Blocks to Active and Reflective Listening
As explored in the previous blog post, both active and reflective listening is a fundamental skill for any counsellor or individual in a helping role. I would even advocate these skills as essential for any healthy relationship to be able to fully grow and thrive. We know when we’re not being listened to, when we’re being tolerated, humoured, dismissed, ‘tuned out’ or simply ignored. Indifference is a horrible feeling and we all deserve to have people in our lives to whom we can go and trust that they will be able to listen to us in a compassionate, active, helpful way.
Is it really easy to listen?
However, listening with our full, undiluted attention is not as easy as it might sound. It requires self-awareness and self-discipline that even experienced counsellors need to consciously apply. Without self-regulation and practice, it is common to experience a variety of blocks to listening even when we know that a conversation is important. We have ingrained habits that can be difficult to adapt and rewire. Sometimes, when we are trying to help, we can sense that a conversation with a loved one is going awry, but we don’t know why. What are we doing wrong?
Blocks to listening can prevent us from fully engaging with those whom we are trying to help and support and hinder our relationship with them. Listening can be quite a skillful process that many of us assume we know how to do. But actually requires thought and attention to develop into a tool to help others effectively.
Derailing, rehearsing, dreaming and zoning out, placating, biases and prejudices, emotional states, distractions, and a lack of empathy are just a few of many blocks to listening. Let’s take a look at few common barriers that, with increased self-awareness, can be removed in order to facilite a healthy, helpful and wholesome listening interaction process.
Block 1: Rehearsing
We all have a tendency to do this. Even less-experienced counsellors whose job it is to listen might find themselves rehearsing what they are going to say next to their client, perhaps because of nerves, perhaps due to the difficult subject matter.
When we’re talking to a difficult person, for example, a colleague or employee who makes us nervous, but whom we might line-manage so it is our duty to talk and listen when challenges arise, we might find ourselves almost obsessively planning head whilst they are speaking, scanning for what feels like the next right thing to say.
However, although this tendency to search for and plan the next observation or statement might seem like a good idea, it draws our attention away from the other person, from their message, from their feelings, frame of reference and their experience.
In order to really understand someone, even a really prickly person, we must be prepared to stay with them through out their exploration of events and feelings. After all, it’s not about our planned questions and reponses. First and foremost, it’s about finding out what is going on for the other person so that we can build on that and move forward with them in the most appropriate, most effective way. Positive people manangement, positive parenting, positive mental health therapy, they are all about walking side-by-side and holding the space for the other person in that moment in order to build trusting, communicative, supportive and collaborative relationships.
Block 2: Placating
The Latin verb ‘placere’ means "to calm or soothe" and is the source of the word ‘please’ in English, or 'pleasure' in Spanish. Placating is an inauthentic tendency that counsellors must also avoid. This occurs when we agree with everything our client says or we avoid difficult topics to keep them happy. It can also come across as condescending, too much nodding, too much agreeing and smiling.
Placating inhibits any authentic counselling or listening process as our helping role is not to agree, disagree or block the expression of emotions, but to allow the speaker to move through their feelings freely without judgement. Placating can be a form of judgement.
When we turn to an eager to please, ‘people-pleaser listener,’ be that a friend or colleague, they can undermine our feelings and experiences when they placate. This approach doesn’t validate or honour our feelings and emotions. It kind of ice-skates over them afraid of cracking the surface. A ‘placator’ tries to keep the peace by avoiding conflict and difficult emotions. They might say things like, ‘You’re right. That’s terrible. You'll be alright. Everything will be ok. Don't worry.’
As with all listening blocks, placating becomes a habit. We don’t even realise we’re doing it and we don’t realise how it alienates others. When we get locked into automatic repetitive use of our communication style, the style itself becomes as much of a problem as the content being expressed and explored.
Placating can often be seen as trying to make the person feel better and comes from a well intentioned desire to seem supportive, but we should be listening and focusing on the other person’s feelings first and foremost rather than ‘fixing’ and appeasing them.
Placating is such a common approach when others are discussing their problems, but not a helpful one. Why do we placate so instinctively? Often we placate in order to be liked and accepted by the other person, but overdoing this is insincere and inauthentic and, as I’ve said, risks invalidating the other person’s feelings. It can be problematic as it also creates a false sense of rapport and prevents others from expressing and openning up about their true feelings and experiences.
Block 3: External blocks/environmental factors
An active listener must also be aware of any external blocks to listening that could prevent the listening process from being successful. It may seem basic and obvious, but we might be surprised to learn how many people are unable to open up due to a few basic and avoidable environmental factors.
For example, an external block for one of my students who is experiencing anxiety and has come to me wanting to talk about how they are feeling, might be the distraction of how noisy or busy the room is where they try to talk to me. I would take them to a suitably quiet and calm space so that we can both concentrate.
In counselling terms, imagine a difficult, emotional conversation trying to take place in an overly hot and stuffy room with a window open through which excessive traffic noise is invading the space. The client is also seated on an uncomfortable, squeaky chair with no water on offer as a matter of course. They have a dry mouth, the noise interrupts their train of thought, and they can’t get comfortable. In this scenario, the client’s internal narrative of discomfort may be so loud that they cannot concentrate on the task at hand, nor can the counsellor fully listen either.
We need to be ware that these environemental factors could be a block for our children or other family member when they try to talk to us. Remember that when our basic physiological needs are not being met, this almost always causes a block to any therapeutic process. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is an important guide and reminder of the importance of these basic provisions for those whom we’re trying to help. Parents, teachers, team leaders must learn to manage distractions and create a safe and conducive environment for listening to those to whom we have a duty of care. This involves finding a quiet and private space, turning off electronic devices, practicing mindfulness techniques to focus on the present moment and help the listening, communicative process.
Block 4: Derailing
A further block to listening is derailing. The listener in this scenario is unable to stay on topic and wanders off into tangential discussions or personal anecdotes. This can be problematic as it takes away from the other person’s experience and can leave them feeling unheard and unvalued.
Derailing can occur when the listener is too focused on trying to empathise through recounting their own stories and advice. Or it can happen when the listener is unconsciousy uncomfortable with the speaker’s topic or emotions, or when they are not fully present in the moment. Just as counsellors must be self-aware and work to stay present and focused with their clients to avoid derailing the conversation, anyone who is listening to someone share something important and personal must remain locked into the subject in the spotlight.
It could be argued that derailing is a little like deflecting, a defence mechanism with which Gestalt therapists in particular are familiar. Deflecting and derailing can impact both the the person who is being listened to and the listener, occuring when either are unconciously or consciously triggered by subject matter explored in counselling sessions and wish to change the subject.
Block 5: Daydreaming
Another block to listening is daydreaming and zoning out, when our mind wanders. This happens all the time when the we are fatigued, stressed, or have personal issues that are distracting us. Dreaming and zoning out can prevent us from fully engaging with another person, even when they are talking directly to us. This can often lead to people feeling unsupported or ignored.
We, as listeners, be it parents, spouses or anyone who has a responsibility to support others, must practice self-care and self-awareness, especially when experiencing challenging moments in our own lives. Think of the age-old, ‘put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others’ analogy. After all, we’re human too, it is inevitable that we will encounter some challenges ourselves, but if we’re running on empty it is very hard, I would say, impossible, to effectively help others. We need to develop and apply strategies to help ourselves in our own lives if we are to be fully present and focused on the lives on others when they come to us in need.
All active and reflective listening skills are developed with deliberate effort and practice, also requiring a significant amount of self-awareness. This awareness helps us to remove or reduce any barriers or blocks to listening. If we are always distracted or seem too busy and rushed when our children or other people come to talk to us, eventually they will stop openning up to us, either turning to someone else or bottling it up and not talking at all.
In order to listen effectively, we must learn to harness a range of skills that demonstrate we are listening so we can engage fully with others. (For more details on listening skills, refer to the blog post ‘Listening Skills in Helping Work: Part 1.’) Whilst it’s inevitable at times that we will experience lapses in concentration that interfere with our ability to authentically connect with and listen to others, these blocks must be kept in check, acknowledged and dealt with.
Removing blocks to listening leads to more authentic and healthier communication skills in any relationship, which in turn builds trust and support. If we want deeper, more meaningful connections with those around us, we must be prepared to listen fully, not half-heartedly, when we are called upon to help. In this way, we can adapt, grow and nurture our own inter-relational skills which enrich our own relationships with others, as well as helping and nurturing others through their difficulties too.