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Active Listening Techniques for Psychologists

Active listening means being fully engaged in what a speaker is trying to communicate to you. Active listening is important in building relationships, empathizing with others, and solving problems. It is particularly important to those pursuing psychology careers—understanding clients, developing trusting relationships with them, and helping them resolve their issues are essential aspects of psychology. Understanding active listening and its benefits and learning useful active listening techniques can help you navigate relationships in both your personal and professional life.

Benefits of Active Listening

Anyone can benefit from sharpening their active listening skills, but those pursuing psychology careers may find that being a good active listener is indispensable. Active listening comes with myriad perks that span well beyond the psychologist’s office, however. For example, it can:

  • Establish trust. When you use active listening techniques, the person speaking sees that you are interested in what they are saying and feeling. When you show that you are trying to understand someone’s issues, trust will naturally build between you. In psychology careers, this can help you get an open, honest line of communication with your client. Trust is an incredibly valuable asset in fields like child psychology, family therapy, and behavioral psychology.
  • Keep people talking. When people feel like the person listening to them doesn’t care or is not engaged in what they are saying, they may be more likely to stop talking. For psychologists, it’s important to make your clients feel comfortable when they are opening up and elaborating on their feelings.
  • Help you understand others’ issues. Listening for the meaning behind someone’s words can help you get a stronger, more nuanced understanding of their feelings and issues.
  • Allow for reflection. Because active listening involves checking for understanding, both the speaker and the listener need to have opportunities to hear and process what is being said. Many psychology fields, such as clinical psychology, depend on moments of reflection to paint a holistic picture of their clients and their issues.

11 Tips for Improving Active Listening Skills

Paraphrasing, summarizing, clarifying, and reflecting aren’t the only active listening exercises that you can practice. The following simple, actionable techniques can help you become a better listener, whether you’re a psychology professional or not.

  • Focus on what’s important. Listen for the main points, rather than nitpick at minor details that could derail the speaker’s thoughts.
  • Choose to be interested. Not everyone is going to talk about things that interest you all the time, but switching your mindset and telling yourself, “I will be interested and engaged because I care about this person,” can help you practice active listening, even when you might not feel like listening at all.
  • Ask thoughtful questions. Asking meaningful questions shows the speaker that you care about what they are saying, and are listening to their words.
  • Be okay with silences. Letting silences rest gives you time to process what has been said and gives the speaker time to work through their thoughts and figure out how to proceed.
  • Listen for meaning. Active listening means analyzing more than just the speaker’s words. Listening for the impact of the specific words chosen and the context of those words can add layers of meaning and understanding.
  • Don’t interrupt. Interrupting can indicate that you are more interested in talking than listening, and can discourage the speaker from continuing or make them feel uncomfortable.
  • Watch their nonverbal behavior. Pay attention to the speaker’s body language. Their words may not tell the whole story and may even contrast with their body language. Noticing this can help you react and proceed as an empathetic listener.
  • Ignore your internal voice/avoid daydreaming. If you are busy with your own thoughts, it’s impossible to be fully engaged in what the speaker is saying. If the speaker notices that you aren’t paying attention, they may close themselves off.
  • Withhold judgment. The purpose of active listening is to gain understanding, not to critique or problem-solve. Being open and nonjudgmental allows for more open communication and compassion.
  • Demonstrate positive body language that shows you’re listening—this could include eye contact, nodding, smiling, ignoring your phone or the clock, and appearing relaxed. Positive body language can encourage the speaker to continue talking. It’s important that these physical gestures are sincere and authentic.
  • Avoid distractions. To be an effective active listener, you should be fully engaged in the discussion. Avoiding distractions can help you stay engaged in the conversation and show the speaker that you are interested in hearing them.

The Best Active Listening Techniques to Communicate Effectively

Mastering active listening takes practice, but once you get the hang of it, it can become second nature. Practicing the four primary active listening techniques—that is, to paraphrase, summarize, clarify, and reflect—can help you hone your skills and start communicating more effectively in professional counseling settings, as well as in day-to-day interactions.

Paraphrase

Paraphrasing involves boiling down the essential meaning behind what the speaker has just said and stating it back to them in your own words. The speaker can then clarify or confirm that the meaning you gathered was what they were trying to convey. When paraphrasing, you should strive to withhold judgment and keep your statements neutral and concise. This allows the speaker to hear whether or not you have perceived their words as they intended, without them feeling like they are being attacked, critiqued, or analyzed.

Summarize

When summarizing, the listener picks out the key points of the discussion and relays them back to the speaker. In a psychology setting, this may occur at the end of your session with a client. Summarizing should be concise and should help you and the speaker connect thoughts and ideas. It can highlight the points that seem most important to the speaker, and give them the chance to confirm the significance of those points, and reflect on their recurrence. Summarizing can also help both you and the speaker see if there are any themes or connecting threads between the main points that could be explored further, and it can be a useful tool for tracking progress between sessions.

Clarify

Clarifying helps the listener understand what was said and gives the speaker an opportunity to elaborate and assess their thoughts and feelings more precisely. It also shows the speaker that the listener is invested in understanding them, which can encourage the speaker to continue talking further. To clarify successfully, you should strive to ask open-ended questions—closed yes-or-no questions can shut down a conversation quickly. It’s also important that clarifying questions remain neutral and nonjudgmental, using phrases such as “I’m not sure I understand.” Give the speaker time to work through their thoughts and provide more information.

Reflect

Reflecting involves rephrasing words or sentences to let the client check and clarify the impact of their words. This helps the speaker make sense of the situation and their feelings about it and helps you better understand those feelings. For instance, if a client says, “It made me sad,” you might reflect the perceived meaning of those words by saying, “It made you upset?” Then the speaker could clarify with, “No, not upset, but defeated.” In this way, both you and the speaker reach a more nuanced and precise understanding of the situation. Communication may be eased when both the speaker and the listener have a more solid grasp on the situations and feelings being discussed, and resolutions may be easier to come by.

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