Counselling in Oxfordshire

Bill Imlah :: Counselling in Oxfordshire

Blog » Active listening - a way to improve your relationships

8 Feb 2017

Active listening means using a set of skills that encourage the person you are listening to to talk, to help them feel heard and understood.

I call them "skills" because anyone (excepting certain mental health disorders) can, with application, learn to use these. And I call them “active” because using them means intentionally doing things to help people feel able to talk, and because in doing so I engage with all my attention on what the speaker is saying, how they are acting, and how they are feeling.

Some relevant skills are:

  • Using minimal encouragers – small signals or words that let the speaker know you are listening and understanding – words like “uh-huh”, “yes”, “no”, “mmm”, and little actions like nodding that show you are engaged in listening. 
  • Using open body language – helping make the speaker feel comfortable and safe with you. 
  • Repeating back some of the speaker’s words, or a phrase, to help prompt them to say more. 
  • Paraphrasing – putting what the speaker says into your own words. 
  • Summarising – putting in a nutshell, in a sentence or two, what the speaker has been talking about over an extended period. 
  • Matching the speaker – adopting aspects of their body language, voice tone and language to develop rapport and help them feel more at ease. 
  • Reflecting feelings – picking up on the speaker’s feeling or mood and feeding your perceptions back to them. 
  • Using silence – so that the speaker has a respectful space to stay with their feelings and to work up to what they want to say. 
  • Questioning skills – when and how to use questions to help the speaker to open up and tell you more.

In the context of counselling, active listening involves a focus on feelings by the counsellor – helping the other person get in touch with their own emotions, and also the counsellor's awareness of their own feelings and reactions to what's being said. This can help the focus move from the surface issue, to underlying issues.

As a counsellor listening actively, I'm not looking solve the speaker’s problems, nor to have “words of wisdom” to give them. Rather I'm helping them get in touch with, and work through, the feelings that are at the root of what is going on for them, and in doing so enabling them to work out for themselves what they may want to do about it.

Images used in this blog.