Saturday, June 30, 2012

Active Listening: The Primary Micro-skill

Active Listening: the Primary Micro-skill

Active listening is the deliberate process of hearing as well as heeding the spoken and unspoken words of clients. It is an active process and requires deliberate attention and focus. Active listening includes the use of head nodding, brief vocal agreements, and consistent eye contact. This micro-skill provides the foundational framework for empathy, which is one of the most healing aspects of the therapeutic alliance. It's overall effects demonstrate to clients validation, responsiveness, acknowledgment, and endorsement, as well as the listener's intent to fully understand the message of the sender. Toller (1999) believes active listening is the basis for all therapeutic communication. If counselors must make one skill their default counseling skill, I believe it should be active listening.

Active Listening: Bridging the Communication Gap

Active listening does more than yield information for intake; it enables a counselor to hear the information that hides between or behind the clients' words. This attentive focus exposes information that is not always spoken, but is, nonetheless, communicated by the client. Active listening contributes some transparency in the communicative aspect of the therapeutic relationship, because this micro-skill lets counselors hear meaning in the often chaotic or imprecise words of the client. It enables the counselor's understanding of the client's world without the client having to express every feeling and emotion (some of which they may not be prepared to articulate or acknowledge.) Clients cannot always clearly say what they mean, but active listening can give a client's unintelligible expression an audible meaning.

Active Listening to Strengthen Counselor Self-Efficacy and the Therapeutic Alliance

Active listening, according to Levitt (2001) supports counselor effectiveness, specifically by establishing a level of confidence in new counselors. Lepkowski, Packman, Smaby, and Maddux (2009) suggest even though new counselors have a fairly accurate self-assessment of counseling skills, they may, in fact, lack the experience to provide them with a strong sense of self-efficacy. Levitt (2001) found, when counselors anxiously manage their use of micro-skills, they listen less effectively and fail to focus on the client.

Rather than trying to focus on a precise delivery of the full range of micro-skills, simply listening actively gives the counselor the experience of efficiency and effectiveness. Self-efficacy directly contributes to the therapeutic alliance because it supports the counselor's comfort level and heightens communication skills as well as the effective implementation of the tools and techniques of counseling (Levitt, 2001). Ultimately, active listening "creates the foundation for good rapport, and for better patient outcomes" (Bryant, 2009, para. 4) and creates a sense of understanding in the relationship.

When active listening is effectively implemented, the counselor and the client are comfortable and communication is optimal. The client perceives the counselor is listening, hearing, and understanding what he or she is saying. Additionally, in dyadic communication, active listening promotes openness and a feeling of safety and trust (Bryant, 2009). This benefits the therapeutic alliance, making the relationship safe and supportive for the client.


Bryant, L. (2009). The art of active listening. Practice Nurse, 37(6), 49-52.

Knapp, H. (2007). Therapeutic communication: Developing professional skills. Los Angeles: Sage Publications

Lepkowski, W. J., Packman, J., Smaby, M. H., & Maddux, C. (2009). Comparing self and expert assessment of counseling skills before and after skills training, and upon graduation. Education, 129(3), 363–371.

Levitt, D. H. (2001). Active listening and counselor self-efficacy: Emphasis on one microskill in beginning counselor training. Clinical Supervisor, 20(2), 101–115.

Toller, P. (1999). Chapter 3: Learning to listen, learning to hear: A training approach. In P. Millner & B. Carolin (Eds.). Time to listen to children: Personal and professional communication (pp. 48-61). New York: Routledge.

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