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How to be an active listener

As a disability support worker, you’re required to work closely with other human beings. This means there are many opportunities for misunderstandings, confusion and of course feelings! Good communication skills can assist you to manage some of the more problematic experiences of such intimate work eg. when a client becomes upset or distressed. One of the most powerful communication tools is active listening.

Things to try:

  • put the focus of attention totally on the speaker
  • repeat conversationally and tentatively, in your own words, your understanding of the speakers meaning
  • feedback feelings as well as content
  • reflect back not only to show you understand, but also that the speaker can hear and understand his or her own meaning (this gives the speaker the opportunity to correct any miss-understandings.)
  • gently challenge hopelessness and powerlessness (eg. if someone says “it’s hopeless” reflect back “it feels hopeless right now” or if someone says “there is nothing I can do”, reflect back “there is nothing you can think of that could fix it right now”.)
  • allow silences

 Things to avoid:

  • avoid talking about yourself and your experiences
  • don’t ignore the feelings, repeating them back to the speaker will help validate what they are feeling
  • avoid advising, diagnosing, reassuring or criticising
  • dispense with thinking about what to say next, attend only to the speaker
  • don’t pretend you have understood if you haven’t
  • avoid fixing, changing, or improving what the speaker has said
  • resist filling every space with your own talk

If your client is struggling to put words to their experience you can assist them by gently asking open ended questions:

  • use “How” “What” “Could” “When” and avoid “Why” as it can make a person feel defensive
  • Examples
    • “How do you feel about the situation?”
    • “What are some things that trouble you most?”
    • “Could you give a concrete or specific example?”
    • “When do you notice these feelings arise?”

Remember when a client is distressed, the best way to help them is to actively listen and let them tell their story. Once they have felt heard and validated their distress is likely to be lessened.


Source: Dr Andrew Sinclair and Jenny Koadlow from Independence Australia

If you have concerns for your client’s well-being, please let them know Independence Australia offers a counselling and psychology service for eligible people with a disability. Click here for more information.