what does it mean to become a skilled listener? 

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a therapist reflects on skills of Active Listening


Boy listening through a tin can

In this blog, I explore the significance of having someone listen, really listen, when you need to talk about something important. Why can it such a profound and transformative effect on you? Why is listening well so hard to do? What are the skills of active listening and what is different about how a therapist listens?




Why is having someone listen so helpful?

Talking organizes your thoughts


When you are alone, you may be aware of your jumbled-up thoughts or self-talk. When you talk to someone who really listens, you hear your words spoken out loud, and you get the chance to listen to what you are saying.


Talking about an issue or idea out loud with someone is one of the first experiences you may have of organizing your thoughts well enough to express them to someone else, and as you do this, you construct a more coherent story of what you are thinking and feeling. As you listen to yourself saying this more coherent story, you are more able to think and reflect upon your experience.


If you are distressed, thoughts and feelings churn around in your mind. When you say what you are thinking and feeling out loud in the therapy room, or to your best friend, you get to hear your own words out loud, and sometimes you hear them again when the listener reflects them back to you.


What had been jumbled up feelings, memories, and impulses in your emotional limbic brain, you express as spoken words which you hear through your own ears and are registered into your frontal cortex, the thinking brain, which is very good at making sense of things. When you experience your listener as accepting and non-judgmental, you can more easily adopt that attitude and feel less critical of yourself.


Journal Writing can be a way of listening to yourself


Does it require another person, a listener, for you to experience this process of listening to yourself speak? Maybe not. It would be very difficult to talk out loud to yourself, by yourself, for a whole hour, even if you were able to make yourself do it. But if you could make yourself, it would probably help you. Try an experiment. When you are feeling confused, use a recorder app on your phone to record your thoughts and feelings, as if you speaking to your best friend. Then play it back to yourself.


Another way to listen to yourself is through the process of expressive writing. Some people keep a journal as a way of reflecting on their thoughts and feelings about their lives. Keeping a journal can be very helpful, but it isn’t always. Journal writing can be used to reinforce angry thoughts and bad memories.


However, there is a great deal of research, spanning over 30 years, that shows that if you write about your deepest thoughts and feelings about traumatic events that you have experienced, (even if you write about it only once), you will experience ongoing benefits regarding both physical and mental health.




listening to yourself has limits


The problem with talking to yourself, whether that is out loud to a voice recorder, or writing it down in your journals, is that you tend to avoid facing the most painful bits, and so you only go so far in writing about the memory or issue. When you reach that bit that really hurts, you stop or focus on something else. The essence of that painful memory still lingers like a splinter under the skin that continues to fester.


Sometimes when you think you are writing about your feelings, you are actually masking over another terrible bit that you can’t bear to face. In contrast, if you were talking with someone who had the skill to ask you the right question, at the right time, so that you go to that place that you would rather avoid, and you faced it, you are likely to pull out that splinter and experience a kind of healing.




Becoming a good listener


If you have someone in your life who really listens to you, without judging, without interrupting, without telling you the “solution” to your problem too quickly, and you can tell this person what is laying heavy on your heart, then you have a precious gift. If this person is your partner, a best friend, a sister or someone else close, you are one of the lucky few.

William Ury from the Harvard program on negotiation presented a Ted talk on the power of listening while negotiating issues in business and in international conflicts. He dreams of a world in which listening is taught in schools, parents are taught to listen, and in which leaders are chosen on their ability to listen.


Being a good listener is harder than it seems. Even if you long for your partner to listen to you, it may still be hard for you to stay listening to your partner. Your mind may be racing ahead thinking about what your partner could or should do to solve the problem, what you would do instead, or else your mind wanders to the many other things you have to worry about and how you would like this conversation to end so that you can get on with it.


Why couples "just can't communicate"


Women often say that the problem in their relationship is that "we just can't communicate".

Women in heterosexual relationships often complain that their partners don’t listen and instead interrupt and tell her what to do, or how to fix it. So instead of being able to explore her own thoughts and feelings, she becomes frustrated and angry with him. He says that he desperately trying to help her, he hates seeing her upset, and he doesn’t understand her constant criticism of him. Sometimes the man has learned that it is not a good idea to try to fix it or to interrupt, but he still leaves her feeling unsatisfied because he fidgets, looks at his phone, looks away, makes huffing and puffing noises. She knows he’s waiting for his turn and that he will challenge her.


The saddest part of all this is that in her attempt to seek connection, be heard and be validated, she gets hurt and feels invalidated. She then goes on the counterattack, criticizing him which results in them engaging in in a spiral of attack and counterattack. When it is all finished, she leaves with another problem to worry about - the sad state of their communication. When she comes to see me for therapy, she says “I have lost myself. I don’t know who I am anymore”.


While men tend to have more difficulties with listening, sometimes this pattern is reversed. I have worked with men who became despondent after being fired or retrenched from their jobs. They are left wrestling with deep feelings of resentment and humiliation. Some men in this situation refuse to talk about it. Others, however, cannot stop talking about it and their partners, although initially supportive, eventually become sick of hearing about it and begin to criticize him for not getting his act together. The conflict that ensues results in him shutting down and getting even more depressed.


Although men are more likely to be Mr. Fix-it, this same pattern can happen in same sex relationships between women

Is the ability to listen well a skill or something associated with a certain personality type? Sometimes poor listeners shrug off their lack of skill off with, “I’m an extrovert,” “I’m just more of a talker,” or “I’d rather look for a solution than be endlessly moaning about it.” They lack the motivation to improve.


“The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand.

We listen to reply.”

Stephen R. Covey



The motivation to listen


Many people have never experienced how beneficial listening can be to have someone really listen. Others might say that it is good for someone to get something off their chest. But, given the choice, many people are happier to do more talking than listening in a conversation. It feels better. So, most good listeners do not listen well because it feels good but because they believe that it is an important thing to do that will benefit the other person and the relationship. To become a good listener, you have to be motivated to do so. And then you need to learn a few active listening skills.



Active listening


The basics of listening skills can be learned. Pareto's Principle or the 80-20 Rule applies here. 80% of how to be a good listener can be learner in 20% of the time by practicing the skills of active listening.


The skills of Active listening

Here are a few basics:

· Give the speaker your full attention. Put away your phone or other distractions.

· Maintain good eye contact.

· Let the other person talk, and do not interrupt.

· Use minimal encouragers to keep the person talking. Nod and say things like:

  • Mmm, hmm

  • How did that make you feel?

  • That makes sense

  • I get that

  • Tell me more

· Summarise the content of what the person has said to see if you have understood. Try not to sound like you are parroting back their words.

· See if you can guess at what the person is feeling and then check to see if you are right.

These are basic communication skills that can be taught and learned. A course and lots of practice helps.

So, what is the other 20% that will take 80% more time to learn? It is the inner game of listening, how you maintain the intention to attend to the other and reign in your own ego, reactions and judgments, and quiet your thoughts, even when it is difficult. So what makes that difficult?


The Difficulties of using active listening skills

What makes it difficult to listen? There are three main reasons in everyday life


1. We think faster than we speak

One difficulty is that the speed of which people speak and listen is one-quarter or one-third of the rate of which they are capable of thinking. So, while the person is talking, we can’t stop ourselves from thinking. Our chattering inner self is busy making judgements, taking what the speaker says personally, feeling defensive, and imagining how we would do it differently. Sometimes this takes the form of a counterargument. Or alternatively, we identify with the speaker's story and it triggers a free association of our own memories. Even if you manage not to speak your thoughts, the speaker is likely to be aware of the fleeting evidence of your preoccupation in your subtle facial expressions and body movements.


2. We have vested interests

A second difficulty is that if the listener is in a close relationship with the speaker, it is very hard not to have some vested interest in the content. Therefore, it is hard to stay and appear neutral. If you are considering whether you should stay or leave your partner, your partner will hardly be neutral as you explore this issue. If you are considering moving overseas, your mother can hardly be neutral. Even if she says she wants you to be independent, and she tries as hard as she might to remain neutral, you will read the tiny little facial muscles that show her disappointment. Or she will cry.


3. We feel defensive or protective


The difficulties in remaining neutral are magnified if you are trying to listen to someone who is hurt or angry with you or critical of your behaviour. Even when the issue has nothing to do with you, you may feel distressed by the speaker’s distress and that may overwhelm your ability to listen. Or sensing their distress, you will protect them by not saying everything that is on your mind and in your heart.


4. Speakers often only say part of what they are feeling

Another difficulty is that when people speak, they often only say part of what they are feeling. Sometimes this is because they have never articulated it to themselves and either don’t know they are feeling it or don’t understand their confusion. It is hard for the untrained person to guess accurately what the person is feeling and to ask questions in a gentle way to elicit this expression of the feeling. And if they guess wrong, and the listener is even a bit pushy, the speaker may feel misunderstood and withdraw.


5. We think we know better



Talking to a therapist


Why is talking to a good therapist such a different experience than talking to partners, friends or family? The main reasons are time, neutrality and intuition.


1. A therapist will listen for much longer than the average person

For some people, the experience of talking to a therapist who listens is the very first time in their lives that they have had anyone really listen to them for more than a few minutes. While a 50 or 60 minutes session may not seem like a long time, it is a long time to have a person really listen to you, keep the topic solely on you and your life, explore the nuances of your thinking and feeling and not redirect the conversation back to him or herself.


2. A therapist can be neutral and intuitive

A therapist can suspend judgement and go fearlessly alongside you in exploring what is difficult for you to articulate. Add to that that an experienced therapist has had thousands of hours of listening to people’s stories of their relationships and inner lives. Drawing on well-developed intuition, an experienced therapist forms a tentative hypothesis in helping you explore what you might be feeling. If you are seeking personal therapy for yourself, that is what you should expect of a good therapist.


What are the signs of a not so good therapist? A not so good therapist:

1. doesn’t listen well enough, talks too much about him or herself, and doesn’t ask you good questions.

2. may give you premature suggestions or advice before you feel you have been heard or direct the conversation to topics that personally interests him or her more than it does you. You walk away feeling frustrated and feel like the therapist didn’t really “get you.”

3. shows a personal reaction to what you are saying that makes you wonder what they are thinking or feeling, thus inhibiting you from fully exploring what you need to talk about. This reaction may be verbal or it may be non-verbal, even subtle body language, that suggests that they are affected by what you are saying.


If any of that happens to you, bring it up with your therapist in your very next session or find a different therapist. All therapists should have much more than listening skills. But if a therapist lacks the essential ability to really listen, impressive university degrees or therapist qualifications will not a great therapist make.


Listening like a therapist


We learn many of our patterns of speaking and listening in the families we grow up in and these patterns are shaped by our gender, social class. and culture. It takes conscious knowledge, experience, and intention to override these patterns and do something different.


I was not a natural born therapist. Listening did not come "naturally" to me because of my personality or the family from which I came. As the middle child in a family of five children, I had experienced very little of anyone in my family listening to me in a significant way, and I doubt that any of my siblings would say I was a good listener when I lived with them. My first experience of learning to listen was when I was about 20 years old, and I took a Rogerian counselling course, which was the forerunner of what became known as active listening. Practicing the skills felt very artificial and difficult to do and so profoundly different than how I was "naturally." Why it was so difficult was not just because the skills themselves were new but because I had to change my attitude.


Training the right attitude


The attitude associated with good listening can be trained, in the same way that you train your thinking when practising meditation.


Let my own thoughts pass by

When you sit quietly and meditate, concentrating on each breath that you breathe, you might notice how your brain is chattering on, making judgements, trying to convince you that what you’re doing is a waste of time and that you should get up and do something productive. The goal of meditation is not to make those thoughts stop, but it is to not identify with them and fuel them with energy. Rather, you learn to let your thoughts pass by like clouds floating by in the sky.


Focus on the speaker's words

As I begin a session with a client, and I focus on what he or she is saying, it sometimes takes a while for me to get in sync. My brain will often be doing antics similar to what happens in meditation, distracting me with thoughts about things outside of the room or about my reaction or thoughts about the client. I must continually bring myself back to attending to the client in front of me and allowing my thoughts to pass like clouds. I resist the urge to identify with the thoughts or the urge to say what is unnecessary to say. The experience requires focus, attention, concentration and restraint.


Focus on the speaker's body language and facial expressions

As the session goes on and the client’s story deepens, my attention is naturally riveted, and my thoughts seem to disappear. I listen deeply, not only to the words and making sense of their meaning, but listen by watching what the person is saying through body language, their way of sitting, through their tone of voice. I am attentive to the slight breaking of the voice during the most emotional bits as their eyes tear. I wait for more, asking the right question, encouraging the answer by pulling together everything that has been said. My mind is completely absorbed in the present moment. I am in the zone.


View my ideas as constructions


Monitor the zone

When I fail to fall into the zone, I realize that the conversation is not on target. The client is chatting, not working on something important. Or is avoiding talking about the important part of their story. So, my job is to then ask them the right questions, to help them go to the important, deeper part. Asking the right questions is a whole set of skills. Many therapists learn the basic listening skills and are great at paraphrasing but are untrained in asking questions.



in summary

To be able to listen well, a therapist must believe it important for clients to express and explore their thoughts and feelings. The therapist knows this will take time and that this is a creative process and is no shortcut to be taken by providing the “answer” too soon, even if the therapist, in the end, does know a useful direction. After the session, the clients say that their minds have opened up in some way. New thoughts trickle in and connect up with other thoughts, and they begin to see the world a bit differently.


You are welcome to type a question or comment below




Written by Laurie MacKinnon PhD

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