How to Listen Like a Counselor

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So you want to listen like an experienced counselor? In this post by Brad Hambrick, which appeared first here on The Biblical Counseling Coalition website, you’ll learn (or re-learn) how to listen well. Leave a comment and let us know what you think of Brad’s article. Thank you!

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This post makes two assumptions: (a) that counselors are good listeners, and (b) the manner in which a counselor listens to a counselee is – at least in some ways – different from how one friend listens to another. There are plenty of exceptions to these assumptions; however, by clearly stating them you know where I’m coming from.

Metaphor One: Relationship to the Story

Let’s start with the question, “How does (should) a counselor listen differently than a friend?” I believe the answer can be found in the following metaphor: a friend listens as a participant in your story, while a counselor listens as an observer of your story. This creates the tendency on the part of a friend to be self-referential in their listening; asking (whether silently or aloud) questions like,

  • What did I do to contribute to this?
  • What should I have done to prevent this?
  • And what do you want me to do in the future about this?

These are not bad questions. At the right time, they are very proactive and loving questions. But in the early stage of hearing someone’s struggle, they put the listener too much at the center of the friend’s story.

A counselor should endeavor to be more objective. The questions a counselor is filtering as they listen include things like,

  • Who are the key people and events in this story?
  • How is this person making sense of what is happening?
  • To whom or what are they assigning responsibility?
  • What is most significant to this person about the story they are telling me?
  • What would make the biggest difference, for better or worse, in the story I’m being told?

From a friend, these questions might come across as too impersonal or aloof. But in the counseling context, it helps the person who is sharing their story feel understood–like their concerns are at the forefront.

Metaphor Two: Incarnation

Let’s introduce a second, more theological, metaphor. Listening is incarnational – it is how we enter and get to know another person’s world. Just like Jesus’ earthly ministry began with the incarnation, so our ministry with a friend or counselee begins with entering their world and getting to know it as they experience it. This is a significant part of what it means for Christ to be our Great High Priest in Hebrews 4:15-16:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Whether we are a friend or a counselor, we want to be incarnational in how we listen.

The Practice of Listening

No instruction can create or replace internal desire; the main skill in being a good listener is wanting to be a good listener. The core of listening is placing enough value on the other person and what he/she is saying that you quit playing your thoughts (mentally or verbally) over theirs. When you begin to do this, you will find that your responses and body language almost always draw out the other person. The skills below are merely examples of things that show people they are valued.

1. Show and Maintain Interest

Some conversations are innately more interesting because of their subject. This makes effective listening much more natural. However, there are times when we are more interested because we value the relationship rather than what is being shared.

2. Honor Through Body Language

Most indicators of interest level are non-verbal: eye contact, pleasant facial expressions, nodding your head, leaning forward, facing the speaker, relaxed shoulders, unfolded arms, and removing distractions (i.e., checking your phone or working on a project). When we fail to honor the other person through body language, we create a temptation for them to increase the “force” of their speaking to gain our attention.

3. Clarify Confusing Points

Often a confused expression or tilted head is enough to request clarification without interrupting. Good clarifying questions assume that there is a good answer for what doesn’t make sense yet.

For example, it is better to ask, “How do those two points fit together?” than “How can those two points fit together?” – “How do…” assumes there is an explanation, while “How can…” expresses skepticism as to whether there is an explanation. Times of confusion tend to be critical junctures where grace leaves communication.

4. Summarize Information

Summarize the key points or experiences the other person has shared before giving a response. Beyond ensuring that you are responding to what the other person was actually trying to say, this has another benefit. It also allows you to clarify whether your response pertains to part or all of what was said. When we fail to summarize, it is common for partial perspectives/suggestions to come across as total generalizations/fixes.

5. Listen to Affirm / Honor

It is so easy to just listen for what needs to be different, changed, or corrected. After all, that is where the progress, growth, or change will happen as a result of communication. However, when we succumb to this temptation, listening becomes a very negative exercise. We also need to listen for what is good, accurate, and noble in what is being said.

6. Listen Like You’re Taking a Prayer Request

The question is often asked, “How do I know if I have listened well?” Here is a good litmus test – could you pray for your friend about this topic of conversation in a way that accurately represents him/her to God? Until you can represent your friend’s concern in prayer, you have not listened well.

7. If You Don’t Know What to Say, Ask More Questions

Often the pressure to know what to say is what prevents us from listening well. We become like the person who so badly wants to sleep, that his desire to sleep prevents him from sleeping. Listening is best done when we’re relaxed (otherwise our fears focus our attention on ourselves instead of the other person). Giving yourself the freedom to merely ask another question if you don’t know what to say can often be the thing that makes the implementation of these other skills possible. 

Questions for Reflection

In your words, how would you describe the difference between “listening as a participant in the story” and “listening as an observer of the story”? What added significance does listening gain when you view it as an incarnational element of ministry? Which of the seven skills listed would be most beneficial for you to focus on to grow as a listener?

Brad Hambrick

About Brad Hambrick

Brad is Pastor of Counseling at The Summit Church in Durham, NC. He also serves as an adjunct professor of biblical counseling at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Brad has been married to his wife, Sallie, since 1999.

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One Comment on “How to Listen Like a Counselor”

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