How to be a better listener
Active listening is about “listening for meaning”. As a trainee therapist the first skill you must master is active listening. In my experience, it is all about shutting out everything that is going on in my head and just concentrating on what my patient is telling me, it is about being in the “here and now”. Active listening can be very therapeutic because it gives the person who is being listened to the opportunity to be really heard. This happens rarely in our busy day-to-day life. How often do we act like we are listening, but we are thinking about something else completely?
Here are a few tips on how to actively listen:
- Get rid of distractions – the radio, your phone, the TV or a laptop are all hugely distracting. The person you are listening to will be unlikely to open up if they think you are more interested in what is happening around you.
- Eye contact is primordial, it is important to look at the person but not stare, learning all you can from their body language.
- Posture and looking relaxed are essential to making the other person feel comfortable. You can lean forward slightly.
- Gesture, we say a lot through our body movements, so try not to make big gestures that can overwhelm the other person. Try not to fidget.
- Hold back from giving advice or solve problem, be curious about what the person is saying and use open-ended questions.
- Paraphrasing means to repeat the same information using different words. It shows your understanding it should be brief and tentative, and you can say things such as “this sounds like…” or “I think I hear you saying…”
- Try to ask open-ended questions beginning with “how” or “what”, this can be a good tool to deepen a conversation and/or uncover hidden reasoning.
- Avoid using “why” or leading questions, and try to listen without a specific goal/outcome in mind.
- Using nonverbal encouragers such as head nodding and brief verbal affirmations such as “I see”.
- Ask feeling questions such as “How do you feel about that?”
- Define and clarify feelings through paraphrasing, “so you are feeling angry, is that right?”
- Avoid distractions and focus on the speaker. Try to silence everything around you (no TV or music) and concentrate on the here and now.
- Follow the person’s lead, be interested in what the person is telling you, and listen out for the unspoken meaning of what is being said. Don’t interrupt, and do not share your experiences.
- Mirroring body language is an excellent way to build trust and understanding quickly.
- Resist your urge to fill the silence. Silence is a form of communication that allows time to reflect and gather thoughts. If you find the silence hard to bear, you could say something like, “I wonder where your mind’s gone?”
If you can adopt just a few of the tips above, it can help enhance your relationships with others. Shut off any distractions and give some time to try and understand the other person’s perspective. Active listening isn’t just for psychotherapists or counsellors, it’s for everyone.