Stop talking, start listening!

listen-picAs social workers and social work students we understand, I suspect, the importance of effective communication and spend a lot of time thinking about what we should say and how we should say it. We think about what signals we send through our tone of voice and our body language. But, do we give enough time to listening and thinking about how to listen?

Listening is a physical and cerebral act. We need to engage our ears and our brains. As we physically hear we should be working through what is being said, why it’s being said, and just what does it all mean. All the time thinking about direction for the conversation. Keep all of your plates spinning at once springs to mind! So our brains need to be engaged in the activity and we need to appear present, not distracted, while all of this is going on. Exposure to doing this is really the only way you learn. I work with students from time to time on communication and they tend to leap straight to problem solving before finding out enough. There’s an urgency to intervene, to offer a solution, when often people just want to be heard. Simple? Not really!

Listening attentively is part of demonstrating empathy (but not the whole story!) We are trying to understand what a person means by understanding their position. We are trying to understand how they feel – something I feel we often miss at the expense of trying to get to the facts (I think evidence based practice has kicked intuition into touch at times). We are trying to ‘feel’ with the other person what their experience of reality is and try to show our understanding by feeding some of it back to them to confirm or develop our understanding. You can also show this non verbally through your facial expressions and body language.

You can never fully understand how the person feels and what they are experiencing but you must try to get close. As I once read somewhere (and I wish I could find where – if you know tell me!) – empathy is walking in the other persons shoes but with your own socks on! 

As practitioners we can’t always rely purely on our empathetic listening – there’s a tension between empathy and actually generating a direction – we are not simply in conversation – we are in a conversation with a purpose. We need to think, while ‘in action’ how to help a person move forward or we risk reinforcing the persons position having had them ‘tell all’ and simply leave them there. That’s not good! We have to deal, as far as we can, with what we are told. All of this builds up a working alliance, understanding, and trust. ‘Here is someone who is listening and is trying to help’.


The tension at times can be that we also need to listen objectively with a certain level of detachment. I don’t like that word but I still think it’s the right word. You have to be there in the moment, in the persons shoes (but with your socks on!) but also outside of the moment to offer that objective view that is also required just as much as the subjective view – or how would we ever get anywhere?

We need to be cautious that our objective view is not fuelled by our own value base and therefore imposes, through any power we may have, or be perceived to have, our way forward. To do this then we need to practice in a certain way. We need to engage in a equal conversation. Avoid phrases, or imparting knowledge that shows a power imbalance. Don’t interrupt but rather wait patiently giving supportive non verbal cues. We need to seek to understand both thoughts and feelings from the other persons perspective guarding against ‘expectant listening where you hear what it is you want to hear filtering out the bits of the message that don’t fit with where you want to take a situation. Don’t filter out things you believe to be untrue or irrelevant but hear them and consider them fully. If someone is telling you something that is not the truth – then why? When working with people with some sort of impairment or disturbance of mind their response may seem irrelevant in terms of what you’ve just asked but may be very relevant in terms of something they are trying to tell you. In these circumstances and others explore what you hear both literally and for underlying messages.

Also, attend carefully to messages the person sends about themselves and how they view themselves. Stereotypes exist not only in our minds but also in the minds of the people who the stereotype is deemed to fit. The media is a powerful thing and people will be acutely aware of how people in their position are portrayed and may well buy into that portrayal. In the way we talk and present we tell others, and feedback to ourselves, just what we think about ourselves. You may well need to unpick stereotypes that are influencing people in how they think about themselves.

So communication is physical and cerebral. We need to engage in both empathetic and objective listening. Most of all, for me, we need to show that we are alongside people and not there to simply ‘do to them’. Talking and listening are both powerful tools!

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