The Active Listening Process (ALP) is a set of skills, or what is called by Ivey, Ivey & Zalaquett in their 2014 book Intentional Interviewing and Counselling as “microskills“ are the fundamental skills used to perform the basic skills of displaying empathy and understanding what your caller or client is saying. The ALP is one of the tools used in the basic helpline training adopted by the Distress Centre and other organizations.
Deliberate Practice (Rousmaniere, 2016) describes the work done outside of the therapy or call room. By practicing the basics, therapists and others who are required to use empathy and active listening in their work will be able to improve the skills that are most associated with client improvement (Lynch, 2012).
Three Facilitative Conditions
The three “facilitative conditions” (Rogers, 1957) were developed by Carl Rogers, a pioneer in the field of person-centered therapy. These facilitative conditions are empathy, acceptance (or unconditional positive regard) and genuineness. Empathy describes an effort to understand the caller or client from their perspective and truly see things the way they do. Acceptance or unconditional positive regard means to see the caller as they are, while genuineness means being yourself and not putting on a “therapist” front or trying to be different than who you really are.
Active Listening Process
Different organizations will use a different form of the active listening process. A version of the Active Listening Process used at the Distress Centre includes the following skills in the active listening process:
Opening the Conversation
Opening the conversation describes the first 5 minutes of the conversation. These are the critical first steps that the helpline worker takes as they begin working with the caller.
Voice tone describes the pitch, volume and intonation of one’s voice. A voice tone that is forceful and assertive may be helpful in policing but may come across as aggressive or overpowering to a helpline caller. On the other hand, when needing to collect information in emergencies, a more assertive tone may be required to keep a caller alert and paying attention.
Pace describes the speed in which you speak, as well as when and if you interrupt. Interrupting or talking over a caller may damage your rapport with them, while speaking too quickly may create a sense of anxiety or panic in a caller. Instead, letting the caller lead will help them tell the story at their own speed
Setting the Climate
Setting the climate refers to the first few seconds when you pick up the phone. Ensuring a lack of distractions and sound from other calls or activities, and gently saying, “Hello, Distress Centre” or something similar will help your caller feel at ease by helping give them a sense that it’s just you and the caller.
Collecting information refers to what happens after you’ve established a connection with the caller. The first minute or minutes have gone by and the caller is starting to tell their story. In order to understand it better, you must ask a variety of open and close-ended questions.
Open Ended Questions
Open-ended questions are those that begin with “What?” “How” “Tell me about” and others that cannot usually be answered with yes or no answers. For instance, “Tell me about what’s been troubling you”, “How long have you been feeling this way?” and “What do you usually do when things get tough?” are examples of open-ended questions.
Close Ended Questions
Close-ended questions are those that are designed to collect specific pieces of information from callers. These begin with “Where”, “When” and “Did”, “Do”, or “Does.” For instance, “Where did you live when that happened?”, “Do you feel like talking to him?” and “When did that begin?”
These close-ended questions are important in emergencies or crisis situations when you need to collect specific information but are much less useful when trying to have an open conversation with someone in distress.
As you ask open-ended questions and the caller begins to tell their story, you have to demonstrate that you understand what they’re saying. As explained above, the three facilitative conditions are the most important elements of outcome in therapy and on the crisis line they are associated with a decrease in distress. (Mishara & Daigle, 1997)
Empathy statements are statements that highlight a feeling word. For instance, “You must be feeling really overwhelmed.” In this case, overwhelmed is the feeling word. Other feeling words you might use include angry, frustrated, devastated, lost, sad, ruined, alone, and so on.
Empathy statements wrap the other statements that we make while actively listening to continually check in with the caller and make sure that we’re on the same page. Even if your empathy statement is incorrect, the caller will explain to you what the correct feeling they are experiencing is, therefore increasing your understanding.
Clarifying refers to questions that are asked to increase your understanding of the content the individual is experiencing. For instance, if a caller says they went to a therapist recently for therapy and then indicates that they received a prescription from that visit, you might ask them if they made two different appointments, or if they saw a psychiatrist.
Clarifying will be more important on crisis chat or text because this form of communication limits how much information can be communicated at one time.
Paraphrasing refers to restating what an individual has told you to make sure that you understand what they’ve said. Paraphrases capture both the emotional information and the content of the story. For instance, a paraphrase might be “Since you lost your dog you’ve been feeling really alone and you’re considering whether to adopt a new pet.” This paraphrase has captured an emotion (loneliness) and content (loss of dog, adoption of new pet.)
Summarizing is similar to paraphrasing but it is done at the end of a conversation or a significant component in the conversation. A summary is a little longer than a paraphrase and may include contents of a safety plan, referral, follow-up or other tasks that will be completed when the conversation ends.
Referrals, resources, community agencies or other terms refer to the helpline worker providing the names, phone numbers and other information about organizations that can be helpful to the caller. Examples include counselling, food banks, or employment support.
Winding up is the end of the conversation. This refers to the end of the conversation when you thank the caller for calling, let them know that you have to let them go for now (or they tell you they need to go) and invite them to call back. This can be challenging for some callers to accept but is a necessary part of the process.
While Gerald Egan’s The Skilled Helper (see right) may be used to practice these core counselling skills.
Ivey, A.E., Ivey, M.B. & Zalaquett, C.P. (2013) Intentional Interviewing and Counselling. 8th Ed. Brooks Cole: Pacific Grove, CA.
Mishara, B. L. & Daigle, M. (1997). Effects of different telephone intervention styles with suicidal callers at two suicide prevention centers: An empirical investigation. American Journal of Community Psychology. 25, 861-895
Rogers, C. (1957) The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change. Journal of Consulting Psychology. 21. 95–103. Retrieved on May 5, 2017 from https://app.shoreline.edu/dchris/psych236/Documents/Rogers.pdf
Rousmaniere, T. (2016). Deliberate practice for early career psychotherapists. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 51(3), 25-29. Retrieved on May 4, 2017 from http://societyforpsychotherapy.org/deliberate-practice-early-career-psychotherapists/by