Basic Listening Skills for Counselors

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Female Doctor Taking Notes in Front of the Curly Haired Patient Holding Her Head

Qualified mental health counselors must go through years of formal education and hours of clinical practice to attain certification or licensure. The experience gained in these practical areas of study is priceless to counselors crafting a well-rounded foundation of knowledge from which to draw when interacting with clients.

However, as important as the hard skills derived from research, studies and classroom lessons are, the soft skills that complement them are just as vital for students to hone. Although working with clients does depend on a counselor’s ability to use his or her knowledge base to diagnose, engaging with clients is impossible without knowing how to communicate or empathize, which are both key listening skills that counselors need to master.

In many ways, these qualities may come naturally to students. After all, counselors often choose their line of work because they want to help others. Yet in the race to employment or achieving status, the importance of these basic listening skills may be lost in favor of CVs packed with accomplishments and merits. While careers may benefit, it’s possible client relationships can be impacted by a disregard of listening skills.

Ensuring a holistic education for qualified mental health counselors is central to any institution’s mission, and Bradley University is no different. Online students in our Master of Arts in Counseling program will be exposed to the skills needed to succeed in the counseling world. To start, here are some of the most vital listening skills counselors need to build up and why.

Employers increasingly value listening skills that are hard to find

Having the hard skills necessary to do the job is a baseline requirement in many employers’ minds when hiring. But when applicants boast many of the same or similar technical abilities, the repertoire of listening skills present in each may become the deciding factor.

In a 2016 LinkedIn survey, 59 percent of responding hiring managers said listening skills are difficult to recruit for. A Wall Street Journal report from the same year found an even greater demand not being met: Of 900 executives surveyed in 2015, 92 percent saw listening skills as being equally important, or more important, than hard skills. However, 89 percent said they had trouble finding candidates with sufficient listening skills.

In an increasingly crowded and capable labor market, employers consistently are looking for candidates with listening skills competencies. What are these skills? LinkedIn, in connection with its survey, studied member profiles and found the most in-demand listening skills are used in:

  • Communication
  • Organization
  • Teamwork
  • Critical thinking
  • Creativity
  • Adaptability
  • Friendly personality

When it comes to counseling, it’s readily apparent why such skills are valued, as they are key traits of an effective and engaging counselor.

Counselor shows client something on tablet.

Communication is more than just talking

Perhaps the most important soft skill to counseling is communication. This assertion may seem obvious, as counselors and their clients need an avenue in which to express themselves in one way or another for anything productive to occur, but the subject of communication is more nuanced and varied than merely just taking turns speaking and listening.

For instance, body language plays a large role in shaping an interaction or how well counselors and their clients communicate. While a client may say one thing, he or she could be masking an emotion or thought with words. However, counselors adept at picking up on visual cues (like individuals shifting their weight, changing body position, avoiding eye contact or otherwise physically indicating a disparity between what’s said and their real intent) may be better able to connect with their clients and pursue modes of conversation or questions that can illuminate the real issue.

Yet body language, just like communication overall, is a two-way street. It’s incumbent on counselors to utilize body language that makes clients feel more comfortable and in an environment that encourages them to open up. For example, if a counselor absentmindedly (or habitually) crosses his or her arms while sitting down without intending it to be an outward manifestation of inapproachability or annoyance, the gesture may very well come off as being such to a client.

Another aspect of communication is nonverbal stimuli. Silence can be an effective tool for counselors. Utilized in different situations, it may assure clients that their counselor is truly listening to them (by avoiding constant interruptions that may disrupt a train of thought) or it could provoke a client into divulging more by withholding verbal assent, which a client may react to.

In a study on the effects of communication in counseling published by the International Journal of Economics and Management Sciences, authors Patrick Adigwe and Ephraim Okoro of Howard University concluded that “effective counseling practice should have … an awareness of the importance of interpersonal communication, and an appreciation for empathetic and active listening.”

Empathy cannot be put on

Empathy, in some ways, is an extension of communication. The latter is the framework in which the former can be realized, and it is vital that counselors are able to adequately display empathy when communicating with clients to build relationships and create productive discussions. It is also critically important that empathy is separated from sympathy. Sympathy is a mutual feeling caused by phenomena that affect two (or more) people equally; empathy, which is what counselors must practice, is the capacity to understand that feeling, to dispassionately experience it.

Counselors cannot physically feel an addict’s pain nor the recently bereaved person’s grief, and attempting to force those conditions on themselves (in the case of sympathizing) is not conducive to a client relationship. Rather, what counselors need is a developed sense of empathy. They can use this skill to demonstrate to clients that while counselors may not be able to feel things in the same intimate way, they can understand without judgment. Empathy provides a grounded point of view that helps the client feel comfortable in knowing their counselor is listening to them.

Demonstrating empathy is not easy. Counselors can be presented with any number of situations and scenarios in which they may find it difficult to project true empathy.
Some exercises to effect this skill include:

  • Projecting acceptance. The slightest hint of bias or judgment may make a client feel less welcome to converse with the honesty and frankness needed to be productive.
  • Not pretending to understand. If a counselor has trouble in understanding the problem as the client does, the counselor does a disservice to both parties if trying to pretend as such. Instead, counselors should ask questions or probe further to gain greater insight that will lead to empathy.

Helping and personality central to relationship building

When clients seek out a counselor, they do so not just to have someone listen to them but also to find a partner to help engineer solutions to their problems, someone who they can look to and trust. In essence, clients are looking for helpers.

The quality of helping is especially important in some counseling specializations, particularly group settings. Whether counselors are in charge of shepherding families, underprivileged youth or individuals in recovery, clients will look to the one who genuinely cares: the counselor. This position of helping can be unfamiliar to some and even harder to master for others; however, the tenor and substance of the discussion mostly will depend on a counselor’s ability to act as a helping professional and provide a safe environment for clients.

Some responsibilities counselors may need to assume include listening actively, empowering clients, instilling confidence and being sincere.

In addition to helping roles, counselors may need to use different leadership styles to effectively engage with clients, as each case will require different strategies.

Personality plays a large role in forming a helping professional. It’s often enough that a counselor uses listening skills in client relationships that are built on interpersonal communication and interaction. Counselors need to present a respectable and inviting ear for clients.

Basic skills are necessary to being an effective counselor

Because counseling is so rooted in interaction between humans, it requires an advanced set of listening skills. Getting results depends on using the science of counseling, as well as the art of connecting, empowering and understanding.

Individuals pursuing continued education to further sharpen their competencies can look to an online program, like Bradley University’s Master of Arts in Counseling, as a potential avenue to greater mastery of listening skills.


Recommended Readings

What Is The Difference Between a Master’s in Counseling and Master’s in Social Work?

CMHC or PSC: A Look at These Two Counseling Specialties

Bradley University Online Counseling Programs