What makes a good listener: A brief essay about listening as a way of helping
In social conversations (at parties, at work, in group meetings; with friends, family and relatives…) we talk and listen, discuss and tell our opinion. Then we share points of views and concerns that are relevant for the participants. In a helping conversation the act of communication must change and ‘active listening’ is what matters. Then the other is the one to listen to with in-depth and full understanding. This active listening should involve not only understanding of the verbal speaker’s message (its content) but also the vocal cues and body language (its context), so we experience him/her as if the experiences were our own.
In any relationship, we have to bear in mind the situation and interests that both parties have in the act of communication: the speaker and the listener/s. A talk between a teacher and his/her students is not the same as the conversation between father and son or mother and daughter, the chat between two close friends is not the same as the one between people who have just met at a party; it’s not the same conversation between a girl and a boy who have just met than that between boyfriend and girlfriend or even wife and husband, and so on… What makes the difference? In my modest opinion it is basically the interest that moves these two parties to the act of communication. If the interest of one of the parties is to help the other, individual or group, then we are talking about a helping relationship. ‘To put it in another way, a helping relationship might be defined as one in which one of the participants intends that there should come about, in one or both parties, more appreciation of, more expression of, more functional use of the latent inner resources of the individual.’ Carl R. Rogers (1961) ‘On becoming a person’ –pg 40- Constable & Robinson Ltd. London
Therefore, if we want to have a relationship of ANY kind in which we intend to help, the listening part of it must have these characteristics:
– Congruence. ‘By this I mean that whatever feeling or attitude I am experiencing would be matched by my awareness of that attitude.’ (C. Rogers 1961: 51) Which we can rephrase as being oneself, being aware of oneself and allowing oneself to show through to the other participants.
– Unconditional positive regard. Which basically means to maintain a positive attitude towards the other person: an attitude of warmth, caring, interest and respect.
We should keep a warm and safe relationship in which we respect the feelings and emotions of the person we want to help, but at the same time being always ourselves, knowing and understanding that we are a separate and different person, with our own experiences and attitudes toward life, personal feelings and emotions, and yet keeping this warmth and caring spirit, with no fears of being taken over by his/her own feelings and emotions. And then, we also must permit him/her to be himself/herself in a non-judgmental, free and safe relationship.
– Genuineness. With the so called unconditional acceptance, or what C. Rogers called ‘unconditional positive regard’ I just mentioned before, this is the second of the three core conditions that must be present in ANY helping relationship.
Genuineness is precisely about listening to oneself as a listener/counselor, about being authentic, ‘being myself’. To help others one needs to be aware of all that is going on inside oneself while listening. It means being open to one’s own experience, not shutting off any of it, and letting this out in such a way that the person seeking help can gain the benefit of it. ‘One way of putting this which may seem strange to you is that if I can form a helping relationship to myself –if I can be sensitively aware of and acceptant toward my own feelings- then the likelihood is great that I can form a helping relationship toward another. Now, acceptantly to be what I am, in this sense, and to permit this to show through to the other person, is the most difficult task I know and one I never fully achieve.’ (Carl R. Rogers 1961: 51)
Empathy. Many therapists think this is the first and most important quality in a helping relationship. It means getting inside the world of the person to help so he/she feels accepted and understood.
Two things are definitively relevant to this: that the empathy is accurate, and that that is made known to the client. This accuracy means precisely the listener’s ability to listen, identify with and receive the other person in an unconditional, non-judgmental and acceptant way.
John McLeod: ‘Counselling Skill’. Open University Press 2007
Carl R. Rogers: ‘On becoming a person’. First published by Constable & Robinson Ltd – GB, London – 1967