The Therapeutic Value of Active Listening

active listening

Carl Rogers (1902 – 1987) was one of the founders of the humanistic approach to psychology, who developed his own particular approach known as client-centred therapy. Humanistic psychology emphasises an individual’s intrinsic desire for self-actualisation – the process of fully realising and manifesting one’s latent capacities. Rogers’ client-centred – or person-centred – approach, meanwhile, views the individual as an expert on themselves and thus the task of the therapist is to help them find their own solutions (which Rogers called “self-direction”). A further important feature of client-centred therapy is its emphasis on unconditional positive regard: this refers to an attitude of accepting and respecting a client as they are, and working under the assumption that they are trying their best. Unconditional positive regard does not require liking the client or approving everything they have done; it refers to accepting and valuing an individual on a much deeper level, recognising their inherent lovability.

Rogers revolutionised psychotherapy in many ways. One way he did so was through the promulgation of active listening (also called empathic listening). Of course, listening from an empathetic point of view is nothing new. But Rogers sought to clarify it and bring this form of listening to the forefront of the psychotherapeutic process.

What is Active Listening?

Rogers stressed that active listening is not simply listening silently to what the client is expressing but responding in a way that shows their inner world is understood. He said:

Very early in my work as a therapist, I discovered that simply listening to my client, very attentively, was an important way of being helpful. So when I was in doubt as to what I should do in some active way, I simply listened. And it seemed surprising to me that such a passive kind of interaction could be so useful. And a little later, a social worker whom I hired who had a background of Rankian training, who was really most helpful to me. She helped me to learn that the most effective response – the most effective listening – is where you listen for the feelings and emotions that were behind the words, that were just a little bit concealed, where you can discern a pattern of feeling behind what was being said. And I think she’s the one who first suggested that the best response was to reflect these feelings to the client.

Listening is easy. But really listening is a skill. When we are listening actively or empathetically, we are giving our full attention to the other person. This allows us to actually hear what someone is saying, rather than what we think they are saying or want them to say. Active listening is about giving up our preconceptions, opinions, and schemes so that we can adequately receive the emotional state that someone is trying to convey. It involves construing meaning beyond the words themselves, taking note of inflection, tone, volume, and speed of talking, as well as behaviour and body language. Rogers underscores the immense relief that active listening can offer someone:

When a person realizes he has been deeply heard, his eyes moisten. I think in some real sense he is weeping for joy. It is as though he were saying, “Thank God, somebody heard me. Someone knows what it’s like to be me.”

True empathy is always free of any evaluative or diagnostic quality. This comes across to the recipient with some surprise. “If I am not being judged, perhaps I am not so evil or abnormal as I have thought.”

Elsewhere, he has pointed out the essential therapeutic nature of empathy:

When the other person is hurting, confused, troubled, anxious, alienated, terrified; or when he or she is doubtful of self-worth, uncertain as to identity, then understanding is called for. The gentle and sensitive companionship of an empathic stance… provides illumination and healing. In such situations deep understanding is, I believe, the most precious gift one can give to another.

Empathy is also a mode of awareness that is often quite hard to achieve. As Rogers says:

To be with another in this [empathic] way means that for the time being, you lay aside your own views and values in order to enter another’s world without prejudice. In some sense it means that you lay aside your self; this can only be done by persons who are secure enough in themselves that they know they will not get lost in what may turn out to be the strange or bizarre world of the other, and that they can comfortably return to their own world when they wish.

Perhaps this description makes clear that being empathic is a complex, demanding, and strong – yet subtle and gentle – way of being.

Rogers and fellow American psychologist Richard Farson wrote in their paper Active Listening (1957):

Active listening is an important way to bring about changes in people. Despite the popular notion that listening is a passive approach, clinical and research evidence clearly shows that sensitive listening is a most effective agent for individual personality change and group development. Listening brings about changes in peoples’ attitudes toward themselves and others; it also brings about changes in their basic values and personal philosophy. People who have been listened to in this new and special way become more emotionally mature, more open to their experiences, less defensive, more democratic, and less authoritarian.

A Guide to Active Listening

John M. Grohol, the founder of the website Psych Central, has explained how someone can become a better listener; how they can listen actively. There are 13 steps he says that anyone can take in order to offer the under-appreciated service of a mindful and receptive ear. These include:

  1. Restating (paraphrasing in your own words to show understanding)
  2. Summarising (bringing all the pieces together and checking to see if the complete picture is correct)
  3. Minimal encouragement (brief, positive prompts to keep the conversation going)
  4. Reflecting (reflecting the speaker’s words in terms of feelings)
  5. Giving feedback (sharing observations, insights, and experiences, then listening to the response to see if they correspond correctly)
  6. Emotion labelling (putting feelings into words)
  7. Probing (asking questions that draw out more details)
  8. Validation (acknowledging the individual’s problems)
  9. Effective pausing (pausing at key moments for emphasis)
  10. Silence (giving space for comfortable silences so that the speaker can think and talk as much as they need to)
  11. “I” messages (using “I” in your statements helps to focus on the feelings rather than the person)
  12. Redirecting (if someone is showing signs of being overly angry or agitated, then it’s a sign to shift the conversation)
  13. Consequences (talking about the possible consequences of a particular action or inaction)

There are also seven barriers to effective communication:

  1. “Why” questions, which tend to make people defensive
  2. Quick reassurances
  3. Advising
  4. Digging for information someone is not comfortable disclosing
  5. Patronising
  6. Preaching
  7. Interrupting

Being an effective listener depends on being able to ask questions in the right way. Grohol says that we can do this through leading questions (e.g. “What happened then?), open-ended questions (e.g. “How?”), closed-ended questions, which aim to clarify specifics (e.g. “Did?”), and reflective questions, which are meant to help someone understand more deeply what they said (e.g. “It sounds like you…?)

Listening Empathically in Everyday Situations

Although Rogers (and many therapists today) incorporate active listening into their practice, it’s applicable to daily situations and interactions. It’s useful in a professional context and can help us to build and maintain healthy relationships. As Rogers wrote, “Whatever I have learned is applicable to all of my human relationships.”

Whenever we are facing a problem in our lives, deep down, we really just want to be understood. This is why therapy can be so beneficial. Regardless of the training and techniques employed by the therapist, if they are able to listen empathically, then the client can feel as if a giant burden has been lifted off their shoulders. But we can all regard each other in this way – or at least, try our best to.

As is often the case, when we are speaking with someone who is suffering, we may naturally respond in unproductive ways. We might immediately want to offer our opinion or advice – we start shoulding all over the person (“You should try doing this”). Understandably, we believe that if a person can take actionable steps (e.g. exercise regularly, adopt a healthy diet, pursue a career change, and so on) then this will improve their situation. However, advice – even if it’s well-intentioned, well-informed, and likely to make things better – may not be what someone needs at that moment. There’s also a very good chance that they already know about the advice given or – if they don’t – that they will interpret the advice as patronising and infantilising. It can make someone feel that they are stupid, lazy, inept, and useless. Advice and shoulding are, many times, quite irksome to hear.

In times of hardship, ultimately, we just want others to really listen, to pay attention, to connect closely with what we’re going through, and to help us bring to the surface the full meaning of our experience. Active listening is, undoubtedly, something that requires a certain degree of effort, patience, and practice. It takes energy and acumen to relate to others in this way, which is why therapy exists as a profession, and a difficult one at that.

We are all busily wrapped up in our own struggles and concerns. This is why, to reiterate Rogers’ insight, active listening really requires us to put aside ourselves in the service of someone else. If we want to develop the skill of an empathic stance, then we need to first relate to ourselves with some acceptance and understanding. We need to do some tidying up. As Ram Dass says, “The quieter you become, the more you can hear.” When we are able to soothe and calm our own chaos, we can help others to speak openly, decompress, and make sense of their situation. This is much more helpful than reflexively replying to someone with opinions, platitudes, half-interested responses, and projections of personal insecurities.

Active listening is a skill that has to be consciously sharpened. It is not something that can fall on your lap. You can’t suddenly wake up and be able to look at everyone you meet with warm and understanding eyes. By recognising the importance of active listening, though, you can treat each interaction as a means for improving this skill and, in turn, helping to alleviate the suffering of others. Being adept at empathic listening is invaluable and highly rewarding.

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