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Transform Your Therapy Sessions by Mastering These 6 Listening Skills

Two children laughing and listening to each-other

How Most People Define Good Listening

Most people think good listening boils down to doing three things:

  1. Refraining from speaking when the client is talking
  2. Assuring him that you are listening through sounds and facial expressions
  3. Repeating what the client said, as close to word-for-word as possible

While this may be sufficient for you as the listener, it fails to account for the fundamental distinction between technically hearing what was said on the one hand and listening on the other. Hearing indicates nothing more than the auditory reception of another’s words, but it has nothing to do with engaging emotionally in the client said, let alone with the client himself.

Listening is far more involved as it requires the therapist to be emotionally attuned to the client as well as being aware of his inner own wisdom and how that wisdom can be helpful to the client.

To become a good listener means to hone skills through conscientious practice. And these skills are not confined to any specific therapeutic environment. They are as necessary for delivering therapy via teletherapy as they are in a face-to-face session.

You may ask, “Why is improving your listening so important?” The answer is quite simple. Put yourself in your client’s shoes and think for just a moment about how powerful it is to be heard.

The 6 Secrets to Better Listening

1. Non-Verbal Cues

Not everything relevant is communicated verbally. The seasoned therapist knows that what the client omits from revealing may be just as, if not more, important than what was explicitly expressed.

But it doesn’t end there. Therapists need to understand the necessity to pay attention to the client’s body language in addition to the spoken or unspoken word. It is a nuanced skill that needs consistent practice to perfect. Extracting valuable information in a session is often slow and tedious, so it behooves the therapist to understand the client’s communications in any form they may be present.

Nonverbal cues, such as respiration rates, perspiration, facial expressions, physical gestures, posture, or any other of many subtle body language signals can provide critical insights to the attuned therapist. Some research has suggested that over 75% of our communication is from these signals! While it may sound odd, the therapist is not only listening with his ears, but with his eyes as well.

2. Mirroring

A very effective active listening technique is mirroring the client’s words. With care not mimic him, reflect the words with the his same speech pattern and tone of voice. Reflecting his words demonstrates that you, the therapist, completely understand what he said as well as that you genuinely care about it.

Aside from his words, you can also mirror his body language and physical gestures. There is research showing that when the listener uses the same gestures as the speaker, the speaker is put at ease, feeling more safe and relaxed.

3. Silence

Although you may be tempted otherwise, try not to interrupt your client. There are times when listening requires a space of silence- nothing said! Don’t feel the pressure to offer a verbal response. Although awkward, the space of silence can serve as a nonverbal invitation to share more thoughts and feelings.

The truth is is that it is a precious gift to allow someone space to pour out thoughts and feelings uninhibited of the fear of being interrupted or hijacked. After the lull and the unburdening, there will be ample time to respond. The “organic pause” — that natural breath between spoken thoughts can be priceless.

It’s uncomfortable to sit in silence for more than a few seconds, but push past the discomfort and sit with it. Sometimes the most powerful connections are made in that silent space.

4. Asking Probing Questions

First, a disclaimer about asking questions. Ensure that your questioning doesn’t isn’t perceived as an interrogation. Listening is more important than questioning. And when that question is asked it shouldn’t be threatening nor ill-timed. Timing can be everything.

On the other hand, don’t be afraid of asking questions. They can be vital. Aside from showing your client that you are paying attention and are interested, insightful questions can be the catalyst to help your client uncover answers and solutions himself. Open-ended questions with more than a “yes” or “no” response invite more in-depth searching and enhance your discourse.

5. Responding Carefully

When it comes your time to speak, take care that your words reflect your careful listening. Instead of blurting out what’s on the tip of your tongue, reflect upon your response and how it might improve things.

Good listeners often make suggestions such as presenting alternative paths to consider. While some think that making suggestions might be perceived by the client as trivializing the problem, research has shown that It’s not that making suggestions is a problem but rather the sensitivity and skill with which those suggestions are made.

You will see that sometimes a specific suggestion isn’t needed. Instead, why not make an offering? That offering could be as simple as asking, “Would you like some feedback from me?” or “How can I help?”. Remember, your objective is to be helpful, and it is entirely possible that your listening has calmed your client and help create some internal space from where solutions are beginning to form.

6. Empathy

Since clients are coming to you with complications and difficulties in their lives, they will need to feel as though they have the time and the space to unload in an emotionally safe environment without fearing shame or judgment.

It is crucial to cultivate a non-reactive posture and learn the critical distinction between observation and evaluation. Listening means giving your thoughtful attention that is open-minded, respectful, non-judgmental and curious.

It is important to express empathy through your body language, words, and expressions. Every so often a gentle nod in agreement will show your client that you are listening and engaged.

Smiling or showing concern in an appropriate way can convey that message as well, as can offering words of kindness and affirmation. These subtle communications can go a long way in assuring your client that you are there and that he is safe.

What Every Exceptional Listener Intuitively Understands

Exceptional listeners intuitively understand that they are like trampolines. They are someone the client can bounce ideas off of — and instead of just absorbing their energy, thoughts, and feelings, they dispel inner confusion, clarify thinking, and energize their clients to move forward. This is an uplifting experience, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.

Always remember that being granted permission to listen means that you are receiving the trust and vulnerability of another person, and in so doing you are being honored. You have been given the gift of providing solace and consolation,  and the potential to assist another in finding answers to their struggles and inner peace.

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