Listening Skills 101 Mark Zelig, Ph.D., ABPP Board Certified

Listening Skills 101
Mark Zelig, Ph.D., ABPP
Board Certified Forensic and Clinical Psychologist
6925 Union Park Center, Suite 600
Cottonwood Heights, Utah 84047
Listening skills are essential to developing relationships and to helping others who
are experiencing turmoil or crisis. As Egan (1990, p. 107) has pointed out, these skills are
not special, they are simply extensions of the basic skills that are needed to maintain or
develop interpersonal relationships.
The skilled listener is able to help their family, friends, and coworkers solve
problems. Listening skills are also the foundation of diffusing people in highly charged
situations, and are applicable to almost all situations in which communication is important.
Effective listening is so important that one can find references in such diverse areas
ranging from therapy manuals, guides to parenting, and even training manuals for hostage
negotiators. In short, these skills are helpful for anyone who is invested in another person.
Why do listening skills help people solve problems and facilitate relationships? Here are
some of my ideas on why listening skills are so helpful:
1. When you listen attentively and actively to others, you are communicating in a
powerful manner that you care.
2. Listening skills, specifically those that involve reflecting the content and the
emotion of the sender's message, help insure that the receiver is correctly understanding
the message.
3. Listening skills that encourage the sender to elaborate their thoughts and feelings
may serve to organize those thoughts and feelings to the point that a solution is more
apparent. That is, one must impose greater organization on their thoughts and feelings to
communicate them than when merely ruminating about these internal events. Any
experienced therapist, hostage negotiator, or other crisis worker can usually cite examples
in which the sender solved their situation simply through the exercise of communicating
their concerns to a receptive listener.
4. Some people who are driven to extreme forms of expression, such as suicide or
violence, are crying out for help. Helping these people resolve their problems by verbal
expression can reduce the need to resort to such desperate measures.
Egan (1990) in discussing communication skills, distinguishes between attending
and listening. Attending refers to the way that the listener conveys their attention and
interest to the sender. Listening "refers of the ability of helpers to capture and understand
the messages [people] communicate, whether these messages are transmitted verbally
or nonverbally, clearly or vaguely" (p. 108).
Copyright 1998-2009 Mark Zelig, Ph.D., ABPP
Mark Zelig, Ph.D., ABPP
Listening Skills 101
Page 2
Attending: Being with the Sender
Your "attentive presence" can facilitate communication, encourage trust, and the willingness to
share experience and feelings. Egan (1990) has coined an acronym called SOLER to help
remember the five microskills of attending. These include:
S Face the person squarely. Your posture should convey involvement. Choose
a body orientation that conveys "I want to be with you. I want to hear you." Of course, in some
situations, a square head-on posture may be too threatening.
O Assume an open posture. Crossed arms and legs generally convey less
involvement, whereas a more open posture conveys greater accessibility. Egan cites research in
which therapists with open postures are viewed as more confident and capable than counselors
who are more closed.
L Lean toward the other person. Imagine that the upper part of your body is on a
hinge. If you lean forward you display more involvement. It says, "I'm interested in you." Leaning
backward often conveys boredom.
E Eye contact. More eye contact indicates more involvement, but overdoing it can
make the sender feel uncomfortable.
R Be Relaxed or comfortable in using these microskills.
Active Listening
Listening to people involves attending to both their nonverbal and verbal production. Social
psychologists have established that nonverbal behavior tends to "leak" information to others. This
section assumes people exchange powerful nonverbal messages with each other, although they
may not be consciously aware that they are processing this information. When we desire to help
someone, there are five areas of nonverbal behavior to pay attention to. The following list is
adapted from Egan (1990):
1. Bodily behavior: Note a person's posture, body movements, and gestures.
2. Facial expressions: Smiles, frowns, the movement of eyebrows can all provide
information. People actually glean more information about who likes them based on facial
expressions than by the actual words spoken by the sender.
3. Voice-related behavior. Tone of voice, volume changes, rate of speech, pauses, and
silences can be very informative. This is especially important for hostage negotiators, telephone
crisis workers, and others who cannot rely on visual cues.
4. Observable physical responses. Note rapid or relaxed breathing, blushing, sweating, and
pupil dilation. Do not overlook the watering of eyes that occurs if someone is on the verge of tears.
5. Physical features and general appearance.
Remember: It is often a mistake to seize upon one aspect of nonverbal behavior and interpret it
as meaning one thing or the other. A skilled listener notes the total context of the situation, and
reads the nonverbal cue accordingly. One of the most best uses of nonverbal behavior is to point
out to the sender when their nonverbal message contradicts their verbal message.
Copyright 1998-2009 Mark Zelig, Ph.D., ABPP
Mark Zelig, Ph.D., ABPP
Listening Skills 101
Page 3
Responses that Encourage Talking and Problem-Solving
In providing illustrations of a response that encourages talking and problem-solving, I often make
reference to situations that occur on-the-job, or in a law enforcement context. These simply reflect
the context in which I have provided training. The illustrations are applicable to most situations in
which listening is important.
1. Paraphrase: Repeating back the message insures that you heard it correctly and conveys your
interest in the content of the sender's message.
I cannot trust anyone on my shift. They say rotten things about me and
spread rumors. I cannot figure out what I ever did to them!
You feel that people on your shift say negative things about you, and you
cannot figure out why they do this.
2. Emotional Reflection. The listener believes that the emotional message is more important than
the content of the message, and thus responds to the emotional part.
[Noting that the Sender's eyes are watery and wheeling with tears]. It really
hurts that people spread rumors about you.
You're ready to cry.
Your eyes are tearing.
3. Reflection of key or loaded words.
emotionally-loaded word or phrase:
This type of emotional refection focuses on an
I know I will not make it through the Field Training Officer Program. I've
always wanted to be a cop. My mother and father were. I'm going to be the
first one in my family to fail on the police department.
4. Open-ended questions.
What will happen if you fail on the police department?
5. Respect moments of silence. Do not interrupt silences unless they go too long. If you get
anxious when people get silent, remember, this is your anxiety. Set your anxiety aside. If the
silence goes too long, you may reflect on the silence:
You’re not talking.
This sounds too painful to talk about.
6. Touching: In relationships in which touching is appropriate it can convey concern and attention.
7. Short responses are usually more effective than long-winded statements. Keep it short. In
some cases, long-winded responses may be a manifestation of the listener’s anxiety about the
topic being discussed.
Obstacles to listening and understanding people
1. Inadequate listening: This usually occurs when the listener is distracted by their own
issues or thoughts.
Copyright 1998-2009 Mark Zelig, Ph.D., ABPP
Mark Zelig, Ph.D., ABPP
Listening Skills 101
Page 4
2. Evaluative listening: When one gives advice or evaluates the merits of someone's
message before fully understanding the situation. Keep in mind, many people who ask for advice
really don’t want advice. They want someone to listen.
3. Filtered listening: Our biases, prejudices, or theories can filter what we hear. Hearing
what you want to hear is not listening.
4. Excessive interrupting. Interrupting conveys your contempt, lack of interest, or need to
control. However, when someone is giving a long compound message there is usually nothing
wrong with saying:
“Heather, this is really important for me to understand. Could you hold on so
I can make sure that I understand what you just said.”
If the above response is not appropriate or doesn’t work, you might say, after someone has paused
in the middle of a long compound speech,
“Heather, you said a lot there. What is the most important part you want me
to hear?”
5. Talking too much. Many senders talk too much when the subject matter is threatening
to the sender or causing anxiety. By talking too much, the sender dilutes the message because
there are so many issues or topics the Listener has a hard time responding to the key issues. So
if a topic gets you anxious, resist the temptation to go on and on. Instead, state an important point,
stop, and let the listener respond.
6. Rescuing. Sometimes it is more important to listen and understand than provide comfort
or reassurance. While providing reassurance is sometimes the thing to do, sometimes it is more
helpful in the long run, to listen and allow the Sender to work out the problem themselves.
7. Finally, don’t overdo it! Paying too much attention to these techniques and failing to
listen to the context, overall message, and the general theme of the sender is not helpful.
8. Being too frightened to make a mistake listening. It is okay to misinterpret or not
understand the sender. They will correct you. Senders can forgive mistakes because even if you
get it wrong, your attempt to understand conveys your concern.
9. Failure to practice listening skills. These skills take time to develop. You will make
mistakes. If that is a big concern, get over it!
Egan, G. (1990).
The skilled helper (4th Ed.). Pacific Grove, CA.: Brooks/Cole Publishing
Copyright 1998-2009 Mark Zelig, Ph.D., ABPP