The core of emotional support, which is the service provided on crisis lines, is called active listening. Active listening is a special type of listening, distinct from the regular listening we do everyday.
Active listening should also be separated from the work that counsellors and therapists do, which is called professional listening. While therapists and counsellors certainly use active listening, they also use additional advanced skills not covered here (such as interpretation and challenging.)
Active listening is made up of a number of individual skills that include:
- Demonstrating attending behaviour
- Using empathy statements
These are reviewed below.
Although active listening skills may seem like common sense, it takes conscious practice to develop use of these skills to be second nature. As is often said about this topic, it’s common for people to “wait to talk” instead of truly listening. They’re not hearing the emotions under the content, they’re just waiting for a pause to jump in with their next sentence.
Table of Contents
Attending behaviour refers to your non-verbal behaviours used to show that you’re listening. This includes things like eye contact, where your body is pointed, your posture, and so on. The acronym SOLER is one that is used to summarize attending behaviour. It is important to keep in mind that attending behaviour is culture-specific, and this is written with Western cultures in mind.
Other cultures may have different standards for what is considered attending behaviour. For instance, eye contact is often rude and intrusive in Asian cultures, while in North America it is rude to not maintain eye contact.
SOLER is not relevant to crisis lines (because you’re working over the telephone) but is still covered here because occasional in-person clients may occur in some organizations.
- S – Sit Squarely
- O – Open Posture
- L – Learn Towards the Client
- E – Eye Contact
- R – Relax
Sit squarely refers to your body positioning, which is to point your body towards client so that they know you’re listening, rather than pointing your body away from the person you’re speaking to.
Open posture refers to keeping your arms and legs open. Crossed arms or legs put together are considered closed body language and are off-putting to clients. Instead, keep your legs apart (though not enough that it could appear unprofessional) and keep your arms at your sides or in your lap rather than closed.
Lean towards the client sounds like what it says – to show interest when a client is speaking, lean towards them rather than leaning back which communicates disinterest.
Eye contact, as well, is important for showing interest and building rapport in western cultures. Keep in mind that some other cultures may place different value on eye contact and so it’s important to know the culture you’re working with.
Relax – Relax! No need to be tense, your discomfort may be interpreted by your client as disliking them, so make sure to take a deep breath, be honest with your client if something bothers you, and always keep the lines of communication open.
Empathy statements are the core of emotional support. These are feeling words that allow you to communicate that you have an idea what another person is going through. Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”, which is different from sympathy, which is “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.”
With empathy, you are highlighting feelings as if you are experiencing them yourself. Examples of empathy statements are:
- That sounds really scary
- You must be feeling so frustrated
- If I were you in shoes I would be devastated
Empathy statements may initially sound un-genuine or forced, but with practice they will get second nature. You may find it helpful to look at a list of feeling words to develop your skills. For additional practice please see my article Empathy Statements in Helpline Work.
Paraphrasing is defined as “express[ing] the meaning of (the writer or speaker or something written or spoken) using different words, especially to achieve greater clarity.” In the emotional support context, paraphrasing means to restate the content that a person has said.
An example of this would be, if someone tells you that their dog died. An example of a paraphrase would be “You lost your pet.” Paraphrasing is used to ensure you’ve heard the content that a person has said while they speak to you.
Reflection is similar to paraphrasing but the goal is to reflect the emotion underlining the statement that a person has said. This is quite a bit different than paraphrasing. For instance, if we return to our example of someone telling you that their dog died, the paraphrase was “You lost your pet.” The reflection would be, “You’re feeling really alone right now.”
A reflection highlights an emotion, and is used frequently to check in to make sure that your empathy statements are on point.
Summarizing is similar to paraphrasing or reflecting but it is a longer statement used to sum up several minutes of conversation. Many counsellors use summaries to open their sessions by reviewing the previous week’s conversations, and periodically throughout their sessions.
An example of a summarize that could apply to our dog-grief conversation would be like follows: “So, from what we’ve been discussing, you lost your dog last month and it’s weighing really heavily on you. You feel alone because your house is empty and you don’t know how to cope.” This highlights some emotional items (feeling alone, weighing really heavily on them) and some content items (dog lost last month, empty house.)
Silence is an important element in active listening and is often overlooked. Silence can be used to help a person process what has just been discussed – it is not necessary, nor desirable to fill every moment of a conversation with words. Sometimes just sitting with someone and being witness to their pain is helpful.
Advanced Active Listening Training
If you’re interested in developing your active listening skills you may want to join a crisis line, or consider taking an Introduction to Counselling course at a local college or university to build your theoretical skills and practice roleplaying with others.