On Teaching Listening

by David Luterman, D.Ed.

Posted with permission of Dr. Luterman

Listening is the bedrock of counseling. No matter what your philosophical approach to counseling clients nothing will be effective unless we know our client. Listening to our clients is the tool that accomplishes that. I tell students in my counseling class if they learn nothing else but how to listen to clients they will have gotten most of what they need to become good counselors.

In our current educational environment students are required to have an external locus of evaluation. They have to please teacher in order to get a good grade. They need to perform, and we often mandate this when we grade on class contribution and evaluate their performance. As a result they tend to not appreciate or see listening as an active clinical intervention. We also have to get past the lesson plan mentality which, for the insecure, enables control of the interaction. Listening where you seem to give control to the client can be difficult for the insecure clinician or for that matter for the insecure instructor.

To teach listening I have to first distinguish it from being quiet. Most of the time quiet involves waiting for the other to stop talking so you can get your agenda in. I tell students "For true listening you have no agenda you are there in the service of the other, you are there to witness and not help, your mantra is: It is not about me." In order for students to appreciate the power of listening they need actually to experience it. As part of the course, I divide students into support groups of 6 to 8 members. The support groups have their own break out room and I never monitor them — to do so would change the group dynamics. While in the group only one person may talk at a time with no crosstalk or interruption, so that everybody who talks is listened to without judgement. Participants may only talk about self, and nobody is to be coerced into talking. Groups are pledged to maintain confidentiality. I give the group a topic to consider; always first is "the significance of my name," subsequent topics are, Letting Go (death), Important Relationships, Giving Meaning to My Life, and I conclude with My life would be so much better if only I Could....

After each support group there is a class meeting in which everyone including the instructor is in a circle, with no topic. I begin the session with "what do you want to talk about?" Often after I say that there is a painful silence which I never break. This teaches students to be proactive about their learning experience and gives me an opportunity to model counselor listening. I have sat with groups as much as a half hour in silence. When they talk I model listening, seldom giving content, more often than not reflecting back what they say. How often do we get a chance to listen to students? I find it a privilege. We too are often caught up in the mandate to "teach" by advising and providing content. This is not a particularly good model for teaching counseling. An experiential model may be the one that has the most relevance in counseling instruction. Our goal as councilors/teachers is to empower students; listening without being eager to inform or advise may be the best means to achieving that goal.