Principles of Active Listening in Counselling
Active listening is an essential skill counsellors can exploit to develop a positive and healthy interaction with a client.
“Active listening intentionally focuses on who you are listening to, whether in a group or one-on-one, in order to understand what he or she is saying. As the listener, you should then be able to repeat back in your own words what they have said to their satisfaction. This does not mean you agree with, but rather understand, what they are saying”.
There are numerous situations in which counsellors can utilise active listening to build rapport with clients and improve overall communication. Some of these are explored below.
Information — getting a clear picture. This means asking questions to find out about needs, instructions and context of a client. Counsellors should check back to ensure they’ve heard and understood the relevant details, and that the client agrees on the facts.
- Aim of the speaker: To tell them what you want.
- Aim of the listener: To find out and confirm what they are saying.
Affirmation — affirming, acknowledging, exploring the problem. Listening actively to a person who would benefit from having their problem acknowledged by the counsellor.
The problem may or may not involve the counsellor directly. Counsellors may reflect back the client’s feelings and perhaps the content of the problem with a single statement of acknowledgment or during a dialogue over a period of time, exploring the difficulty in more depth.
- Aim of the speaker: To tell someone (counsellor) about the problem.
- Aim of the listener: To help them hear what they are saying. The listener is assisting the speaker to explore the problem further, so the speaker can find greater clarity and understanding for themselves.
Inflammation — responding to a complaint. When clients tell the counsellor they are unhappy with them, criticising them, complaining about them, or getting it off their chest, the best thing the counsellor can do (although challenging) is to effectively listen.
- Aim of the speaker: To tell the counsellor that they are the problem.
- Aim of the listener: Let them know that they have taken in what they are saying and to defuse the strong emotion.
When there is conflict it is very common to blame the other person. It is challenging to be objective when the emotional level is high. Active listening is an effective tool to reduce the emotion of a situation. Every time the counsellor correctly labels an emotion, the intensity of it dissipates like bursting a bubble.
The speaker feels heard and understood. Once the emotional level has been reduced, reasoning abilities can function more effectively. If the emotions are high, counsellors should deal with the emotions first by using active listening skills. Effective use of active listening skills can turn a challenging situation into a co-operative situation.
Below is a list of what a counsellor should and shouldn’t do in relation to applying active listening skills to a therapeutic situation.
A counsellor should:
- Give the person speaking their full attention.
- Repeat the conversation back to them, in their own words, providing their interpretation or understanding of the client’s meaning (paraphrasing).
- By reflecting the content of what is being said back to the speaker, check their understanding of the message.
- Be as accurate in summarising the client’s meaning as much as they can.
- Try again if their paraphrasing is not accurate or well received.
- Feed back to the client their feelings as well as the content (e.g. how did you feel when…? How did that affect you…? It looks like that made you really angry).
- Challenge in a non-threatening and subtle manner.
- Statement: “This is hopeless.” Paraphrasing: “It seems hopeless to you right now”.
- Statement: “There is nothing I can do”. Paraphrasing: “You can’t find anything that would fix it”.
- Not try to force conversation, allow silences — and be aware of body language, notice changes and respond accordingly.
Counsellors should refrain from…
- Talking about themselves and introducing their own reactions or well intended comments.
- Changing topics and thinking about what they will say next.
- Advising, diagnosing, reassuring, encouraging, criticising or baiting a client.
- Using “mm” or “ah ah” exclusively or inappropriately or parrot their words.
- Pretending to have understood the person or their meaning if they haven’t.
- Allowing the client to drift to a less significant topic, because they feel the counsellor doesn’t understand.
- Fixing, changing or improving what they have said — or finishing their sentences for them.
- Filling every space with talk.
- Ignoring their feelings in the situation.