Listening Skills in Counseling

Listening Skills in Counseling

For effective counseling, a counselor should posses a repertoire of skills. Though skills are not tied to particular phases, some skills may be more important in some of the phases than others. In the engagement phase, some of the skills that the counselors should apply, are listening, attending, encouraging and reflection of feelings or meanings. The adeptness to listen is an essential quality in both caring and non-caring professions, however, it is perhaps the most essential quality needed for practice in counseling.Listening skills are perhaps some of the most important skills in establishing an inclusive relationship with another person, and one which consists of both verbal and non-verbal aspects. In counseling, listening is understood as an active process and is not a matter of being a passive recipient or recorder of information. In listening, a counselor is expressing curiosity and interest. It is a form of listening that comes from a position of wanting to know more.

However, many people involved in the field of counselling lack adequate listening skills, or completely lack them. This is for the reason that they may not be aware of the importance of listening skills in the counselling profession, or may generally not have a passion for counselling as a career option. Personally, I think I have good, but not excellent listening skills. I have realized this after conducting a personal assessment and evaluation of my listening skills, based on knowledge gained having gone through literature that has made me aware of the qualities of a good listener and other qualities that go hand in hand with being a good listener.

Importance of Listening in Counseling

As a counselor, I consider listening skills as some of the most fundamental skills in the field of counselling. I cogitate listening as a fundamental skill in nurturing and maintaining counseling relationships. This is for the reason that it is only through listening that a counsellor will be able to  discern what a client is going through and therefore, be in a position to help the client with her or his problem, it also psychologically helps a client to know that he or she is being listened to. According to Ko(2014) for clients who come to counseling, not being listened to resulted to various levels of psychological pain.

According to Nelson-Jones(2013, pp. 79-83) listening by counselors has a number of important positive consequences. These the author outlined as: First, it helps in establishing a rapport between the counselor and the client. A client is more likely to develop a rapport if they feel that they are being understood. Listening to a client gives him or her perception that his or her concerns are understood. Secondly, it helps in bridging differences. Listening skills in counseling can greatly assist a counselor in understanding a person with a different set of life’s circumstances. Thirdly, good listening helps clients to experience feelings. Many clients may have been inadequately listened to in the past. Consequently, they may have relinquished, temporarily some of their capacity for emotional responsiveness. Good listening can help clients tune into and acknowledge the inner-flow of their emotions. Fourthly, listening skills help in creating an influence base.  Active listening is one way a counselor can build his or her influence base in order for clients to be more likely to listen to the counselor. Additionally, showing understanding to clients from different cultural groups contributes to perceptions of counselors as having status and credibility. Lastly, good listening helps clients to assume responsibility. Clients who are listened to considerately and reassuringly are more likely to shoulder responsibility for working on addressing their problems and problematic skills than those who are not (Nelson-Jones, 2008, p. 53). This is for the reason that listening reduces defensiveness and provides a foundation for offering well-timed challenges that embolden clients to assume, rather than to avoid responsibility.

Personally, I think listening in counselling serves three very important functions. These are; I think good listening skills establish and promote trust between the counsellor and the client. This is for the reason that listening carefully to clients and showing them that they are understood on their own terms expedites the process of establishing trust and dissolving mistrust. Listening in counselling creates a perception of honesty, integrity and reliability in the client-counselor relationship all of which are necessary for a good working relationship. Secondly, I think listening in counseling helps clients to open up and disclose. Good listening skills results to the clients feeling safe, accepted, and understood and make them to no longer perceive disclosure as a risk. This has the effect of making them opt to open up and share their inner worlds. Lastly, I think good listening skills go towards helping the counselor in collecting information about the client. The information can be directly gathered through direct inquest or through between the lines statements that a client may make without his knowledge. This helps the counselor in understanding the client and places him in a better position to address the concerns of the client.

What Listening Involves

According to Singh(2007, p. 102)listening is the process of tuning in carefully to the client’s messages and responding accurately to the meaning behind the message. It forms the core of effective counseling. At its simplest level, it calls on the counselor to feedback the content and feelings that the client has communicated. It is a decoding process that helps decode messages which are communicated by a client through the tendency of human beings to encode a message rather than communicate clearly and directly what a person is thinking and feeling.Listening therefore is a synthesis of the skills of interpretation of substance and reflection of feeling. It promotes within the client the feeling of being understood. In my own assessment, and based on this elucidation of ideal listening by the author, I can regard myself as a good listener, in many ways I fit his definition of good listening. This is for the reason that I always endeavor to provide feedback on what a client is communicating and in most cases I find myself reading between the lines of what the client is saying and trying to read the sublime messages he or she is communicating unconsciously. This helps me in understanding and putting everything in context.

In addition, I always seek to perceive the client position by reading his or her  body language, listening to the tonal variation of her voice, looking at her choice of words, and try to sieve the important parts from the jumble. This is conversant with what Singh(2007, p. 103)advised on his book “Counselling Skills For Manager”. Singh(2007, p. 103)stated that Listening skills can be broken down into a variety of component skills. These he highlighted as:listening to the way things are said in terms of the sound of the voice and the words chosen; being able to look through the conversational style and vocabulary in order to follow the thoughts that lie behind the words; and listening to the parts and the whole at the same time and learning to highlight the important things in one’s own mind as the client speaks; and most importantly reading body language. It also involves noticing what is not being said; becoming familiar with the clients normal speech pattern so that anomalies can be discerned to indicate areas of importance; and demonstrating verbally and non-verbally that the counselor is listening.The ability to listen effectively enhances the communication process; unfortunately, most people are not good listeners.

Barriers to Active Listening

There are many obstacles that as a counsellor I face in the course of communication with a client. According to Prendiville (2004, p. 50), there are a number of barriers to active listening. The author identifies these factors to include: a poor environment such as lack of privacy, distractions, noise, unpleasant surroundings; judgmental attitude by the counselor; solution seeking; and the counselor’s needs that block active listening. Burnard(2005, pp. 141-142), on the other hand identified other factors such as: The counselor’s preoccupation with other matters, a lack of interest by the counselor, the counselors own problems, counselors stress and anxiety. The author also identified an awkward and uncomfortable seating, the counselor’s value judgments and interpretations on the part of the counselor, and the counselor’s attention being focused ‘in’ rather than ‘out’. Other possibilities that can make listening a problem include: Attraction to the client which results to the counselor paying more attention to how he or she is feeling about the client than to what the client is saying; physical condition such as sickness or tiresomeness; over-eagerness to respond that results to the counselor listening to only a part of what the client is saying; and finally, a similarity of problems with the client which results to mental wandering to how the two problems relate(Burnard, 2005, p. 142).

Personally, having had previous knowledge on probable challenges to listening, I have overcome many of these barriers to effective listening. However, there are some barriers which tend to overwhelm me and I find myself lost in my own world during a counselling session. For example, external distractions and a judgmental attitude especially if I have experienced what the client has gone through, and the tendency to solution seek. I also tend to wander or get sentimentally attached or personal with a client, with whom i share some problems, and sometimes I become overeager to respond to the client that I fail to listen to what he or she says before I get to respond. Finally, once or twice I have met a client who I found attractive, and that was a really difficult session, my mind eyes were listening but my mind was in different world. However, I am working on addressing these challenges and I am positive by the end of this class I will be a better listener.

Good Practices in Listening

Prever(2006, p. 112) identified three core conditions as the basis for good listening. These conditions, the author highlighted as:congruence, unconditional positive regard, and empathy. Congruence refers to the honest relationship between people’s inner feelings and their outer display, that is, being real, genuine and transparent and not playing a role;  Unconditional Positive Regard involves a counselor offering a client full and caring attention without judgment or evaluation; and finally, Empathy, which refers to viewing the world through the perspective of the client and accepting that  clients perceptions and feelings  as if they are the counselors’ without loosing boundaries and separate sense of self.With regards to these core conditions as put forward by Prever (2006, p. 112), I can consider myself a good listener, I always establish a honest relationship with my clients, I don’t lie to them or role play to make them feel good about a certain shortcoming, rather I advise them on how to better themselves. I also empathize with them, trying to understand their problem from their own standpoint; this always helps me in putting a certain clients’ problem in perspective.

During communication with client I often try to encourage free talking by the client, a process I personally refer to as “exhaling”. This simply involves encouraging the client to speak everything and nothing that is inside his or her chest. I achieve this through the use of probing questions such as: go on…,I am listening…, what do you mean by…?, what I hear you say is…., how do you feel about…. This is in line with what Hunter, Rappaport, Roy, and Straker(1993, p. 22) identified as good listening practice in counselling. These authors identified several good practices in listening. They suggested that during counseling sessions, in order to facilitate listening, a counselor needs to paraphrase openings so that they begin with statements such as, are you saying that…… do I understand you to mean….; what I have heard so far is…; and, what I hear you say is….They also suggested that to better facilitate listening, counselors should always endeavor to request for clarification. This would entail posing questions such as, what do you mean by….?; what do you mean?; I don’t understand what you mean; I hear what you are saying, but you seem to feel another way…Finally the authors recommend that counselors employ the use of support statements and active feedback which involve including statements such as,I understand what you are saying; I see; No, I don’t feel that way, but let me hear you do… which would encourage the client to talk and clarify issues.


In conclusion, I am of the opinion that good listening skills are central to the counseling process. This is for the reason that it helps in so many ways in facilitating the practice of counseling. This is mainly accomplished through establishing a good working relationship between the counselor and the client. Good listening skills in counselling establishes trust, helps the client to open up and disclose, and encourages a client to share his thoughts and feeling, thereby, facilitating the gathering of valuable information about the client that could aid the counseling process.

A personal analysis and evaluation of my listening skills based on the knowledge acquired through reading various literatures on listening skills in counselling and attending this class on applied counseling shows that I am generally a good listener, but with a lot to learn and a long way to go. The positive thing is that I have a passion for counseling; this coupled with my desire to learn as well as desire to help others will enable me be the best listener I can be.



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