While living in Tokyo several years ago, I volunteered at a crisis hotline for the international community there. Through a rigorous training program run by professional mental health counselors, I learned during that time what I consider as the most useful skill I have ever acquired in my entire life: active listening.
Active listening is a mindful way of hearing out another person. It is an “attempt to demonstrate unconditional acceptance and unbiased reflection” (Weger et al., 2010). One of the main goals of active listening is to minimize the effect of our own biases and to practice mindful patience..” (Dollinger, Comer & Warrington, 2006).
Simply put, active listening is the ultimate form of listening wherein we set aside our personal agenda to create a safe and nurturing space for another person.
What are the personal benefits I have gained from learning active listening?
First, it gave me a great volunteer opportunity and enabled me to be present for the many people in need who called that hotline. I handled calls from people thinking of harming or killing themselves, those suffering from domestic violence, survivors of sexual assault, or those who simply felt utterly alone in life. I would not have been able to handle such sensitive or difficult conversations without the confidence to actively and emphatically listen.
Second, it has made me into a better friend and relationship partner. I used to think I was already okay at relationships and friendships, until I realized how much better I could understand my partner and friends by listening to them more mindfully. This means that when they are in need of a listening ear, I consciously try to be there for them without judgment. This has enabled me to understand and appreciate layers of their feelings and experiences that I would otherwise have taken for granted.
Lastly, being a better listener has helped so much with my career. Listening is of course an indispensable part of my role as counselor, but it has also helped me become a better teacher. There is a stereotype that teachers are mostly talkers, but establishing good rapport with my students and showing respect for their learning require that I listen and respond to them emphatically. Being a teacher also does not end inside the classroom. At times, students have come to me to consult not just with their academic work but also with their personal struggles. I feel grateful that I can foster deep connections with them in this way.
On top of all these, I have used mindful listening skills to my advantage in job interviews, networking events, and in cultivating better relationships with bosses and colleagues.
What does it take to become an active listener?
First, we need to have the right attitude. Second, we have to set the right conditions that will enable us to be emphatic listeners. Finally, we must learn and practice four specific active listening skills.
Have the right attitude: be a companion, not an expert.
When a friend comes to us to speak of their troubles, our natural response is to give advice. This is not the goal of active listening. Ironically, and all counselors and therapists know this, we can help a person best when we refrain from giving advice. Aside from the obvious that very few people actually follow advice, putting ourselves in the position of “the adviser” communicates to the other person that we think we know better.
Being fully present for someone requires humility. Yes, we may have training and graduate degrees, or we might be older and have had more life experiences, or we may actually have prevailed in a similar situation before. Yet none of these guarantee that we know the person and their problems better than they do. Acknowledging that a person is the expert of their own private experience allows us to be genuinely curious and interested to understand their story.
Such realization will enable us to take on the vital role of an active listener: not an adviser but a companion. Listening to someone is letting them know that: “I am here. You are not alone.” And no message can be more powerful and comforting at the same time.
Set the right conditions: Empathy, Unconditional Positive Regard, and Genuineness
Empathy is the ability to walk in someone’s shoes — it entails imagining the internal and external world of another and seeing the situation from their perspective. Before engaging in active listening, we need to set aside our tendency to jump to problem-solving mode and instead have the goal of feeling and understanding what the person in front of us (or on the other line) is going through.
We demonstrate empathy when we refrain from projecting our own emotions on others so that we can give them the space to express their own. Aside from feeling, empathy also requires understanding. An emphatic listener recognizes that the other person has reasons or logic unique to their situation and experiences and strives to understand things from their point of view. Empathy requires setting aside our own beliefs and biases and accepting another person’s worldview as different but equally valid and important.
Unconditional Positive Regard (UPR)
Unconditional Positive Regard or UPR is described by psychotherapists and humanist psychologists as a state of non-judgment, in the presence of which, another person can grow and reach their full potential. Having UPR towards someone means appreciating their intrinsic value as a person.
UPR sounds easy enough, yet how many of us have listened to a friend or partner and in our heads labeled them as ridiculous because of some action they took that we deemed irrational? And how many times have we lost our patience over loved ones and blurted out names or criticisms that we later regret?
UPR is one of the most difficult things about active listening. Judging someone’s behavior — as wrong, insensitive, too sensitive, problematic, etc., — comes too easy for most of us. Turning off the tendency to judge and replacing it with complete acceptance is a skill that needs to be practiced if we are to become better listeners.
What if the other person really did or say something wrong? We can acknowledge the behavior as wrong without labeling the individual as “bad”. The reality is, good people do and say wrong things all the time. Acknowledging someone’s wrong behavior and at the same time validating their unconditional worth as a person is a powerful way to accompany them towards positive change.
Genuineness was the hardest pill for me to swallow when I first started my training on active listening. I thought, “How can I be my authentic, opinionated self if I have to be emphatic and possess UPR all the time?” My experienced and wonderful trainer told me: “If you start with an attitude of wanting to understand and care for the other person, of desiring what is best for them, then your highest genuine self will emerge as you listen.”
As socialized human beings, some biases and judgment are bound to enter our minds as we listen to people who are different from us. Genuineness means acknowledging these thoughts in our heads, taking deep breaths or asking for time if we need to process some uncomfortable parts of their stories, and then going back to the purpose of why we want to listen to and understand them in the first place. With practice, we can learn that despite our flaws as listeners, we can respond in authentic yet caring and helpful ways.
To sum up, Active Listening is a skill set that equips us to be better, mindful, listeners. It can help us be more present for those in need, and can vastly improve our personal and professional lives.
Active listening requires that we have an attitude of humility and companionship, and that we set an environment filled with empathy, unconditional positive regard, and genuineness.
In my next article, we will look at four specific skills that active listeners practice and eventually master.
Note: For psychological support, you may call Samaritans’ free international hotline at 116 123 or email them at email@example.com