“No one ever talks about their feelings anyway
Without dressing them in dreams and laughter
I guess its just too painful otherwise” – (1974, Jackson Browne)
The purpose of effective counselling is to go beyond the song – to help people talk about their feelings “without dressing them in dreams and laughter”, to help them cope with any pain that may accompany them. Crucial in allowing this to occur is the skill of effective listening.
The contention of this essay is that real, complete, effective listening, whether engaged in, in a therapeutic relationship, or through close friendship, produces a response from the listener, and further from the speaker. It is a circular process – the client speaks, the counsellor listens and replies, the client responds and the circle starts again. It is the quality of the listening and responding by the counsellor that facilitates the client in sharing their story – their thoughts, emotions and feelings. This essay discusses effective listening – the how, plus briefly the reasons.
Effective listening has many elements to it, but perhaps its significant purpose is letting clients know how much you care. The way we respond to a client lets them know how much we care, forming a central part of the counsellor – client relationship. Effective listening is an active process. It takes effort, involving the whole person – our thoughts, feelings, emotions, words, even our physical body – the way we communication our whole selves towards the other person. It can therefore be exhausting. The environment also has an influence on the listening (e.g. a busy pub is not conducive to effective listening). Not only do we need to be aware of the client’s words, but also their thoughts, feelings, emotions and body language, as well as our own. This is a two-way process, towards developing empathy with the client. We listen to the whole person.
Quoting Michael Jacobs: “Listening takes place at different levels: first, listening to the actual words, the factual information … such as choice of expression, and even the misuse of words … Second, the counsellor also needs to listen to the mood, the feelings and the underlying messages that are conveyed through the actual words that the client chooses … There is a third aspect to listening … the counsellor listens to herself or himself, to what he or she is feeling about the client, and about aspects of the client’s story. Listening to oneself is also the first stage of empathising or identifying with the client….Empathy or identification means the ability to put oneself into someone else’s shoes, to get into their skin, to experience what they might be experiencing.” (Michael Jacobs, 2004).
Thoughts, Feelings and Emotions:
Our thoughts and feelings include not pre-judging the situation – not jumping to conclusions – not thinking that because you may have experienced the same or similar situation as the client, they must be thinking or feeling as you did. We also put aside personal agendas, not pre-judging the person – e.g. not thinking because they are from a particular ethnic or social background they will act in a certain way – not thinking they brought the “problem” on themselves. The individual client must be looked at as an individual.
This involves listening with our eyes – the clients posture – their face, eyes, hands clenched or not, arms folded or open, sitting back or forward on edge of chair, leaning forward or backward, legs crossed or not. Body language partially communicates their current state – relaxed or tense, clam or anxious. At times their spoken language and their body language will be at odds with each other. They may say they are happy about something, but yet they are shaking, depicting the opposite.
We must watch our own body language too. It may tell us that we more anxious than we might think about a particular client. Are we sitting with open arms, legs uncrossed, in a relaxed manner?
Here we must pay close attention to what is being said – not just the actual words, but the voice inflection in which they are said. The same sentence can mean the opposite depending on the manner in which it is spoken.
We must also particularly pay close attention to how we reply. It is said that as we have two ears and one mouth, we should speak accordingly, listening more than we speak.
As we listen with our ears we can respond to what we have heard. There are various ways to respond –
* repeating the last few words the client spoke, or even just the last word
* a brief nod of the head
* a short – “yes”, “um”, “carry on”
* be sure the voice inflection is one of curiosity and not of anger or disappointment
* a look can be enough to say you’ve heard the client and be the encouragement needed for them to carry on
* questions asked to clarify or explore further should be open ended
We speak to show empathy, to check that we have understood and to encourage further client exploration. Some examples of empathic responses include:
* “What I’m picking up is…”
* “What I’m hearing is…”
* “I have a sense of…”
* “That sounds very…”
* “The feeling I’m getting is…”
* “I wonder how you felt about…”
* “It seems difficult/painful/hard for you to…”
* “Perhaps you feel that way because…”
The use of the personal pronoun is to avoid sounding judgemental, to avoid leading the client or placing your own thoughts upon the client.
We must be careful to recognise the difference between sympathy and empathy. A client does not come for sympathy. An example of the difference follows:
Client: “I can’t tell you how depressed I’ve been since my Dad dies”
Counsellor’s sympathetic response: “I am sorry for you. I know how I felt when my Dad died. It’s a very sad time.”
Counsellor’s empathic response: “I have sense you are feeling very empty and lonely inside. That life seems very bleak.”
In normal conversation we expect a fairly quick reply to a question and likewise reply similarly ourselves. If we do not get a quick rely we often discharge a further question or even answer our own question. However, in a counselling situation once a question has been asked time should be given for the client to reply. Most clients come because they are stressed in some way. Stress is known to slow down cognitive processing. Apart from this reason, in our day to day experiencing we are not given to searching too far down into our feelings. This all takes time, particularly for a client new to counselling. Silence is important, in giving the client time to examine their thoughts and feelings and respond.
Reflecting in the right way lets clients know that you do care and are prepared to work with them, that you are not bored, disinterested, or distracted.
As we listen effectively and the client experiences that complete effective listening so the client – counsellor relationship deepens, reaching “relational depth”, whereby the client is assisted toward greater growth and change.
Effective listening should ideally a quiet room, with minimal decoration or artefacts – no distractions for the client or counsellor, in a place where disturbance by noise or other things can be avoided.
The following experience is given to shown the above principles in action:
Recently, in my role as a pastoral counsellor, a parishioner came to see me concerning some family problem. We no sooner sat down than tears flooded. To show I was there with him, I gently took his hand, saying nothing. He struggled to control himse
lf. After some time of sobbing he tried to talk. I placed my other hand over his and quietly said: “There’s no hurry, take all the time you need”. This was to give him further space. He continued sobbing for a few minutes more. As he regained composure he began speaking. “It’s about my daughter”. I continued remaining silent, looking towards him, being careful not to stare or look too directly at him. He explained that following an argument his 17 year old daughter had just left home with no explanation. He had no idea of where she had gone. He felt completely lost.
“It’s like you feel grieved – like you are grieving?” I softly replied, again sitting silently, giving further time to reflect, and extending a beginning of empathy.
“Grieving? Yes, no one has actually physically died but it’s almost as if they had. I suppose it is a type of grieving”, came the response after a further few minutes of silence, seeming to confirming my understanding of his feelings.
“It’s my entire fault”, he continued.
“Your fault?”, was my reply, repeating his last words, using reflection, with an inquisitive inflection, again leaving time for his response.
“– if only I’d kept my mouth shut” he continued, as he then further explained the circumstances.
To show was openness, my body language was open, sitting with legs uncrossed, arms open too – though that was somewhat enforced through the holding of his hand with both of mine. Coupled with the space my silences gave, it allowed the opportunity to open up further.
Effective listening is imperative in a client – counsellor relationship. Without it there will be no depth in the relationship, no growth, or real change will occur. It is a skill that can be learnt. However, whilst that is so, for real, lasting change to occur, the counsellor must be able to give of themselves, of their person.
Browne, J. (1974) The Late Show on Late For The Sky, Asylum Records.
Jacobs, M. (2004) Psychodynamic Counselling in Action, Third Edition, London, Sage. pp. 37-8