Who (or what) comes to your mind when you think about active listening?
For me, I think about my girlfriend Jo. She gives her complete attention to my stories, her sole intention to understand. She does not interrupt while I narrate, excepting necessary clarifications. The energy steers me to confide in her. She is my definition of active listening.
As Carl R Rogers, an American psychologist and founder of the person-centered approach asserted:
“We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know.”
Social work, without an iota of doubt, involves a lot of listening as we engage with our clients. Hence, the approaches we employ to listen, especially while COVID-19 is taking a negative toll on various aspects of our well-being, can determine the effectiveness of our services.
In order to actively listen, we often must make an effort to be aware of our prejudices and preferences within personal and professional realms. Hence, our commitment to our ethical responsibilities to our clients by respecting their human dignity, worth, and self-determination to make decisions for themselves. This awareness is possible when one is cognizant of different ways of interacting and listening.
For instance, in Collaborating with the Enemy, Kahane mentions the following 4 types of listening techniques: downloading, debating, dialoguing, and presenting.
- In downloading mode, the person thinks their story is the ultimate truth and ignores or suppresses other narratives out of anger, fear, or arrogance. In this phase, the person only listens to their own stories and agrees to perspectives they are comfortable with. The author points out this is usually a behavior expressed by dictators or experts.
- While in the debating approach, the space for the various views of expression, some ideas win while others lose. In this mode, people are aware of their perspectives are not absolute, so outward listening can occur.
- Through dialoguing technique, one person listens empathetically and subjectively to another. This is self-reflective and listening happens from inside them. Kahane reminds this style promotes new possibilities to emerge.
- Finally, in presenting mode, people listen without any agenda and are open to conversations without boundaries. The individual is fully present and pays attention to not just a specific idea or person but considers the system as a whole.
Because the nature of our job grants us the freedom to perform a wide variety of functions at various levels and capacities (such as facilitating, coaching, counseling, educating, developing resources, writing and researching, advocating, managing, leading, negotiating, building communities, and more) the significance of listening with empathy and patience cannot be underestimated. This will not only enable us to understand their changing needs but also influences our efficiency and capacity to serve our clients well.