For something that is done every day, I was taken aback by how bad I can be at it. It has made me think that for every person encouraged to speak there needs to be a competent listener.

My understanding of the barriers we can all have to listening properly started to develop after starting training to become a counsellor. I’m already seeing a difference in what I do as a teacher, for Opening Up and in the relationships in my life. By no means am I a case study in perfection- far from it- but the blocks to listening that have been uncovered in class and practice are worth sharing.

Some of these examples can be hard to admit to and I can only speak for myself in saying which I am prone to be guilty of. Maybe some will ring true for you as well? Here’s a brief selection.

Assuming our own knowledge means we have little or nothing to gain from who is speaking

How often do we consider ourselves an expert in something to such an extent that we don’t really hear what someone else is saying on the topic? Or we have no desire to hear a view counter to our own as the decision has already been made that we are right?

I’m afraid I’ve been guilty of this plenty of times. Whether it be on a work topic or an area I take a particular interest in. The skill I am now practicing is based on assuming the person speaking will tell me something I don’t already know, rather than the old trap of thinking I know all I need to.

Environmental factors

It sounds almost too obvious to consider but where we speak with someone makes a big difference to the quality of interaction. With visual or auditory distractions it can be hard to truly listen to what is being said. I have been trying to pay more attention to where I am when I need to take in what someone else is saying. At the moment a lot of this is online so I’ll put my phone out of reach, close the other tabs on the laptop and push aside anything on the desk that may cause my eye to rove.

Bringing in your own interpretation

This depends very much on what kind of conversation is being had. In many cases we are asked for our view and the back and forth of the dialogue requires an exchange of ideas. Instead I’m referring to a situation of listening to someone who is encountering a personal or emotional problem. In the rush to help, well meaning though it is, our responses can be from our own frame of reference and slip towards calculating what advice to give rather than listening to what is being said.

It is natural to want to help and solve the problem but I reflect on conversations I have had and consider that my role would have been better played by just giving the other person the room to speak. Any suggestions I had were mine and may not be appropriate for them.

Lack of empathy

How we interpret the world is bound up in our perceptions, formed from life experience. As a result, how different events and situations are seen varies from person to person. Empathy requires us to try and see it from the perspective of another. Carl Rogers’ definition below expands on this.

The non judgmental aspect of empathy is hard to get used to. In one sense our brain is trying to process evaluations of what is going on all the time and this seeps into how we receive the words of others. It is difficult to suspend the response of “I’d do this” and replace with “they feel this” but when it happens it is rewarding.

I know of countless times where I have struggled to be empathic. This ranges from unconsciously tuning out when I have no interest in a topic on television to not accepting someone else’s point of view or perception. I also know of many times where I have felt no sense of empathy from others through not being able to explain my thoughts or feelings before I have been met with how I should be or equivalent.

Empathy and listening are skills. Ones that require more deliberate practice to refine. With that in mind, here are some of the things I have been prompted to do via the learning that I have been doing.

Truly listen

Whether it’s eavesdropping on the train or taking in a podcast, dedicating time to nothing other than listening can be quite surreal. No analysis, no judgement, just taking in what is being said. It may sound like an odd use of time but five or ten minutes practice has been useful for me.

Paraphrase, clarify, question, reflect

Away from the practice above, our responses to someone can show our attention is solely on what they are sharing. We can do this by paraphrasing what they have said (see the Carl Rogers video below for a master at work) and clarifying to ensure we have understood properly. The act of clarifying can involve stopping someone to make sure. This may seem obstructive but shows a willingness to actually hear them. Open questions being used gives you the chance to find out more or the speaker an opportunity to share more. Ultimately we want to be able to reflect their feelings, which can be only be done through careful consideration of what they have said.

The simplest and most effective tip shared with me is to wait before replying. It gives a chance to process and then provide appropriate, empathic responses.

Of course, not every conversation is someone opening up about their feelings but the principles of good listening help us in any context. What is the chat for if not to understand more of what the other person is saying?

The art of listening is one which I am glad to have been turned towards and am enjoying working on improving each time I try. I will leave you with an example from Carl Rogers again, this time a recording of his style of counselling in action (from 9:27 although the pre amble is interesting too)