Just listen

Ever since I became interested in psy-things, I have heard about active listening. Lately, I have heard some more. So, I thought, I need to find out what it is. I actually don’t know.

I need to confess that I’ve always been suspicious of ‘active listening’, not really understanding what exactly it is, always imagining that active listeners could turn their ears towards their interlocutors. However, I do (sort of) understand that you can be better at listening. I discovered it during interviews I carried out. Over the years, I interrupted less, I was able to remember what my interviewee said, wait with the pressing question. Was I listening actively? Not really. To my mind, I was just listening, perhaps getting better at it.

And so, suspicious but, hopefully, with an open mind I went about finding out about active listening methodically: I googled it. And, lo and behold, a number of definitions and descriptions appeared. Here are a few (all from what appeared to be sensible and trustworthy websites directed at psy-people):

  • Active listening is a structured form of listening and responding that focuses the attention on the speaker.
  • Active listening is a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding.
  • Active listening‘ means, as its name suggests, actively listening. That is fully concentrating on what is being said rather than just passively ‘hearing’ the message of the speaker.
  • Active listening is all about building rapport, understanding, and trust.

I’m sorry to say that these descriptions and quite a number of others are nonsense. Take number 1. Listening is normally about focusing on the person who is speaking. How listening is responding, I really don’t understand. I mean, listening is not talking, is it? Even in psychology? Number two is quite revelatory in deciding that listening is listening, but how your listening (active or regular) improves my understanding of you, again, beats me. The difference between ‘passively hearing’ and ‘actively listening’ boils down to the definitions of the two verbs, ‘hear’ and ‘listen’. Number 3 ups the ante, though. Listening is about building rapport and other things. I am happy to go along with it, but how is it different from regular listening? If I just listen to you and you will see that I am listening to you, can I not build rapport? Sure, I can. And, please, don’t tell me that only ‘active listening’ can achieve that. In fact, in my own interviewing practice, it was emotional involvement that was responsible for the rapport and trust. At some considerable price for me. Active listening? I’m not even certain I listened at all….

I must admit that my scepticism was buoyed. That’s exactly what I thought about active listening. It’s just listening, but, shall I say, full of itself. But that wasn’t the end. I decided to look at the active listening skills. Again, you will find quite a few psychological websites talking about them. And what really struck me in all this is that active listening oscillates between making ‘mhm’ sounds and nodding (you can also raise your eyebrows) and saying something. Incidentally, I’m just a patient, not a clinician, and I tend to nod, do mhm-ing or nod when I talk to others – it’s called talking – and I am somewhat perturbed that clinicians need to be told to do it. Bloody hell, I thought, is active listening about changing automatons into humans?

But what about speaking? Yes, contrary to what you might think, active listening is mostly about speaking and not listening. Much like the electric chair is not really for sitting. So, what kind of things are you supposed to say. Well, you could

  • paraphrase
  • summarise
  • ask questions
  • reflect
  • clarify

And, inevitably, I guess, we come back to the issue of ‘communication skills’. In other words, you actively listen only if you to the reflecting and summarising, as well as other such stuff. And that made me think even more intensively. After all, I cannot really assume that intelligent people cannot see the difference between speaking and listening. You know, it’s hardly rocket science, one involves saying something, the other the exact opposite – shutting up (or so you would hope). But here, it actually doesn’t – listening and talking mix, as shutting up means also reflecting.  So, what’s going on? Well, I suggest two explanations.

First, active listening is a display behaviour. Clinicians are required to listen and make sure that I, the patient, know that they’re listening, so they are displaying the listening. All that paraphrasing and summarising is (probably not only) about the clinician making sure that I get it! He or she is so listening that I must be bombarded with the information about it. Indeed, one of the guides to active listening, talks about the active-listening scale in which you assess how you assure the Other that you listen, are receptive (no idea, what it means, sorry), and you will remember (of course, you will…). But, you see, I actually think in real life you can just skip the listening. The acknowledging and assuring becomes so ritualised that you might actually not listen to the patient at all, so long as you display. Both my own experience as well as research suggest that. Note for example that in a study of clinical notes, Justyna Ziolkowska and I have not found a single record that did not contain some misrepresentation of what the patient had said! But the interviews showed that the active listening skills were at full blast. How? Well, the shrinks were displaying!

The second aspect is, do forgive my cynicism, that it’s yet another thing to train, to tell you you’re not good at, another thing that can be objectified, measured, packaged into training modules. And after you deliver the training, you will assess, measure, evaluate, the process never ends! Sod humanity, it’s the active listening skills that are important!

A couple of years ago I had a number of appointments with a clinician. She was great, but there was one thing that really irritated me. It was her nodding. It was very deliberate, studied, almost practiced in front of the mirror. As I talked to her, head would go down and up, almost continuously. I’m pretty certain that she was doing ‘active listening’ and, I’m sorry to say, it was quite idiotic. After a couple of visits, I’m delighted to say, I stopped noticing it. I’m sure, however, should pass the Active Listening Evaluation Scale (ALIEN-S) with flying colours. The active listener of the month! That it did absolutely nothing about rapport, trust or whatever else, oh, who cares?!

But I don’t want to leave this post on a negative note. No. listening is probably a skill, one which can be improved. I say ‘probably’ as I am not entirely certain. I know that interviewing is a skill. I improved it as I read and analysed the transcripts of my interviews (how many clinicians do that?). I noticed my mistakes and I got better in interviewing. Did I get better at listening? I don’t know. I know that my interviews got better. And this is what was important to me.

So, what about you, clinicians? What’s important to you? Is it getting better at ‘active listening’ or is it better at communicating with me? For the former, I think, doesn’t necessarily entail the latter. I’d even say that if ever I sit down in front of you, please don’t do any ‘active listening’. Just listen to me.


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