Up to 90% of a counsellors time is spent actively listening, but often instead of really paying attention to what the other person is saying, most people are already thinking about what they want to say in response.
“We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know.”
Carl Rogers – A Way of Being, Houghton Mifflin, 1980: 116
Active listening means seeing the entire presentation of the speaker. Look out for things such as:
A great way to practice this is to consciously monitor the interactions you have with others during the day. Be mindful of what you and your mind are doing while someone else is speaking to you. You may find that you very rarely actively listen – and that’s okay. Active listening is something so rare, and that is why it’s such a privilege to learn skills like this in order to be there to help others, and truly listen to them. Explore this in your journal and see if you can notice any improvements in your skills as you progress.
“When I have been listened to and when I have been heard, I am able to re-perceive my world in a new way and go on.”
A trick that may help you to improve your active listening is using the acronym SOLER.
Active listening and attending are two skills that come hand-in-hand. Feltham and Dryden (1993, p. 105) define ‘listening’ as ‘attending to what another says’.
While what the client is talking about may be their most obvious output in the counselling room, it is also important to attend to their body language (‘the way in which people’s feelings and thoughts express themselves, often unconsciously, through physical posture and movement’ – ibid., p. 21).
Duration of Attending:
The skill of attending starts from the very first moment you make contact with the client, in person or by telephone, and continues throughout their therapy.
While, since the relational turn, all modalities of counselling and psychotherapy today recognise the importance of the therapeutic relationship, attending is traditionally a key component of the person-centered approach.
Importance of Demonstrating Attending:
It is important that the client feels that the counsellor is attending to them. This supports several of Carl Rogers’ six necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change, helping:
Presence in Attending:
In a paper published in 1986, Rogers described another characteristic in addition to the six necessary and sufficient conditions, which he termed ‘presence’:
When I am at my best…when I am closest to my inner, intuitive self, when I am somehow in touch with the unknown in me, when perhaps I am in a slightly altered state of consciousness in the relationship, then whatever I seem to so seems full of healing. Then simply my presence is releasing and helpful.
Tips on Demonstrating Attending:
The best way of showing someone you are listening to them is by making eye contact. This shows that you are paying attention and are giving your full attention to them. Try to be as natural as possible when doing this and avoid looking as if you are staring at them. Do be aware that in some cultures, it is seen as disrespectful to look someone in the eye.
The way you sit can give important clues into how much you are attending. Being relaxed and comfortable allows you to focus on your client and not on yourself. Sometimes, leaning forward towards the client indicates how intently you are listening to them.
Sitting with your arms crossed can be seen as a barrier, as can waving your arms around. Try to sit with a calm and open posture.
Greek philosopher Epictetus said: ‘We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.’ This is a good listening-to-responding ratio.
Good listening skills should be matched by accurate responding to both the thoughts and feelings that the client expresses in the therapy room. Be as accurate as you can with empathic responses.
Make sure that the room is fully accessible for the client, and that it meets their needs (e.g. in temperature, privacy and comfort).
Each client will have their own individual needs and wishes; it is good to accommodate these if possible. For example, a therapist might cover up a mirror in the practice room because the client struggles with self-image.
Make sure that endings are planned for, and offer the appropriate referral or signposting of support if the client requests it.
Feltham, C. and Dryden, W. (1993). Dictionary of Counselling. London: Whurr.
Rogers, C. (1957). The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 21, 95-103.
Rogers, C. (1986). A client-centered/person-centered approach to therapy. In: I. L. Kutash and A. Wolf, ed. Psychotherapist’s Casebook. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Pp. 197-208.