It seems obvious that counselors would be good listeners; however, the importance of developing our listening skills is often overlooked because we think that it is easy to be a good listener. Being an active listener is a skill that requires effort and practice. You can’t apply all of your other counseling skills until you become a good listener. Below are some tips to improve your listening skills.
- Be in the moment. This is good advice for all of life, but when you are with a client you owe it to them to be 100% focused on them. That means that you have to take all of your personal issues and put them away. During that session, nothing matters outside of that session.
- Listen not only to what is said, but how it is said. One of the problems with email and text messaging is that you don’t get the tone in which it is said and it can be misinterpreted. If you are completely focused on them during the session, then you shouldn’t have any difficulty picking up the tone in which something is said.
- Pay attention to body language. Learn to read body cues. Learn to recognize when they are becoming more anxious or if they may not feel comfortable about sharing something personal.
- Paraphrase It is important to repeat back what you heard, because what they say and what you hear isn’t always the same. Paraphrasing what they say back to them not only serves to clarify what they are saying but it also demonstrates that you are listening and trying to understand.
- Shut-up Because our brain works much faster than people talk we tend to want to jump in every time we have a related idea. It is important not to interrupt their thought process because if you get them off topic you are likely to miss important information that they were leading up to. Don’t be afraid of silence.
- Make notes If you have a great memory, then maybe this isn’t necessary but I need to make a few simple notes to jog my memory. Often as clients are talking about one particular issue, they may leave hints about some other issues that are going on. For example, say your client is talking about how she is having a difficult time with her children and that the stress is wearing on her. She may also mention that her husband works long hours and isn’t home very much to help. I may not ask her at that point but make a quick note to later ask about her relationship with her husband.
- Ask good questions Learning to ask the right questions is one of the most important skills that you can develop as a counselor, but the only way you can ask good questions is to first be a good listener. Asking pertinent questions will show them that you understand or at least are trying to understand what they are talking about. If you ask the right questions, you may also be able to guide them into making better decisions. For example, let’s say that you client says that he got offered a job with a former employer but admits that some of his old “using” buddies are still working there. Instead of telling him that is a bad idea, that he needs to change his people, places and things, maybe you can ask him some questions that will help him really think about the situation. Ask questions like:
How are things going to be different this time?
Does your employer understand and support your recovery?
What is your plan when you are offered drugs?
Are there any other options for employment?
I feel that it is much more effective if you can have them come to their own conclusions so that they understand why they are making these decisions as opposed to just telling them how they should handle the situation. You can find books, classes and plenty of other information on motivational interviewing.
Listening, not imitation, may be the sincerest form of flattery.
In my early days of counseling I would stress over not being able to come up with great solutions to everyone’s problems. Over time I learned that no one has all of the answers, and it isn’t a good idea to pretend like you do. Your clients expect you to be knowledgeable and maybe even wise, but being a know-it-all is neither realistic nor effective. Counselors are allowed to be human and being human with your clients helps to build better relationships.
If you go talk to your friend about your bad day, you may want some input or advice but mostly you just want someone to listen and care. I understand that your relationship with a client is different, but they still need to feel like they are understood and that you care.
To help someone, you need to understand what they are going through and to understand them, you must truly listen.