Have you ever tried to talk to a someone on the phone, and even though you can’t see them, you just KNOW that they aren’t paying attention to what you’re saying? Or have you tried having a conversation with your husband or boyfriend while the game is on TV? I know I’m guilty of it too – when I’m wrapped up in a good book, I might as well post a sign that says “Don’t bother talking to me, I am not listening to you!”
One of the most valuable skills needed, both as a therapist and in the real world, is the ability to be a good listener. In theory, you’d think this would be a relatively simple task to learn and do. After all, we listen all the time during the day. But how much of what we hear do we actually absorb? And how do we show others that we are listening to them, that we are hearing them?
In psychology, we practice a skill called “active listening,” in which you make a conscious effort to not only listen to what the client is saying, but you are also trying to fully comprehend the complete message that is being relayed. Active listening is a fundamental part of all branches of therapy, but is a key component of Humanistic psychology and the client-centered psychology theories of Carl Rogers.
In order to practice active listening, it is vitally important that you pay attention to whomever it is you are listening to. Distractions must be limited, if not eliminated altogether. That means it’s important to focus on the speaker, and not be preparing your response already in your head. No clock-watching, hair-twirling, or fingernail-picking. Ignore side conversations that are going on, or the reality show that’s on TV, or the fact that you’re starving and wonder what you’re going to have for lunch. How you address the speaker helps to show your interest in them as well – although please note that these recommendations are culturally sensitive. Facing the person who is speaking, maintaining engaged eye contact, and being present are all signs that you are interested and focused on the conversation going on around you.
I find that what helps me the most in getting into the correct frame of mind for active listening is to remember what my goal is. When I am truly listening to someone, I am trying to understand them: their emotions, their thoughts, and their experiences. I remind myself that I am not there to judge them or to evaluate them, and most of all I am not there to fix them. It’s this last reminder that I need most – the reminder that I can’t help someone solve their problems or address their concerns unless I truly understand what those problems or concerns are in the first place. In order to listen properly, I need to have an open mind and be accepting of anything that may be said.
Beyond facial expressions, how you respond in a conversation also demonstrates your engagement and your interest. Your responses provide feedback to the speaker and with them you want to continue to pursue your goal of truly understanding the other person. Good questions to ask often include clarifying questions – questions to ensure that you heard something correctly or that you perceived the concept accurately – or summaries to make sure that you have been keeping up with their story acceptably. As a psychologist, I often notice that in telling stories, people easily state facts, such as “This weekend, we went hiking with some friends, and we had a great time until….” What I don’t usually hear are the emotions behind the details, so I often ask about those – after all there is a reason why I’m being told this story and the reason usually is not to inform me of some interesting facts! Sometimes, I do this by straightforwardly asking “how did you feel when this happened?” while other times I might try to guess what the possible hidden feelings might be, by guessing what I would feel in a similar situation or by using nonverbal cues that the person I’m speaking with is demonstrating. These cues include tone of voice, facial expression, and even body posture – all of which you can pay attention to as part of actively listening to the person you are with.
Active listening requires significant concentration and discipline, but it’s worth the effort. If you learn to listen to others with the goal of understanding them, rather than arguing with them or trying to problem solve, you can improve your relationships and your ability to communicate with others. It’s impossible to solve a problem without understanding it – that’s why active listening really works!