May 19, 2010

Why Are There Conditions for Active Listening?

The Appropriate Conditions for Active Listening

To listen to another with the intention of helping that person deal with a personal problem is to assume a counseling posture. Such a postures is characterized by having the intention of helping another person; using good attending behavior; being accepting, empathic, and genuine; and using Active Listening. For this counseling posture to work well, certain conditions must be present; otherwise, either the sender of the listener, or both, may resent or regret the experience. The following are the necessary conditions:

Conditions Within the Other Person

1. Must be having strong feelings and/or be aware of having a problem,

2. Must be giving off cues and clues that express those feelings or problems ("I'm worried, I've got a problem," crying, sulking, etc.) and

3. Must be willing to talk to the listener about the situation.

What happens if these conditions are not present in the other person?
If feelings or problems are not present in the other person, or s/he is not willing to talk, taking a counseling posture can imply that the sender is "sick" and the listener is well, and Active Listening may seem like a maddening, demeaning word game. The "counselor" at such times may be greeted with scorn or hostility.

Conditions Within the Listener

The listener must have a genuinely helpful "set" in the following areas:

1. Feel genuinely accepting (not needing to change the sender).

2. Want to help (not just be turning on a technique).

3. Have, and want to take, enough time.
(If not, a later appointment can be set up. Or if talk takes more time than expected, it can be continued at a later, agreed upon time.)

4. Trust that the other, with some helpful support, can solve their own problem better than the listener can.

What sometimes makes this difficult to believe is our long exposure to the authoritative, culturally-accepted "medical model" for helping another. In that model, any helper is seen as analogous to a "doctor" who gathers symptoms and data, diagnoses the patient's problem, and decides on an prescribes the best treatment. The helpee, as the "patient", is then expected to follow "doctor's orders." Within this cultural orientation, it is often hard to believe that the other people are their own best experts for solving their own problems.

(Incidentally, the medical profession itself is beginning to trade in this archaic approach in favor of involving patients more more in their own treatment.)

5. Feel reasonably separate from the other person and the problem.

This means recognizing clearly that you are not the other person; that his or her pain is not your pain; the other person owns the problem, not you; and that you are empathizing, not identifying.

What happens if these conditions are not present in the listener?
If these conditions are not met, the listener's Active Listening will inevitably (and usually unconsciously) reflect that in the form of:
  1. Attempts to change or influence the other person with hidden solutions, judgments, etc. buried in the feedbacks.
  2. Nonverbal cues of unacceptance or lack of interest.
  3. Inability to decode the other person's real messages. The "inner ear" will be turned off.
The send will experience such Active Listening as manipulative, condescending, frustrating or boring, and will react with scorn or hostility.

In short, if these conditions are not met inside the listener, the time is not right for him/her to become a counselor. Instead, the listener should reevaluate the behavior responded to in terms of its placement in the Behavior Window and look again for the most appropriate choice of skills.*

* Excerpt from Dr. Thomas Gordon's F.E.T. Adult Resource Book

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