Active Listening Skills

DEFINITION : “Listening is the attending, receiving, interpreting, and responding to messages presented aurally” (Prout & Watkins, 2014, p. 132).

In the counseling field, listening requires much more than simple comprehension of the verbal messages receive from our clients.  As therapists, we must capture the meaning of the messages communicated the client, utilize this to develop an understanding of our clients and form a plan for therapy.  In other words, our ability to listen requires the skills of effective communication, empathetic understanding & attending skills (Drab, n.d.)   One interesting comment from my textbook, includes the need to act as an “authentic chameleon” (Prout & Watkins, 2014, p. 133), by adjusting our interactive style to the needs of the client.  Also of interest is a review of three key types of listening in everyday life discussed in research:

  1. MARGINAL LISTENING:  “individuals are hearing but not paying attention to the other person.  The listener may be distracted or involved in formulating the next response, and this inattention is likely to lead to a less than ideal interaction.”  (Prout & Watkins, 2014, p. 133)
  2. EVALUATIVE LISTENING: “involves concentrating intently on what is being said, but this type of listener focuses only on the literal meaning of the words and does not acknowledge subtle verbal cues or nonverbal communication.”  (Prout & Watkins, 2014, p. 133)
  3. ACTIVE LISTENING: “entails receiving verbal and nonverbal messages from others, processing them and responding in a way that encourages further discussion.”  (Prout & Watkins, 2014, p. 133)

Therapeutic Listening: Skills Required…

The above-listed types of listening (marginal / evaluative / active) come from research on forms of listening in everyday relationships.  What are some unique considerations for listening as a counselor? Prout & Watkins (2014), note that “people who are new to counseling are frequently preoccupied with learning what to do to help clients, instead of focusing on how to be – the facilitative condition for being able to enact those specific counseling strategies.” (p. 138). What follows are random insights from my textbooks that provide “food for thought” as I consider “how am I being” while I see my clients???

Empathy, Genuineness & Unconditional Positive Regard…

“Genuineness, unconditional positive regard and empathy are the key components of Rogers’s…facilitative conditions of therapy…[they] create an environment that allows clients to grow and change” (Prout & Watkins, 2014, p. 134).  These qualities are essential to truly understand the meaning in what the client express and appreciate their lived experiences more fully (Prout & Watkins, 2014).  This is easier said than done when in the midst of a counseling session.  Thus far, I’ve noticed that counseling practice, requires us to think on our feet as we follow our gut, education, and lived experience while “making things up as we go along”.  People are complicated and there are no exact recipes for success.

For example, there are times, when I’ve entered a counseling relationship and find struggling with a nagging uncertainty as I realize that there I don’t have many common experiences to draw upon.  In this case, personal education and supervisory consultation are critical.   There are other situations in which I find myself relating to the client’s situation very well.  At such times, I become concerned that my understanding of their situation reflects more my own past experience, than their current reality.  In this case, I’m aware of the potential risk of transference issues. So what is the solution here?  Empathy, is a two-fold process that involves accuracy of perception and effectiveness of communication.  Therefore, “active empathetic listening” (Prout & Watkins, 2014, p. 134) involves a conscious effortful attending by the counselor that communicated effectively to the client.  

My course textbook breaks down the process of active empathetic listening into three stages:

  1. FIRSTLY, we must be able to pick up on all the verbal and nonverbal communication.
  2. SECONDLY, we must be able to understand the meaning & content of what is expressed.
  3. FINALLY, We must process this information, my textbook describes two types of processing that occur while we listen “top-down” & “bottom-up”  Since, I didn’t like the definitions provided in my textbook, I found this video to help clarify things:

Affect Tolerance & Mindfulness….

Listening within counseling is unique since the therapeutic relationship is inherently imbalanced.  What makes the relationship between therapist and client so unique is its one-sided nature.  In fact, the ACA (2014) code of ethics prohibits dual relationships where a counselor provides services to a friends, family members or significant others.  What follows is a description of the counseling relationship from the ACA Code of Ethics Manual

“Counselors facilitate client growth and development in ways that foster the interest and welfare of clients and promote formation of healthy relationships. Trust is the cornerstone of the counseling relationship, and counselors have the responsibility to respect and safeguard the client’s right to privacy and con dentiality. Counselors actively attempt to understand the diverse cultural backgrounds of the clients they serve. Counselors also explore their own cultural identities and how these affect their values and beliefs about the counseling process” (American Counseling Association, 2014, p. 4).

In other words, while healthy relationships are two-sided in nature, the therapeutic relationship is one sided: focused specifically on “client growth and development” (American Counseling Association, 2014, p. 4).  In order to facilitate the development of a relationship like this good attentive listening skills are required.  “Counselors must be able to hear, and perhaps tolerate vicariously experiencing distressing emotions that may occur during counseling” (Prout & Watkins, 2014, p. 138). My course textbook provides two suggestions:

  1. AFFECT TOLERANCE:  Counselors must “Develop affect tolerance to respond empathetically to client’s experiences of distress without overly identifying with it or avoiding it.  Affect tolerance has been described as being willing and open to experiencing feelings” (Prout & Watkins, 2014, p. 136).
  2. MINDFULNESS:  “suggested as a practice that can help counselors train their minds to attend fully to their clients…defined as…paying attention in particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmental” (Prout & Watkins, 2014, p. 136).

Observational Skills…

“In working with [clients[, if you miss those nuances…if you don’t notice when their emotions, gestures, or tone of voice doesn’t fit what they are saying, if you don’t catch the fleeting sadness or anger that lingers on their face for only a few milliseconds as they mention someone or something…you will lose your [clients]” (Ivey, et al, 2010, p. 123).

Observational skills are a critical tool in determining how the client interprets the world.”  (Ivey, et al, 2010, p. 141).  In discussing observational skills, there are two points I’d like to touch on:

#1: What are we supposed to observe?

    1. CONFLICT:  Much of the time spent in therapy centers around working through the conflict, stressful situations, ambivalence, and incongruence (Ivey, et al, 2010).  Are there discrepancies between a client’s actions and words?  Does the client hesitate or resist talking about certain subjects?  Are there discrepancies between the client’s inner world and external situation:?  What conflicts exist in the client’s relationships?
    2. NONVERBAL BEHAVIOR:  What sort of nonverbal communication does the client display?  What do you notice about their facial expressions and eye contact?  How about the client’s body language and mannerisms?
    3. VERBAL BEHAVIOR:  “Noting patterns of verbal tracking for both you and the client is particularly important.  At what point does the topic change and who initiates the change?  Where is the client on the abstraction ladder?…Is the client making I or other statements?” (Ivey, et al, 2010, p. 141).

#2:  How can we improve our observational skills?

  1. TIP ONE – AWARENESS:  “Looking at your way of being an be equally important as, or more important than observing your client.  Start by taking brief inventory of your own nonverbal style” (Ivey, et al, 2010, 134).
  2. TIP TWO – MULTICULTURAL SENSITIVITY: “Note individual and cultural differences in verbal and nonverbal behavior…Use caution in your interpretation of nonverbal behavior (Ivey, et al, 2010, p. 141).

Reflective Listening

Once the skills of paying attention, empathy, and observation are in place, it is possible to begin developing advanced listening skills defined in my course textbook as reflective interviewing (Prout & Watkins, 2014)

types of reflective statements:

  1. SIMPLE REFLECTIONS: “made by repeating or rephrasing the client’s statements” (Prout & Wadkins, 2014, p. 139).
  2. COMPLEX REFLECTIONS: “When making a complex reflection, a mental health professional is making an interpretation of ta client’s statement by substituting a word or making a guess at unspoken meaning.” (Prout & Wadkins, 2014, p. 139).

Tips for reflective listening…

Mirroring the client’s affect is a useful way of showing empath.   Using the client’s vocabulary is Often more useful than the uh-huh’s and academic language I use frequently.   At times, directing the subject matter to ensure the client stays on topic can allow for a more in-depth discussion of matters.  Finally, listening requires us to uncover the underlying themes and/or bigger picture as we utilize these insights to determine our best course of action..

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American Counseling Association (2014). ACA Code of Ethics. Alexandria, VA: Author.
Drab, K. (n.d.) The top ten counseling skills. Retrieved from:
Ivey, A.E; Bradford Ivey, M; & Zalaquett, C.P. (2010). Intentional Interviewing and Counseling.  Belmont, CA:  Brooks/Cole.
Prout, T.A. & Wadkins, M.J. (2014).  Essential interviewing and counseling skills.  New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.

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