to be able to remember 100% of a conversation you have with another person, as this can be difficult if it is long and intense, but actually focusing on what is being said rather than what you are going to say next will allow you to see things from a deeper empathetic perspective than you would have previously been able to.
B: Body Language
Despite communication being seen more commonly as a verbal activity, we can communicate an awful lot with our body language. If someone is talking to you and you are scrolling on your phone not looking at them, odds are they are going to feel unheard and unhappy, as you would if the roles were reversed.
For this skill, it is always a good rule to refer to the SOLER method, which has been covered by many different articles online. The method itself is as follows:
S: Sit Squarely – face the client but not directly, just slightly off direct to avoid staring.
O: Open Posture – No folded arms etc, no defences. Be open and approachable.
L: Lean in when necessary – to sit at attention or allow sensitive topics to be shared more quietly.
E: Eye Contact – Maintain it, but don’t overdo it as this can cause discomfort.
R: Relax – Show the client that the environment is safe and calm.
For those of you who are interested in learning more about this method, I highly recommend having a look online for a copy of Gerard Egan’s ‘The Skilled Helper’ (1975) which explores the concept in-depth.
Aside from the SOLER method, there is other aspects of body language which can be important to use whilst actively listening. Whilst it’s totally fine to occasionally say ‘yes’ or ‘um-hmm’ when listening to show the talker you are still paying attention, a nod and a smile can be equally effective, obviously depending on the topic of conversation. Incorporating touch where appropriate has also been explored in more recent studies of active listening. This depends on the person you’re talking with, but sometimes a hand on the shoulder etc. can help during a conversation. Just be very careful not to overstep the clients boundaries when deciding to do this.
C: Conversation Tools
Like I mentioned above, active listening isn’t solely about listening, and actively contributing to the conversation using the following tools can actually help the client/talker a lot:
Paraphrasing: Paraphrasing allows you as the listener to pick out what you feel is important and repeat it back to them. For example, if a client were to say “Everything is very stressful and busy and I feel I don’t have enough time in the day to do everything without it piling up more and more”, you could say something along the lines of ‘Feel free to step in and tell me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like you’re feeling really overwhelmed.’
It may not seem like this would do anything for the conversation, but it allows you as a listener to pinpoint specific aspects being discussed and highlight them in order to allow whoever is talking to explore this more deeply, whilst also showing that you are paying attention and comprehending what they are actually saying and feeling.
Reflection: Similarly, to paraphrasing, reflection allows you to hold up a mirror to whoever is talking and show them what they have just expressed, but in a more direct and accurate way. Some people do this by simply repeating some of the words/phrases the client has said, whilst others try and filter out the emotions and focus on reflecting them instead.
For example, if the talker were to say something like “I feel like a horrible failure!” the listener may simply state “a horrible failure.” This allows those who are talking to directly hear exactly what they just said, and a lot of the time, this will allow them to experience it in a completely different light, and realise that they are maybe being too harsh on themselves etc. It is worth noting that you don’t need to reflect every single thing said to the client, but mainly the statements you think it would be beneficial for them to hear coming from another person.
Use of Silence: This one honestly would have eluded me had I not witnessed it first-hand in my studies. Whilst it is assumed that the listener should be silent and pay attention to those talking, this can be a powerful tool which encourages further discussion from the client.
If you are using the above skills such as reflection and paraphrasing in order to gain more information and fill the gaps in the conversation, then you suddenly don’t, it can create a breathing space which allows the client to think and feel, and most likely continue to speak when they are ready. If you believe the talker needs assistance or help and that this silence has went on a little too long, then of course you can interject, but don’t feel pressured to immediately, and you’ll be amazed at the effect it has.
Open Questions: Whilst the talker is the person who should be communicating the most in an active listening situation, it doesn’t mean that the listener can’t contribute whatsoever. The use of open questions such as ‘How are you feeling?’ can encourage discussion in a free-flowing way which allows the talker to open up and approach the question from their own angle.
Asking these questions rather than the alternatively closed yes/no answered questions, allows you to give a gentle nudge of encouragement in the right direction to those you are listening to, which can be all it takes in some cases.
These are just some of the conversation tools I have learnt to use so far but honestly they have such a positive impact on those serious conversations where you are playing the role of the listener, so I highly recommend considering them and practicing them. This being said, don’t rehearse these and gain the experience naturally as it can come across obviously staged and end up hindering the process if overdone. If you’re interested in learning more about active listening I highly recommend these two excellent articles from Psychology Today and PsychCentral.
At this stage as we come to the end of the post, I just want to fully disclose some things: First of all, I am not a qualified or certified counselling professional as of yet. I am in training as mentioned and also learning about the material discussed above. As I previously mentioned, I find this concept of active learning very interesting and had an enjoyable way to breakdown and remember the important methods so I thought it would be a good idea to share with others, but that by no means implies that it should be taken as professional full-proof advice.
If you enjoyed this post and would like to learn more about mental health awareness and training, be sure to follow my blog here. Have you heard of active listening before? Which of these skills are you most excited to try out during your next conversation? Do you have any suggestions of additional skills that I forgot to mention? Let me know in the comments down below.
If you’re experiencing any of the feelings described in this post, or know somebody who is, then there are many things you can do to help. Talking to somebody about how you or they are feeling can be very beneficial. If you’re not sure what to do but need urgent help, there are many emergency hotlines that provide support and encouragement such as Mind.org and Samaritans.org. You’re not alone in feeling this way, others are there to help.