The reason therapy works for so many is because therapists are trained to listen to their clients, and this active listening lets the client feel that they are important and what they have to say is important. When someone accesses therapy it is typically because they have something they need to communicate and have no one in their lives that will listen. This may present itself in different ways; either they have no one who is available to listen, or they feel threatened in some way by the people in their lives – perhaps what they have to say could be misconstrued as damaging to their character, or may be generally embarrassing – but they still need and are seeking help. They are seeking someone to offer an active ear and a non-judgmental, empathetic approach to their situation.
I do not believe that active listening and empathy are limited to therapeutic settings. Typically when laymen think of therapy they imagine a client lying on a couch pouring out their feelings across from a clinician expressing “how does that make you feel?” This is not how all therapy unfolds, and a lot of therapy does not have to be as structured. However, because of this conceptualization of therapy, it is believed that if there is no couch or no closed room, therapy cannot happen. This is not necessarily the case.
I have met with a number of persons who have needed counsel outside of typically identified therapeutic settings, and the same components were present – empathy, non-judgmental attitude and active listening. Empathy and active listening are two very closely related actions which can be combined in order to create empathetic listening, which Burley-Allen characterizes as resisting distractions, noting and acknowledging the speaker’s verbal and non-verbal communication, and being empathetic towards the speaker’s thoughts and feelings (Burley-Allen, 1995).
Interpersonal connectivity : sharing thoughts, feelings and emotions
Stewart and Logan (2002) identified three competencies in developing empathetic listening, which include focusing, encouraging and reflection. All three competencies work together to encourage the speaker to communicate their feelings, issues and desires. It also allows the speaker to feel more at ease while discussing their thoughts. Ender and Newton (2000) demonstrate the importance of paraphrasing the thought and feeling of what the speaker has said in a non-evaluative way, while still interpreting their understanding accurately. This is important because we do not wish to make the speaker feel uncomfortable, or uneasy. We want the speaker to feel able to express him or herself free of judgment, so we must take care to withhold judgment from both thoughts and feelings. This is directly linked to empathetic understanding, which as we know, is the understanding of the clients’ views and experiences from their frame of reference (Ender and Newton, 2000). Cuny, Wilde and Stevens (2012) point out that through empathetic listening and understanding we can help the client/speaker develop personal understanding. Empathetic listening can be used to promote communication, develop cognition and enhance self-concept. Empathetic listening and understanding also promotes a specific attitude which translates to the client as them having worth, and something to offer, which helps develop self-confidence (Cuny, Wilde, & Stevens, 2012).
Stanley Jackson states that “the psychological healer, in particular, is one who listens in order to learn and to understand; and, from the fruits of this listening, he or she develops the basis for reassuring, advising, consoling, comforting, interpreting, explaining or otherwise intervening” (Jackson, 1999). This demonstrates the importance of listening for the counselor, outside of building trust and offering a cathartic experience for the client. Of course, listening is important in assisting the client through catharsis, building trust between client and counselor, and aiding in self-development, esteem and efficacy; but it is also important in understanding the client and situation better. We are unable to help a client without first knowing, and understanding, what it is they need help with. It is true, that listening in and of itself is powerful in facilitating healing for the client; but we must be able to provide further assistance after the fact, through proper application of interventions or therapies.
The most relevant person to mention while discussing the power of listening is of course, Carl Rogers, who championed empathic listening in his client-centered therapy. Rogers identifies the value of empathy in a multitude of ways. First he states that empathy indicates to the recipient that someone cares for, accepts and values who he is as a person (Rogers, 1975). He states that empathy “dissolves alienation.” That is, it breaks down barriers between person and therapist (Rogers, 1975). The analysand in question is requiring attention and care, possibly for issues that may arouse judgment or isolation. Through our use of empathy we no longer see alienation as an option, and we allow the clients to fully express themselves, to fully experience the all too needed catharsis. This of course, leads to better therapeutic results.
There cannot be active listening without empathic understanding; the two go hand in hand, and work in conjunction with each other. By understanding a person more fully through our listening, we pave the way for the client to understand himself in a full or complete way without inhibitions (Rogers, 1975). Rogers indicates that by our full understanding of the client we offer them a way to understand their self, which facilitates congruence (Rogers, 1975).
Rogers and Farson (1987) show that people who are listened to in such an active and sensitive way learn to apply such methods to themselves, and listen with more care and are able to vocalize more precisely how they are feeling and what they are thinking. They identify that there are two essential components to what a speaker is saying; there is the content of the message, and the feeling or attitude, which underlies the content. Both are equally important and must be attended to in order to understand the complete picture, (Rogers, C., & Farson, R., 1987). There are a few ways that we as listeners may attend to these underlying messages: firstly, we must consider the emotions, and respond to the feelings conveyed by the speaker. By our responding to the feelings we acknowledge the speakers emotional state, and offer a space where they may feel safe and able to express themselves. Secondly, we must note all cues; facial expression, verbal cues such as inflection, speech style, and body language. All of these things may work together to let us know more of what the speaker is trying to convey. For instance, a client may wish to express they are feeling hurt, but may fear reprisal and so they may try to mask these feelings. It is our job as listeners to study their body language, facial expressions and tone, all of which may help indicate the underlying emotion the client may be shying away from expressing. In this way, we may respond not only to the content, but also to the underlying emotion, which truly shows the client that we are listening and that we care.
Active listening is an important component of any therapeutic scenario, and can be employed in every interaction with another person. It demonstrates respect, builds trust, and facilitates a relationship between speaker and listener. It tells the speaker that they are valued, and it encourages them to value themselves.
Many consider listening as a passive component in therapy, when in fact it is the most significant component in any therapeutic scenario without which we would not have an understanding of the other person. Listening is a powerful tool, and truly listening leads us to develop healthier, stronger relationships with our clients, and leads our clients to better understand themselves and relationship dynamics. Listening is an all too important tool that we can apply to every scenario, and offer our clients when we find ourselves with nothing but our attentive ears to give.
 Therapy cannot occur without a licensed practitioner, just the same as art therapy cannot occur without a licensed art therapist. However, we can employ therapeutic methods while counselling our clients in atypical settings (within their homes, at school, on the street).
Burley-Allen, M. (1995). Listening: The forgotten skill: A self-teaching guide (2nd ed.) New York, NU: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Cuny, K, M., Wilde, S, M., & Stevens, A, V. (2012). Using Empathetic Listening to Build Relationships at the Center. In. Yook, E, L. & Atkins-Sayre, W. (Eds.), Communication Centers and Oral Communication Programs in Higher Education. UK: Lexington Books.
Ender, S, C., & Newton, F, B. (2000). Students Helping Students: A guide for peer educators on college campuses. San Fransisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Jackons, S, W. (1999). Care of the Psyche: A history of Psychological Healing, New Haven & London: Yale University Press.
Rogers, Carl. (1975). Empathic: An Unappreciated Way of Being. The Counseling Psychologist. Vol. 5, No. 2-10.
Rogers, C., & Farson, R. (1987). Active Listening. From Communicating in Business Today R.G. Newman, M.A. Danzinger, M. Cohen (eds) D.C. Heath & Company.
Stewart, J., & Logan, C. (2002) Empathetic and dialogic listening. In J. S. Stewart (Ed.), Bridges, not walls: A book about Interpersonal communication. (8th ed., pp. 208-229) Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.