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Introduction to the Skill
As stated by Karp (2015), empathetic care is associated with greater health benefits for patients and increased client satisfaction. Empathy is thus may be regarded as an essential skill needed to grow as a professional in counseling. Empathy is a critical attribute of active listening which is defined by many scholars and practitioners as one of the basic counseling and communication skills. According to Family Health International (FHI, 2011), “listening involves more than just one sense” (p. 47). Eye contact, nods, lack of distraction, body postures, etc. are meant to demonstrate attending (Drab, n.d.). Moreover, despite the prevailing opinion, active listening does not mean simply sitting silently and waiting for a speaker to finish talking, it involves an element of communication as well. To be an active listener, a counselor should not just hear what a person says but should observe his/her behavior and, at the same time, say encouraging things relevant to the situation.
Overall, active listening implies listening with an appropriate internal and external activity. It helps to establish a trustful contact with a client and conciliate him/her. As mentioned by the International Organization for Migration (IOM, 2009), it is very difficult to help clients in finding their solutions without trust. But it always takes time and significant efforts to bring professional relationships to the right point where patients would feel welcomed and free to discuss their issues. To facilitate the establishment of a trustful relationship with a client, a counselor should implement active listening techniques and develop the right attitude to the work process and people with whom he or she interacts. It may allow counselors to understand clients’ opinions and be able to help them in a more efficient way. Thus, along with being active, listening should be emphatic.
According to FHI (2011), empathy is the translator of counselors’ understanding of individuals’ experiences, emotions, and behaviors into a response through which they (counselors) share their own perceptions with the clients. Empathic listening allows us to live through the same feelings as a speaker experienced, reflect these emotions, comprehend the psychological state of the interlocutor, and share it. Empathic listening does not include the element of advising. Counselors should not attempt to evaluate the speaker; moralize, criticize, or edify him/her. It is possible to say that an empathic attitude allows developing a calm environment during sessions. And as it is mentioned by the IOM (2009), a peaceful and poised atmosphere transmits calmness to clients and helps them to gain more confidence in their own abilities.
Importance of Active Listening in Counseling
Since the work of a counselor is based on communication with patients and clients, the listening skill in this profession is of great importance. The overall outcome of counseling sessions largely depends on the level of trust between a counselor and a client, as well as on the extent to which the specialist understands his/her client. According to Kawamichi et al. (2015), active listening substantially facilitates positive and open interpersonal relationships. Cihangir-Çankaya (2012) states while active listening includes an empathetic attitude, it allows professionals to be better able to comprehend what happens to their patients/clients and help them. Moreover, the researcher notes that respect and attention to personality are inherent in the process of active listening (Cihangir-Çankaya, 2012). Considering this, active listening and positive interactions can be very rewarding for individuals.
Kawamichi et al. (2015) suggest that the “mirroring” of others’ behaviors involved in active listening may lead to the activation of positive feelings in those who perceive it (p. 17). The researchers also observe that recipients of an attitude of active listening may significantly improve the evaluation of issues discussed in the ongoing process of interaction – they feel reappraised and generate greater social rewards (Kawamichi et al., 2015). In this way, the practice of active listening during a counseling session may help to generate emotionally relevant experiences and add values that may significantly improve the psychological state of clients and favorably affect the overall course of counseling by making a positive impression.
Skill Implementation in Counseling: How and When
As it was mentioned above, the purpose of active listening behaviors is the maintenance or creation of a trustful climate during the conversation, and active listening is thus always useful in counseling due to the very nature of the profession. Overall, it is possible to distinguish several types of conditions in which this communication technique is of particular importance. For example, it is very helpful when a counselor deals with strong emotions and needs to verify if he/she comprehends the emotional state of a client in the right way.
Frequently, especially when a client is anxious, it may be hard to understand the sense of what he/she says. To identify the actual meaning of clients’ statements and messages, counselors may use different reflective methods such as paraphrasing and affective reflection. Drab (n.d.) defines paraphrasing as a “selective focusing on the cognitive part of the message – with the client’s keywords and ideas being communicated back to the patient in a rephrased, and shortened form” (p. 1). He distinguishes four major steps a counselor should undertake to make paraphrasing more effective: 1. listen and recall, 2. identify the content of the message, 3. rephrase, and 4. check perception (Drab, n.d.). By following these steps, a specialist will ensure that he/she did not omit any essential parts in a client’s message and identified the key idea in it. Moreover, effective paraphrasing allows a counselor to show patients that he/she has understood their concerns and verify if he/she perceived them correctly to avoid misunderstanding at the further stages of communication development. It is important to show a patient that you want to understand him or her without criticizing his/her words. To do so, counselors should pay attention to a manner they articulate a rephrased message. For example, it is possible to commence sentences with such phrases as “In other words, you think…,” “If I have understood you correctly…,” “It sounds like…,” and alike. This type of questioning in paraphrasing leads to greater accuracy and efficiency of communication.
Additionally, Drab (n.d.) emphasizes that an active and emphatic listening implies amplifying and clarifying feelings of a client. Therefore, a counselor should clearly recognize that there is no need to try to identify with or share similar experiences with them by just saying “I know how you feel,” etc., but should attempt to understand their personal concerns and emotions as deeply as possible. Such listening techniques as affective reflection may also help in this.
Affective reflection is defined as an “open-ended, respectful manner of what the client is communicating verbally and nonverbally, both directly through words and nonverbal behaviors as well as reasonable inferences about what the client might be experiencing emotionally” (Drab, n.d., p. 2). In other words, an effective reflection implies mirroring and verbalizing the captured meaning of a client’s message to clarify it and motivate him/her to continue speaking. However, one needs to ensure that the conversation is led to be a client. Counselors should not interfere with patients’ ideas but should ask questions in the context of their thoughts.
Contrary to paraphrasing that primarily focuses on the content and cognitive elements of statements rather than the emotional connotations, when using the given technique, a counselor pays attention mainly to a client’s feelings. For example, one may use such phrases to check the understanding of patients’ emotions as “You seem to be anxious because…” or “So you were irritated by…,” etc. It is also important to choose words carefully and avoid highly expressive words because inappropriate use of words demonstrates inattentiveness and may lead to counterproductive outcomes. For example, it is inappropriate to use such words descriptions as “very angry” or “depressed” in a paraphrase when a client had only said that he was sad (Drab, n.d.).
Well-developed listening skills may be regarded as indicators of a counselor’s professional competence. The literature review made it clear that active listening is very beneficial for patients and clients as the perception of appraisal and respectful attitude associated with it lead to the activation of positive emotions and the generation of meaningful social experiences. Perceived active listening may help to boost clients’ confidence and, in this way, resulting in better treatment/counseling outcomes.
Two major components of active listening are identified in the literature: empathy and reflection. Both of these attributes help to establish positive and trustful relationships with clients. The empathetic attitude expressed through attending, paraphrasing, or affective reflection gives a speaker a sense of appreciation that he/she has been heard. Active listening may be considered a vital element of person-oriented counseling because it focuses on relationships and personality. And it is possible to say that by practicing active listening, psychologists may multiply the healing effect of their counseling sessions.
Cihangir-Çankaya, Z. (2012). Reconsideration of the listening skill scale: Comparison of the listening skills of the students of psychological counseling and guidance in accordance with various variables. Educational Sciences: Theory & Practice, 12(4), 2370-2376.
Drab, K. (n.d.). The top ten basic counseling skills. Web.
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Family Health International. (2011). Community counsellor training toolkit, module 2: Basic counselling skills – Facilitator Manual. Web.
International Organization for Migration. (2009). Introduction to basic counselling and communication skills: IOM training manual for migrant community leaders and community workers. Web.
Karp, L. (2015). Can empathy be taught? Reflections from a medical student active-listening workshop. Rhode Island Medical Journal, 98(6), 14-15.
Kawamichi, H., Yoshihara, K., Sasaki, A. T., Sugawara, S. K., Tanabe, H. C., Shinohara, R., … Sadato, N. (2015). Perceiving active listening activates the reward system and improves the impression of relevant experiences. Social Neuroscience, 10(1), 16–26. Web.