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The simplest example of interpersonal communication in practice is a conversation between two people. As this activity makes up a significant proportion of the total amount of communication in any community, the degree to which it is successful must have a significant influence on the overall quality of communication in human society.
The deceptively simple concept called Active Listening is one important method of improving interpersonal communication. It was developed as a means of improving helping interviews involving two people, but its principles can also be applied to other types of interaction, or to a greater number of people.
Interestingly, there does not seem to be any universally accepted definition of Active Listening. This may be partly because its main elements were already in widespread use when clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Carl Rogers brought the term to prominence. In addition, various other people have since published rather different descriptions, which they have nevertheless referred to as Active Listening.
In these notes, I will look briefly at the approach suggested by Rogers. He described two essential elements of Active Listening, which he called listener orientation and reflective technique. These two elements can almost always be recognised in later descriptions of Active Listening by other authors, though they often appear in rather modified form.
The underlying purpose of the application of these two essential elements was, and remains, to engage in a therapeutic interview – that is, one which is of benefit to a client. The idea of listening for meaning (specifically, the meaning perceived by the client) is a recurring theme throughout the process.
Rogers described the "listener orientation" as including the whole of the listener's personality, together with the listener's attitude to the other person and to the encounter itself. He felt that, for best results, the listener orientation should be characterised by empathy, respect, acceptance, congruence, concreteness and undivided attention.
I think that list could perhaps be expanded a little, as the qualities needed by the active listener are really the same as the qualities needed by any helping professional in an interpersonal role. As mentioned earlier, I have discussed those qualities elsewhere. I will not repeat that discussion here, but I will look briefly at each of the qualities suggested by Rogers.
Empathy is generally defined in terms of an understanding of, and entering into, another person's feelings, with an underlying inclination to help. In other words, it is not enough just to understand how the other person feels. Empathy also includes a sense of joining them, walking with them in their sorrow, wishing them well and usually also being willing to offer help where possible.
Not everyone possesses very much of this quality, and it cannot be acquired by taking a degree in psychology. Indeed, I do not know of any definable method by which it can be acquired. However, I think any form of therapy which depends for its results on the relationship between therapist and client is likely to be severely impaired by its absence. This simply means that some people are better suited to interpersonal forms of therapy than others – which will probably not surprise many readers.
Respect, which usually means an earned esteem or admiration, or sometimes acceptance, deference or even fear, was given a different meaning by Rogers. He saw it as a positive regard which does not have to be earned, but is given unconditionally to each client, simply because the client is a human being.
This rather esoteric concept of respect involves thinking well of every person, rather than judging each individual according to a preconceived standard of personal worth. As with empathy, the choice to accord a client this "unconditional positive regard" cannot be taught or learned.
Importantly, this concept of respect does not mean agreeing with, or encouraging, a client's ideas or behaviour. Indeed, some of those things may be causing the client's problems, in which case, one of the aims of therapy would be to change them. It is "the person within the problem" who is respected unconditionally – not the problem itself, or its causes.
An absolute prerequisite for this type of respect is the non-judgmental attitude frequently mentioned in this book. A non-judgmental attitude to others is another thing which cannot be taught or learned. However, the routine practice of non-judgmental self-awareness, as discussed in "Wanterfall", will usually give birth to it sooner or later.
Acceptance, in this context, simply means that no value judgements are made. This makes it very close to Rogers' concept of respect, and again requires an entirely non-judgmental approach. Clients are accepted as they are, and what they say is accepted as it is. That does not mean that anything is agreed with. Rather, it is accepted as the current state of play. This acceptance is the starting point for any progress that may be made. In other words, it is where you and the client currently are. Where you are is, after all, the only place you can start from – wherever you want to go.
As discussed under Communication Styles in Practice, congruence when communicating simply means that all the messages received by the client at a given time are compatible with each other. They need not be identical, but if they are contradictory they are sure to wreak havoc in various ways.
For example, a counsellor who smiles reassuringly at a client, lays rough fingernails on her arm, and barks "I will always be here for you" – meanwhile perching on the edge of the seat, turning away and staring at the door – sends quite a number of messages. If they are all received, they will not fit together at all well! Fortunately, most examples of incongruent communication are rather less extreme than that.
Nevertheless, even those less extreme examples can have an adverse effect – and they are never likely to be beneficial. If incongruent messages are received clearly, there are only two possibilities. Either the sender is lying, or the sender does not know his or her own mind. More often, though, some or all of the conflicting meanings are only vaguely understood, which can leave the recipient confused, frightened, irritable, suspicious and/or hostile, without quite knowing why.
Because of the many adverse consequences of incongruent communication, Rogers felt that verbal acknowledgement of any negative feelings such as anger or disgust was necessary, as the negative feelings would inevitably be evident to some extent in the listener's non-verbal output. That being the case, failure to deliver the same message verbally would result in incongruent communication.
My own opinion is that very few people are ready for completely unfiltered verbal honesty, and most prefer at least some adverse non-verbal responses to remain in the non-verbal sphere (where they are less likely to start a war). Of course, the non-judgmental attitude and unconditional acceptance already discussed would usually prevent unconscious transmission of adverse messages in the first place – and that is better still.
In relation to communication, concreteness usually just means not being abstract. However, Rogers also included the idea of specificity, meaning not being content with generalisations. For example, a client might say "parental behaviour has a lot to answer for". This may be a perfectly reasonable generalisation, but it does not contribute much of therapeutic significance for this particular client at this particular time.
A little gentle cross-examination might ultimately lead to the concrete statement "From when I was seven until when I was twelve, my father used to beat me with a tennis racket if I didn't get an A or a B for my homework. Then he had a stroke, and after that he wasn't strong enough to beat me any more". This statement, which is neither abstract nor nonspecific, would have far more potential relevance in a counselling situation than the original generalisation.
Undivided attention may be pretty well self-explanatory, but that certainly does not make it inevitable. In fact, even to make it possible requires a certain amount of organisation and preparation. First of all, a suitable place for the interview needs to be arranged. If, for example, there are unwanted spectators or interruptions, any interview will be a shambles.
However, the most important preparation needed to make undivided attention possible is the preparation of the listener. Communication skills are the most obvious aspect of this, but I think reducing the listener's burden of unresolved emotions is even more important. The details of working with emotional "unfinished business" are outside the scope of these notes, but the concept is well known. My own thoughts on the matter are set out fully in my earlier book, "Wanterfall".
There is less variation in different descriptions of the reflective technique, which is the second aspect of Active Listening, than there is in the case of the listener orientation. The technique takes its name from its first major element, which is the reflection back to the client of what has been received by the listener. However, it also has a second major element, which is the clarification of the meaning of what has been heard.
When the reflective technique is used in its original (therapeutic) context, it is primarily applied to the personal and emotional content of the narrative. However, the same technique can be used to improve the accuracy of retrieval of any sort of information about any subject matter.
In practice, reflection and clarification are considerably interlaced, in that reflection often leads to some degree of clarification, and attempts at clarification often require some degree of reflection. For this reason, there will be some repetition in the discussion of these two elements.
The term "restatement" is often applied to this element of the technique. This term suggests returning verbal messages in the listener's own words, which is one important part of reflection. However, unless applied in a broad sense, restatement would not include the (very significant) non-verbal parts of the narrative, and these must not be neglected.
Non-verbal content is sometimes best reflected non-verbally, sometimes using the same input/output method that it arrived by. Sometimes, though, a different method might be chosen, especially if the narrator has poor facility with the input/output method originally (and perhaps unconsciously) used. Alternatively or additionally, a verbal interpretation of the non-verbal message might usefully be made in some cases.
When employing verbal reflection, shorter interjections have the advantage that they interrupt the flow of the narrative less. Keeping your output brief also forces you to stick to the main points. However, this ideal quite often conflicts with the ideal of concreteness, as discussed under Listener Orientation, because more words may be needed in order to achieve the degree of specificity required for concrete communication.
Four benefits that often occur as a result of reflection are evidence of the listener's attention, encouragement to continue the narrative, restarting of a completely stalled narrative and reassurance about the listener's acceptance of the content. I will look briefly at each of these potential benefits.
Evidence of Attention
It requires very little in the way of verbal or non-verbal output to remind a client of your presence and continuing attention. Rather than reflecting any of the client's specific messages, your "mirror" just has to show that the client is present and heard. On the other hand, equally small outputs can just as easily show that the client is going completely unnoticed!
To demonstrate attention verbally, you might say “Yes”, "OK", “Ah” or “Mm” at appropriate times (though the last two are on the borderline between verbal and non-verbal). The double-barrelled grunts "Mm-mm", "Mm-hmm", "Uh-uh" and "Uh-huh" need some care, though. They are well understood in the United States of America, where the "h" added to the beginning of the second syllable turns "no" into "yes", but they could easily cause confusion in other English speaking countries.
Non-verbal messages of attention can be as simple as a very slight change in posture, or any other slight movement. Brief eye contact or a change in facial expression may also be suitable, as long as it is appropriate to the situation. However, as mentioned under Non-verbal Examples, some gestures, such as nodding or shaking the head, have different meanings in different cultures, so great care is necessary when the reflection must negotiate a cultural border crossing.
Any of the three main input/output systems may be used for non-verbal reflection. However, visual messages will obviously only succeed if they are seen by the client. Importantly, tactile messages need to be used with great care when a client is expressing emotions, as the temporary reassurance often experienced as a side effect of tactile communication can easily bring the externalisation process to an abrupt halt.
Encouragement of the Narrator
Brief messages similar to those that provide evidence of attention can also be used to encourage the speaker to continue the narrative, at any time when it seems to be on the brink of petering out. If non-verbal nudges such as a raised eyebrow, or single words such as "And?" don't work, then repetition of the last handful of words the client said, or a paraphrase of them, is usually effective. An alternative might be a very brief classificatory or interpretive statement.
Restarting a Stalled Narrative
If the narrative has completely ground to a halt, the same measures suggested above for encouragement may be sufficient to restart it. If not, then judicious use of silence, an open question, or perhaps some more extensive paraphrasing of the story so far, could be tried. This has the combined effect of demonstrating your attention to what has been said so far, showing how well or badly you have understood it, showing that you also understand that things have ground to a halt, and finally, showing that you are willing to lend a helping hand.
Reassuring the Client
If you succeed in demonstrating a good understanding of the narrative, that in itself will be reassuring to the client, and will improve rapport. Demonstrating an understanding of the client's feelings is the most important aspect of this, and helps to create a stronger connection with the client. Non-judgmental acceptance of the content of the narrative is also very reassuring to the client, and in my opinion, this is the single most important factor in building a good rapport. Conversely, a judgmental response to the content will usually vaporise any rapport which may previously have developed.
The demonstration of understanding could be made verbally, non-verbally or in both of those ways. Non-verbal reflection of feelings is much more immediate, but is sometimes a bit nonspecific. Some things can be explained better if words are used, but the words need to be chosen with care, and limited in number. A mixture of verbal and non-verbal reflection is usually best, with the proportions depending on the situation.
Clarification of the meaning of a narrative can be achieved by a mixture of reflection and direct questioning. This is useful in a number of ways. The listener may correct errors of comprehension and fill gaps in the narrative, thus gaining a better understanding of the overall situation. The narrator may gain improved insight. I will look briefly at each of these things. As mentioned earlier, reflection and clarification are considerably interlaced, so you may notice some repetition.
Reflection of content inevitably provides an opportunity for the client to point out inaccuracies in the listener's understanding of the narrative. However, this opportunity may not always be exploited by the client. Adding "Is that right?" (or a similar verbal or non-verbal query) to the reflection increases the likelihood of feedback – but still cannot guarantee it.
Close observation of the client's non-verbal responses during such attempts at confirmation is usually helpful. If the client looks dubious, it may be best to ask more specific questions about the meaning of the narrative. In most cases, confirmation or clarification of the meaning is achieved without too much difficulty. Nevertheless, one's understanding of a client's meaning should always be considered as a work in progress.
Confirmation, or the clarification which is sought when contradiction occurs instead of confirmation, can only be applied to content which exists. If, on the other hand, you suspect that information of potential significance is missing, you cannot reflect it in the usual way – because you don't know what it is. Instead, you have to somehow reflect its absence.
Perhaps the easiest way to conceptualise this is to think of the information already received as a virtual structure – with holes in it. Then you can, in effect, reflect the holes – and ask for them to be filled in. This step is usually included as part of the reflective technique – as it was by Rogers – and it can result in very significant clarification of the narrative. Leading questions should be avoided, as it is the narrator's task to fill the gaps.
The end result of clarification, from the listener's perspective, is a fuller and more accurate understanding of the narrative. Ideally, this should include both a broad understanding of the overall context and a detailed understanding of specific issues. In most cases, this degree of understanding would unfold progressively over a number of interviews, and continue to increase with further interviews.
In the case of therapeutic interviews, where the emphasis is on the personal and emotional aspects of the matters under consideration, this broad and detailed understanding provides the listener with a solid base from which to explore further and offer helpful suggestions. Without such an understanding, any attempts at helping the client would be severely handicapped.
The end result of clarification, from the narrator's perspective, can be a fuller and more accurate understanding of the dynamic interactions between personal feelings, choices and actions, on the one hand; and the overall story, on the other hand. In other words, the "simple" process of telling a story, while the listener employs the reflective technique, can result in improved insight on the part of the teller of the story.
In the case of a therapeutic interview, where the emphasis is chiefly on the personal and emotional aspects of the matters under consideration, this improvement in insight might lead directly to significant emotional healing. Alternatively, it might open the way for acceptance of therapeutic interventions which were previously declined. In the latter case, the benefit to the client would be indirect, but it would be no less real.
Various examples of the value of Active Listening have been referred to under the headings above. In general terms, the reflective technique, which is one of its two major elements, provides a showcase for the "listener orientation", which is its other major element.
All of the personal qualities at the disposal of the listener can be brought to bear more effectively by employing the technique of Active Listening. It is a formidable method of simultaneously communicating and helping, and a far more powerful tool than its simple name suggests. When it is used skilfully, Active Listening can:
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(Click the number of a footnote to return to its reference in the text)
 Active Listening was discussed in a number of Rogers' publications. An example is: Rogers, C. and Farson, R.E. 1957. Active Listening. University of Chicago Industrial Relations Center, Chicago.
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