Counsellors strive to provide their clients with a warm, positive, safe environment. One way they can do this is through active listening. When a client knows that his counsellor truly cares about what he has to say, he is more likely to open up about his problems. Counsellors can use several techniques to improve their active listening skills.
Establishing good eye contact is one of the most important ways in which a counsellor can indicate that she is interested in what her client has to say. Staring the client down can be counterproductive, but making quick, direct eye contact every three or four seconds is an important part of active listening.
Adopting a relaxed, open posture sends the message that the counsellor is ready to listen to the client. Keeping the arms and legs uncrossed, directly facing the person and leaning slightly forward are effective ways to validate the client.
People sometimes struggle to make sense of their thoughts and feelings. One way that counsellors can assist their clients with this is by paraphrasing. This active listening skill involves restating something that a client has said. For example, a client might say, "I dunno, I just really didn't like it when she made fun of my work. It made me feel humiliated." A counsellor could paraphrase this as, "So when she criticised your job, it made you feel embarrassed."
Many people enter counselling because they feel overwhelmed by the obstacles in their life. Sometimes clients can be long-winded in relaying these problems to a counsellor. Counsellors can reassure the client and listening actively by summarising what has been said. For example, a client might say, "Last year I broke up with Todd, and I felt awful. I never thought I would get a divorce. I can hardly stand myself. I've had a few dates since then, but I haven't been able to enjoy any of them." A counsellor could summarise this by saying, "Leaving Todd made you feel guilty because you didn't believe in divorce. This has made it difficult for you to move forward with your romantic life."
One of the best ways in which a counsellor can demonstrate active listening is by asking questions meant to clarify something his client has said. For example, a client might say, "I'm so upset. I just feel like crying all the time." A counsellor could ask a clarifying question such as "How many times in a day would you say you come close to tears?"
Empathetic reflection involves listening for the client's feelings and responding to them. It can be validating for a client to hear someone else reflect on how she's feeling. A client might say, "I don't even want to get out of bed most mornings. I can't imagine another day without my wife." A counsellor might use empathetic reflection by saying, "You feel lonely and sad because of your wife's passing."
Sometimes active listening can be as simple as prompting the client to continue, using simple interjections such as "uh-huh" or "tell me more" or "really?"
Active listening is about staying focused on the client. It's important not to give advice or talk about personal experiences unless the client asks. Otherwise, counsellors should assume that the client needs to talk things out. Interrupting this would distract him and make the counsellor a poor listener.