Listening psychotherapy counselling skills

Updated February 21, 2017

When a psychotherapist or counsellor displays effective listening skills, this helps build trust, empathy and respect between the professional and client. A client who feels he is being heard will be more willing to share more information about himself. This ultimately leads to successful therapy sessions where the client is able to learn more about himself and improve his quality of life. There are a number of techniques a therapist can use to build effective listening skills.

Self knowledge

A psychotherapist or counsellor needs to deeply learn about herself in order to be a helpful listener. She needs to realise her own strengths, weaknesses and biases as well as evaluate what her potential reactions would be to hearing about a number of client situations. Through role-playing with other colleagues, a therapist can learn about what her responses look like, namely body language. Through practice sessions, the counsellor should learn to react in an objective fashion to a variety of patient circumstances.

Active listening

At all times, the psychotherapist should actively listen. This does not mean only listening to the client's words but by interactively observing all cues, such as the client's facial expression, body language and tone of voice. This might provide the counsellor with some insight on how the patient is truly feeling.

A therapist should encourage the patient to participate and to lead the discussion. For example, he can ask the patient, "Have you thought about what you would like to talk about today?" Also by asking open-ended questions, rather than yes or no questions, the counsellor is encouraging the client to reveal more about herself. The more a patient feels he is being actively listened to, the more he will participate.

Non verbal encouragers

A psychotherapist should use some non-verbal encouragers to demonstrate she is listening. These might include head nodding, tilting her head to the side, making eye contact and not looking away to check the time.

Verbal encouragers

Verbal encouragers should be employed in concert with nonverbal prompts. This could involve using simple spoken terms like "yes," "uh huh," "right" and "emmmmm." In addition, reflective listening involves the psychotherapist restating what the client has just shared to demonstrate that he has heard and understood what she has just discussed. This helps built trust between counsellor and patient. When enough trust is built, the therapist can add to reflective listening through leading and by adding further points for the client to consider.

Empathetic listening

Perhaps the most important counselling skill is empathetic listening. It involves the therapist remaining focused on the clients at all times and providing a safe and respectful atmosphere. Again, this can be developed through practice sessions with colleagues. The goal of the therapist should be to listen more and talk less, to be nonjudgmental and to be supportive and collaborative rather than aggressively pointing out solutions to the client.


A psychotherapist should never make any assumptions or predict client responses while listening. This could turn into the counsellor imposing false views onto the patient, which could result in therapeutic failure and a vicious self-fulfilling prophecy. If a counsellor is unsure of what the client means, he should ask her some follow-up questions for clarification. This in turn will make the client trust her therapist more.

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About the Author

Michelle Brunet has published articles in newspapers and magazines such as "The Coast," "Our Children," "Arts East," "Halifax Magazine" and "Atlantic Books Today." She earned a Bachelor of Science in environmental studies from Saint Mary's University and a Bachelor of Education from Lakehead University.