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The Importance of Active Listening

The Importance of Active Listening - A Personal Experience

by Carlos García-Bañón

As Recovery Coaches we have plenty of responsibilities towards our clients: we must motivate, mentor through our training, example and experience, be an ally and advocate for them, be a problem solver and a resource broker, plus be a lifestyle consultant and a companion. Our time is often limited -we are not sponsors, therapists or clergies- and in the end our final goal is to help the client lead an independent, empowered, happy, serene and functional life in a moderate span of time (even though we may do check-ups later on in the process).

All clients are different. They are all unique individuals with special needs, goals, attitude towards health, behaviours, expectations for recovery, etc. And so we may need different strategies and methodologies to work in a peer-to-peer basis with them. During our IRSI Certified International Recovery Coach training courses we learn quite a few techniques that helps us boost our clients’ recovery potential and help change their behaviours and attitudes: Stages of Change, Motivational Interviewing, Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (ABC), Goal Setting and Recovery Planning, Genogram, Family Work, etc. All of these combined tools are extremely useful in our day to day practice: if implemented correctly, they are the golden rules of our profession as Recovery Coaches.

But in order to maximise the effectiveness of these techniques, I would like to stress the importance of a skill that can be acquired and developed with practice and patience: Active Listening. That is fully concentrating on what is being said rather than just passively “hearing” the message of the speaker.

Active -or Attentive- Listening involves listening with all senses. As well as giving full attention to the speaker, it is important that the “active listener” is also “seen” to be listening. Otherwise the speaker may conclude that what they are talking about is uninteresting to the listener. Therefore, Active Listening not only means focusing fully on the speaker but also actively showing verbal and non-verbal signs of listening. By providing this “feedback” the person speaking will usually feel more at ease and therefore communicate more easily, openly and honestly (which will help us to truly understand our client). Let’s now go through some signs and tips that will help us improve our Active Listening:

Non-Verbal Signs

Smile - Small smiles can be used to show that the listener is paying attention. Combined with nods of the head, smiles can be powerful in affirming that messages are being listened to and understood.

Eye Contact - It is normal and usually encouraging for the listener to look at the speaker. Eye contact can however be intimidating, especially for shy speakers: calibrate how much eye contact is appropriate for any given situation.  

Posture - Posture can tell a lot about the sender and receiver in interpersonal interactions.  The attentive listener may tend to lean slightly forward or sideways whilst sitting, make a slight slant of the head, or rest the head on one hand.

Mirroring - Automatic reflection/mirroring of any facial expressions or body postures used by the speaker can be a sign of attentive listening.  These reflections can help show sympathy and empathy in more emotional situations. Avoid mirroring aggressive expressions or postures: use good judgement and common sense!

Distraction - Refrain from fidgeting, looking at a clock or watch, doodling, playing with your hair or with a pen, etc.

Verbal Signs 

Positive Verbal Reinforcement  -  Phrases such as “very good”, “yes” or “indeed” may be beneficial to the speaker but the listener should use them sparingly so as not to distract from what is being said, place unnecessary emphasis on parts of the message or irritate (if too used frequently).

Remembering - Remembering details, names, ideas and concepts from previous conversations proves that attention was kept and is likely to encourage the speaker to continue.  During longer exchanges it may be appropriate to make brief notes.

Questioning - The listener can demonstrate that they have been paying attention by asking relevant questions and/or making statements that build or help to clarify what the speaker has said.  By asking relevant questions the listener also helps to reinforce that they have an interest in what the speaker is saying.

Reflection - Reflecting is closely repeating or paraphrasing what the speaker has said in order to show comprehension.  Reflection is a powerful tool that can reinforce the message of the speaker and demonstrate understanding.

Clarification - Clarifying involves asking questions of the speaker to ensure that the correct message has been received.  Clarification usually involves the use of open questions which enables the speaker to expand on certain points.

Summarisation - Repeating a summary of what has been said back to the speaker is a technique used by the listener to repeat what has been said in their own words. Summarising involves taking the main points of the received message and reiterating them in a logical and clear way, giving the speaker chance to correct if necessary.

Personal Tips 

Look out for “golden nuggets”- These are little bits and pieces of information -a word, a gesture, a tone- of great value for comprehending your client’s story and their essence. This will help you assist them better. If you are not attentive, you will not find them!

Pace yourself - Important conversations may go wrong if participants talk themselves to exhaustion. Plan to chat for a certain number of minutes, or agree to press pause at a particular point, ready to return to the conversation later. Remember people have limited energy (especially when speaking about delicate issues).

Defer Judgement - Interrupting is a waste of time. It frustrates the speaker and limits full understanding of the message. So allow the speaker to finish each point before asking any questions and don't interrupt with counter arguments.

Body Language - When you are able to correctly interpret other people’s body language, you can get the complete message of what they are trying to say, you have a better idea of what the person is really thinking and you have a more accurate awareness of their reaction to what you are saying. 

Respond Appropriately - Active Listening is designed to encourage respect and understanding. You are gaining information and perspective. You add nothing by attacking the speaker or otherwise putting the person down. Be candid, open and honest in your response. Assert your opinions respectfully. 

Sit with distress without trying to “make it better” - It’s not a bad thing if strong emotions are expressed during a conversation. If the clients cry, rage or fall silent, stay present and validate what they feel. Useful phrases include “it’s OK to feel like this”, “I’m sorry this is so upsetting” or “I’m glad you can talk about this with me”. 

And do remember all of these verbal and non-verbal signs and tips may not be appropriate in all situations and across all cultures. Do your homework before visiting a client (especially in international assignments)!

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