There’s this scene in movies and tv where the psychotherapist has their client lying on a couch, staring at the wall, talking. Meanwhile, the therapist sits outside the client’s view eating a sandwich and listening to headphones, or has even snuck out of the room, letting the client talk to what is effectively an empty room. I’ve also had people tell me that therapy isn’t worth it because they’re basically just paying to have someone listen to them complain.
In both cases, therapy is being reduced to just “being heard” or even “the illusion of being heard,” and portrays the therapist’s job as very passive–listening. And while I chuckle at the thought of eating a sandwich while my clients talk, listening doesn’t have to be a passive action.
In fact, at its best, listening is active. The speaker isn’t simply heard, they feel heard. The listener is encouraging, supporting, and facilitating the conversation, making the act of communication more effective and, dare I say, more therapeutic.
Active listening isn’t only a useful skill for therapists. Anyone who is trying to really understand someone else would benefit; teachers, parents, romantic partners, Uber drivers, even bartenders.
When actively listening, the listener isn’t just tolerating the speaker, they are actively engaged in trying to understand. They aren’t waiting for their turn to talk, they are responding in ways that reassure the speaker or clarify what the speaker is trying to communicate.
Active listening has two parts, physical and verbal. Physically, an active listener uses their body language to support communication. They use frequent eye contact and turn their bodies to face the speaker. They may lean in a little to show that they are focused on the conversation. They use “open” body language (arms loose or open, body facing toward the speaker) rather than “closed” body language (arms crossed, body facing away). Their facial expression is interested and responsive to what the speaker is saying, and they may be making encouraging gestures and nodding.
Seen in a vacuum, this can seem patronizing. We’re so used to people stoically listening that when they first engage actively, it can seem condescending. It mirrors how parents often encourage little children to keep talking, an exaggerated pantomime of interest. So part of active listening is being tuned in to how your non-verbal engagement is being received. If it’s off-putting for the speaker, you may need to be more or less expressive.
Verbally, an active listener can use “minimal encouragers,” verbal responses that encourage and communicate to the speaker that we’re following them, such as, “Uh-huh,” “Yeah,” “Okay,” “Got ya,” “Right.” We also use “reflective responses,” short statements that summarize what the speaker is communicating and how they feel, like, “So he just grabbed that right out of your hands, that sucks!” “You’re saying you really don’t like pizza.” We use open questions like, “Can you explain that more?” and closed questions like, “Did he leave the room at that point?” to clarify points we don’t understand or expand the conversation.
In active listening, we try not to interrupt, argue, or debate points. The goal is strictly to understand as thoroughly as possible what the other person is saying. We express that we understand without offering our own opinions or relating our experiences. Our turn may come next, or later, but for the moment that we are actively listening, our job is to put ego aside and commit to understanding and receiving what the speaker is sharing.