The Art of Active Listening

Active Listening

Complete Exercise 4.6, “Listening to Yourself As a Problem Solver,” on page 30 in your exercise manual. Answer the following questions:

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What was the issue?
What were the client’s key experiences?
What points of view of hers were involved?
What decisions did she make?
What emotions did she experience?
page30 4;6
Identify and Deal with All Forms of Distorted Listening LO 4.6

Listening as described here is not as easy as it sounds. Obstacles and distractions abound. Some relate to listening generally. Others relate more specifically to listening to and interpreting clients’ nonverbal behavior. The kinds of listening described in this section often (or usually) go unnoticed. In that sense, they constitute part of the shadow side of helping.

As you will see from your own experience, the following kinds of distorted listening permeate human communication. They also insinuate themselves at times into the helping dialogue. Sometimes more than one kind of distortion contaminates the helping dialogue. They are part of the shadow side because helpers never intend to engage in these kinds of listening. Rather, helpers fall into them at times without even realizing that they are doing so. But they stand in the way of the kind of open-minded listening and processing needed for real dialogue. Here are some forms of distorted listening.

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Filtered listening It is impossible to listen to other people in a completely unbiased way. Through socialization we develop a variety of filters through which we listen to ourselves, others, and the world around us. As Hall (1977) noted: “One of the functions of culture is to provide a highly selective screen between man and the outside world. In its many forms, culture therefore designates what we pay attention to and what we ignore. This screening provides structure for the world” (p. 85). We need filters to provide structure for ourselves as we interact with the world. But personal, familial, sociological, and cultural filters introduce various forms of bias into our listening and do so without our being aware of it.

The stronger the cultural filters, the greater the likelihood of bias. For instance, a white, middle-class helper probably tends to use white, middle-class filters in listening to others. Perhaps this makes little difference if the client is also white and middle class, but if the helper is listening to an Asian client who is well-todo and has high social status in his community, to an African American mother from an urban ghetto, or to a poor white subsistence farmer, then the helper’s cultural filters might introduce bias. Prejudices, whether conscious or not, distort understanding. Like everyone else, helpers are tempted to pigeonhole clients because of gender, race, sexual orientation, nationality, social status, religious persuasion, political preferences, lifestyle, and the like. Helpers’ self-knowledge is essential. This includes ferreting out the biases and prejudices that distort listening.

Evaluative listening Most people, even when they listen attentively, listen evaluatively. That is, as they listen, they are judging what the other person is saying as good/bad, right/wrong, acceptable/unacceptable, likable/unlikable, relevant/irrelevant, and so forth. Helpers are not exempt from this universal tendency. The following interchange takes place between Jennie and a friend of hers. Jennie recounts it to Denise as part of her story.

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JENNIE: Well, the rape and the investigation are not dead, at least not in my mind. They are not as vivid as they used to be, but they are there.

FRIEND: That’s the problem, isn’t it? Why don’t you do yourself a favor and forget about it? Get on with life, for God’s sake!

Evaluative listening gives way to advice giving. It might well be sound advice, but the point here is that Jennie’s friend listens and responds evaluatively. Clients should first be understood, then, if necessary, challenged or helped to challenge themselves. Evaluative listening, translated into advice giving, will just put clients off. Indeed, a judgment that a client’s point of view, once understood, needs to be expanded or transcended or that a pattern of behavior, once listened to and understood, needs to be altered can be quite useful. That is, there are productive forms of evaluative listening. It is practically impossible to suspend judgment completely. Nevertheless, it is possible to set one’s judgment aside for the time being in the interest of understanding clients, their worlds, their stories, their points of view, and their decisions “from the inside.”

Stereotype-based listening How would you like being referred to as the “appendicitis in 304?” Probably not much. We don’t like to be stereotyped, even when the stereotype has some validity. The very labels we learn in our training—paranoid, neurotic, sexual disorder, borderline—can militate against empathic understanding. Books on personality theories provide us with stereotypes: “He’s a perfectionist.” We even pigeonhole ourselves: “I’m a Type A personality.” Though in this case the stereotype is often used as an excuse. “I am a Type A personality, so I can’t help what I do.”

In psychotherapy, diagnostic categories can take precedence over the clients being diagnosed. Helpers forget at times that their labels are interpretations rather than understandings of their clients. You can be “correct” in your diagnosis and still lose the person. In short, what you learn as you study psychology may help you to organize what you hear, but it may also distort your listening. To use terms borrowed from Gestalt psychology, make sure that your client remains “figure”—in the forefront of your attention—and that models and theories about clients remain “ground”—knowledge that remains in the background and is used only in the interest of understanding and helping this unique client.

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Fact-centered rather than person-centered listening Some helpers ask clients many informational questions, as if clients would be cured if enough facts about them were known. It’s entirely possible to collect facts but miss the person. The antidote is to listen to clients contextually, trying to focus on themes and key messages. Denise, as she listens to Jennie, picks up what is called a “pessimistic explanatory style” theme (Peterson, Seligman, & Vaillant, 1988). Clients with this style tend to say, directly or indirectly, about unfortunate events such things as “It will never go away,” “It affects everything I do,” and “It is my fault.” Denise knows that the research indicates that people who fall victim to this style tend to end up with poorer health than those who do not. There may be a link, she hypothesizes, between Jennie’s somatic complaints (headaches, gastric problems) and this explanatory style. This is a theme worth exploring.

Sympathetic listening Because most clients are experiencing some kind of misery and because some have been victimized by others or by society itself, helpers tend to feel sympathy for them. Sometimes these feelings are strong enough to distort the stories that clients are telling. Consider this case.

Liz was counseling Ben, a man who had lost his wife and daughter to a tornado. Liz had recently lost her husband to cancer. As Ben talked about his own tragedy during their first meeting, she wanted to hold him. Later that day she took a long walk and realized how her sympathy for Ben had distorted what she heard. She heard the depth of his loss, but, reminded of her own loss, only half heard the implication that his loss now excused him from getting on with his life.

Sympathy has an unmistakable place in human relationships, but its “use,” if that does not sound too inhuman, is limited in helping. In a sense, when I sympathize with someone, I become his or her accomplice. If I sympathize with my client as she tells me how awful her husband is, I take sides without knowing what the complete story is. Expressing sympathy can reinforce self-pity, which has a way of driving out problem-managing action.

Falling for myths about nonverbal behavior Richmond and McCroskey (2000) spell out the shadow side of nonverbal behavior in terms of commonly held myths (pp. 2–3):

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Nonverbal communication is nonsense. All communication involves language. Therefore, all communication is verbal. This myth is disappearing. It does not stand up under the scrutiny of common sense.
Nonverbal behavior accounts for most of the communication in human interaction. Early studies tried to “prove” this, but they were biased. Studies were aimed at dispelling myth number 1 and overstepped their boundaries.
You can read a person like a book. Some people, even some professionals, would like to think so. You can read nonverbal behavior, verbal behavior, and context and still be wrong.
If a person does not look you in the eye while talking to you, he or she is not telling the truth. Tell this to liars! The same nonverbal behavior can mean many different things.
Although nonverbal behavior differs from person to person, most nonverbal behaviors are natural to all people. Cross-cultural studies give the lie to this. But it isn’t true even within the same culture.
Nonverbal behavior stimulates the same meaning in different situations. Too often the context is the key. Yet some professionals buy the myth and base interpretive systems on it.

Interrupting I am reluctant to add “interrupting,” as some do, to this list of shadow-side obstacles to effective listening. Certainly, when helpers interrupt their clients, by definition, they stop listening. And interrupters often say things that they have been rehearsing, which means that they have been only partially listening. Our reluctance, however, comes from the conviction that the helping conversation should be a dialogue. There are benign and malignant forms of interrupting. The helper who cuts the client off in mid thought because he has something important to say is using a malignant form. But the case is different when a helper “interrupts” a monologue with some gentle gesture and a comment such as “You’ve made several points. I want to make sure that I’ve understood them.” If interrupting promotes the kind of dialogue that serves the problem-management process, then it is useful. Still, care must be taken to factor in cultural differences in storytelling.

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One possible reason counselors fall prey to these kinds of shadow-side listening is the unexamined assumption that listening with an open mind is the same as approving what the client is saying. This is not the case, of course. Rather, listening with an open mind helps you learn and understand. Whatever the reason for shadow-side listening, the outcome can be devastating because of a truth philosophers learned long ago—a small error in the beginning can lead to huge errors down the road. If the foundation of a building is out of kilter, it is hard to notice with the naked eye. But by the time construction reaches the ninth floor, it begins to look like the leaning tower of Pisa. Tuning in to clients and listening both actively and with an open mind are foundation counseling skills. Ignore them and dialogue is impossible. For more information on The Art of Active Listening check out :

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