What is active listening?
Since the 1960s there has been a lot of focus on the therapist’s conversational skills. The ability to demonstrate active listening skills is now considered to be important. The communication technique of active listening includes both non-verbal skills such as body language (e.g. eye contact, movements, distance, etc.) and verbal skills. The ability to demonstrate empathy is central. For example, Bjørndal (2011) refers to Clark (2007) who claims that a substantial body of empirical evidence from professional counselling research proves the importance of empathy to the field. Carson and Birkeland (2009: 126) believe that active listening should be part of any approach to mentoring.
Conversational techniques related to active listening
A mentor who wants to be an active listener must focus on understanding what the mentee is saying. The mentor must strive to be present with the mentee. We can select from the literature on active listening a few techniques that may be useful for the mentor. Some examples are:
Paraphrasing requires that you as a mentor try, in your own words, to repeat to the mentee what you have heard. This will often stimulate the mentee to open more up. The goal is to motivate the mentee to clarify arguments and hopefully obtain an increased insight into personal challenges. This technique may also prove to the mentee that the mentor is in fact listening carefully to what is being said.
In active listening there are several types of paraphrasing. A basic strategy is to repeat key words from the topic the mentee is talking about. It could for example be the last word uttered, or another particularly interesting word. This can be done in a questioning way. For instance, if the mentee is saying: “It depends upon the point of view”, the mentor could repeat “points of view” in an inquiring tone of voice. In this way the mentor is showing that she is listening carefully to the mentee. In addition, the mentee is encouraged to continue the reflection process.
Summarizing is similar to paraphrasing in that both methods involve an attempt to repeat aspects of what the mentee has said. Summarizing, however, encompasses a lengthier time period. In a summary, the mentor will with own words give a short version of the conversational content. Here are some examples of typical formulations:
– “do I understand you right when you say…”
Lauvås and Handal (2000) claim that paraphrasing is the most important conversational skill in the mentoring conversation. However, few mentors are skilled at doing this. Geldard (1989) in Lauvås and Handal (2000) defines paraphrasing as the attempt to extract the most important details from what the client is saying, and trying to express them in a clearer way. The mentor will try to select the essential elements of what the client is expressing. These highlights may help the client in the further reflection process (Geldard 1989:25).
By using this definition as a starting point, Lauvås and Handal (2000) maintain that paraphrasing is not really about repetition, but rather about understanding and interpreting the meaning behind what has been said. At times, for instance when the mentee is losing the thread, it may be appropriate to give a very precise repetition. Repetition, however, can irritate and fail to advance the conversation. Conversely, if the interpretation is not close enough to what tha mentee has said, this may lead to confusion. The objective of paraphrasing is to encourage the mentee to continue the reflection process. Success occurs when the mentee acknowledges the paraphrase as continuing the essence of what has been said. Wheeler and Birtle (1993:33-34) maintain that paraphrasing can serve three main purposes:
– Allowing the mentee to correct the mentor’s understanding of what has been said in the conversation.
– Opening up for more reflection around the same topic.
A typical challenge is to get the mentee to talk. It is important to listen carefully when the mentee is struggling to formulate his or her thoughts. In paraphrasing, one could try to help the mentee to clarify an idea. This may for instance be appropriate when the mentee is saying “I am not capable of explaining this further” or “Now I feel that I might be on to something”. The mentee could be insecure or too embarrassed to express unclear thoughts. The mentor may easily be tempted to start giving advice. Many mentees, however, are more in need of help to organize their own thoughts (Lauvås and Handal 2000).
The question as a verbal act, can be a powerful tool. Most people will find it very difficult not to answea a person trying to ask you a question. To ask a question can therefore also be seen upon as a powerful way to control a conversation. In active listening, the open question rather than the closed question is recommended. An example of an open question is “How did you get here?”, while a similar closed question would be “Did you get here by bus?”
When immersing oneself in a new subject matter, it is easy to make assumptions about what the subject matter entails. One starts asking questions to confirm or refute these assumptions. Closed questions are not recommended for several reasons. The answers to closed questions are usually short. To get the desired information, one will have to keep asking questions, and the process will take more time. In addition, the mentor will define the subject of conversation and the direction of the conversation. The mentor therefore decides what is central and relevant based on her own perspective (Lauvås and Handal 2000).
By asking open questions, on the other hand, the mentee is encouraged to reflect. Here are some examples:
– “You said… could you please tell me more about that?”,
– “You mentioned the word…, what do you mean by that?”, “I did not understand what you meant when you described…”,
– “Could you repeat that?”,
– “Which pros and cons…?” (See more about this in the article “To ask questions”)
Open questions will encourage the mentee to provide more information. Such open questions can, for instance, be used after an explanatory introduction: “I wonder if you could say a little more about what you wrote in the memo”. Still, it would not be correct to say that all open questions are good while all closed questions are bad. The questions must be adapted to the situation. In some situations closed questions work better than open questions.
Lauvås and Handal (2000) cite three different types of open questions that are of importance in the mentoring context:
– Topic changing questions – These questions can be used when it is necessary to elaborate on a new topic of discussion
– Acknowledging questions. After providing advice or suggestions, the mentor should give the initiative back to the mentee. One way of doing this is by using this question: “What do you think of this?” Such questions should be open and neutral (non-leading) questions.
Questions may also be dysfunctional in different ways. Here are some examples:
– We ask convoluted questions.
– We comment rather than ask.
– We display bias.
– We ask too complicated questions(Lauvås and Handal 2000).
Lauvås and Handal (2000) stress the importance of not asking too many questions. This may create a conversation that resembles an interrogation. The mentee might then find it more difficult to open up and would as a consequence talk less. The mentee will expect new questions instead of taking the initiative in the conversation. This communication structure may inhibit the mentee’s ability to talk about issues of own interest. Instead the mentee should be encouraged to lead the conversation.
In the literature on mentoring, Why-questions are usually discouraged. Such questions can quickly be interpreted as an accusation, i.e. that the person is doing something wrong. The mentee might then become defensive. Most students have also experienced teachers asking why-questions because the answer is incorrect and they want the student to try again (Lauvås and Handal 2000).Instead, one should begin questions with when, where, what, who and which.
Support through non-verbal communication
Geldard (1989) emphasizes the importance of “being attentive” as a basic conversational skill. The mentee should experience that the mentor is interested in the conversation. This is not a technical skill, but rather a question about having the right attitude. Below we present some characteristics related to being attentive towards the mentee. These characteristics are sometimes called minimum responses and are usually related to a person’s body language.
One example is to use words like “yes” “okay” “hmm”, or nodding one’s head. By using such minimum responses one shows interest in what the mentee is saying. However, if these responses are used too much the mentee might doubt that the mentor is really trying to be attentive, but just pretending. An overemphasis could make the conversation seem rehearsed. It could easily move the focus over to more technical sides of the conversation. Eye contact is another minimum response. Without it, the communication between two people might suffer. At the same time, staring at people during a conversation can have negative effects. One can be perceived as being intrusive and invasive, and showing the other too much attention (Lauvås and Handal, 2000).
Mirroring happens when the mentor interprets the mentee’s feelings by attempting to describe them:
– “Listening to what you are saying, I hear that you are proud of succeeding!”
Mirroring is an important conversational technique in therapy. The well-known psychologist Carl Rogers believed that the therapist as a role model should mirror good behaviour. In a video presentation he describes his relationship with his client in the following way: “If she is understood by me, she will be better to understand herself”, “If she feels that I am authentic, she will feel authenticity in herself” .
Historical background of active listening
Historically, active listening has been associated with Carl Rogers. Rogers established the client-centred therapy (also known as person-centred therapy). This form of therapy has been very influential for psychology as a field on our understanding of good mentoring. The client-centred therapy came into existence as a reaction towards the deterministic view of human beings in both behaviourism and psychoanalysis. With his humanistic approach, Rogers viewed the human being as an object with a free will. In sharp contrast, the “behaviourist school of thought” maintained that the therapist should direct human behaviour by using various rewarding techniques. This approach is perhaps best illustrated by the well-known quote by the founder of behaviourism, John B. Watson [wikipedia link]: “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”
Within psychoanalysis, the reflections of the patient are emphasized, but it is assumed that human beings are driven by instincts. The therapist or the psychoanalyst is the only person who knows the interpretative framework, and who can determine the real reasons behind the patient’s problems. The problems usually have their origin in childhood experiences.
Client-centred therapy, on the other hand, is based on the idea that the human being has a natural disposition toward developing in a positive direction. Therapy should therefore create the necessary conditions that will liberate the client’s innate abilities. The role of the therapist is more like that of a gardener, who creates good conditions for growth, without giving specific recommendations.
We find the best conditions for personal growth when the client is being regarded as an expert on his own life. The client should play the main role in his own treatment by getting help to help himself. For Rogers, this means that the therapist can not be too much in control over the session. In the same manner that the gardener grows plants by creating a good growth environment, the therapist can make his or her clients stronger by creating a good conversational environment. In this context, Rogers maintains that a therapist should possess three qualities:
Firstly, the therapist should be genuine or congruent. It is important not to hide behind a professional facade, but be yourself when talking to the client. What the therapist is saying to the client should be in accordance with what she is thinking. In a video interview Rogers asks if it is at all possible to be genuine in this kind of setting. But what is important is that what you are experiencing is coming out in the moment of communication. Rogers emphasizes that one should be transparent when dealing with the client. If negative feelings appear towards the client, it is better to explain these than make an attempt to hide them.
Unconditional positive regard
Secondly, it is necessary that the therapist shows the client unconditional positive regard. The therapist must be sensitive to a client’s feelings and experiences in an accepting, empathic and honest manner. The therapist should not judge whether the client deserves this esteem or not. In a video recording, Rogers even suggests that it is important to show the client non judgemental love (Shostrom, 1965). It is, however, challenging to show emphaty if one does not like the client. Regard appears to be a concept that is closely associated with the concept of approval. One could also assert that this thinking exists within the theory of dialogue with its focus on equality in relations (see for instance article on Martin Buber).
The therapist must, in an empathetic manner, be able to recognize the client’s feelings and points of view, and subsequently communicate this understanding back to the client. In a video recording Rogers maintains that one of the goals of a session is for the therapist to try and see the world through the eyes of the client (Shostrom, 1965). The objective is to bring the client’s feelings to the surface. This may help the client get a better understanding of her own thoughts (Bjørndal 2008: 166-171). If it is a good relationship between the therapist and the client, it is more likely that a client will explore her feelings and discover unknown qualities about herself. Feelings understood by the therapist, will help the client better understand herself. In addition, if the therapist listens carefully to the client, the client will also improve her ability to listen to herself. From being out of touch with what is happening on the inside, the client will increasingly feel her own presence. The goal is for the client to go from feelings of low self-esteem to a better acceptance of herself (Shostrom, 1965).
Is active listening about technique or attitude?
According to Bjørndal (2011), in the early stages of Rogers´ career, he had a skills approach to empathy, but eventually he distanced himself from this approach with too much focus on the skills. The risk was that one would have a superficial approach to the client. Instead, he claimed that empathy was primarily a question about basic human behaviour. Without the right attitude, paraphrasing and other conversation techniques would simply seem like parroting, and a mechanical way of repeating what the client is saying. Instead the therapist needs to see the world from the client’s perspective. This requires consciousness about one’s own attitudes and the consequences this might have for the meeting with the mentee (Bjørndal 2011). The importance of Rogers´ main concepts (empathy, unconditional positive regard and genuineness) is today thoroughly documented (Clark 2007).
– Aktiv lytting. Notat utviklet ved Nordlandssykehuset
– Bjørndal, Cato (2008). Bak veiledningens dør. Symmetri og asymmetri i veiledningssamtaler. Doktoravhandling. Tromsø: Universitetet i Tromsø.
– Baltzersen, Rolf K (2011). Lysbildepresentasjon om aktiv lytting.
– Bjørndal (2011). Hva slags kompetanse trenger veilederen? Karlsen, Thorbjørn (red.) Veiledning under nye vilkår. Oslo: Gyldendal akademisk.
– Carson, Nina og Åsta Birkeland (2009). Veiledning for førskolelærere. Kristiansand: Høgskoleforlaget
– Clark, A.J. (2007) Empathy in counseling and psychotherapy: perspectives and practices. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
– Geldard, David (1989). Basic personal counselling: a training manual for counselors. New York: Prentice Hall.
– Lauvås, Per og Gunnar Handal (2000). Veiledning og praktisk yrkesteori. Oslo: Cappelen akademisk.
– Shostrom, E. L. (1965). Three Approaches to Psychotherapy. Carl Rogers explains client-centered counselling (Fra 3:05-9:07). Video – Carl Rogers & Gloria Counselling – Part 1. (Opplæringsfilm)
– Shostrom, E. L. (1965). Three Approaches to Psychotherapy. Første del av den klientsentrerte samtalen med Glora (Fra 0:00-9:57). Video – Carl Rogers and Gloria Counselling Part 2. (Opplæringsfilm)
– Wheeler, Sue og Jan Birtle (1993). A handbook for personal tutors. Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education.