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Active Listening Exercise

For years now, I have been teaching my patients the active listening exercise. When I attended Cal State Fullerton University in the late seventies and early eighties, while working on my Masters Degree in Counseling, we were expected to demonstrate competency in several different types of psychotherapy. One of the therapies that we had to master was Rogerian Psychotherapy.

Being very different than his predecessors: Freud, Adler, Watson, and Jung, Carl Rogers emphasized the value, uniqueness, and self worth of the individual. Most experts consider him the father of Humanistic Psychology. He is probably most famous for his concept of "unconditional positive regard for the individual". Through his work, "Client-Centered Therapy", a new way of listening emerged. This process, which I will describe below, emphasizes listening over interpreting and critiquing. The listener is encouraged to NOT give feedback, but merely to feedback what they hear the client saying.

As a therapist, over the years, I have encountered other therapies such as Parent Effectiveness Training, Compassionate Listening, and Imago Therapy. They all utilize the active listening technique. Influence of Rogers can be seen everywhere from business negotiation (The Win Win Negotiation) to dealing with angry customers. Prior to his death in the early eighties, Rogers took his approach to a new level by using Active Listening to resolve conflict between the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Although, couples usually use this exercise, it is also effective to use with parents and children, families, and co-workers. It is particularly useful when there is a conflict between two people and the usual manner in speaking to each other ends up in escalation and alienation.

Lastly, when I was a student back in 1980 I told myself that when I became a therapist, I would teach couples Active Listening. So here it is.

Active Listening Exercise
Listen to what talker is saying and take notes.
When the talker is done speaking (5 minute limit), tell the talker what they said in your own words, without adding your point of view, without responding to, without judgment criticism, or body language.

Ask the talker if you "got it"

If the talker says "yes" proceed to next step by asking the talker is there more? Continue steps 1through 4 until the talker says that "there is no more".

If the talker says that you "didn't quite get it", or that "you missed a part or all of it", ask the talker to tell you what you missed. Then repeat steps 1 through 3.

After steps 1 through 5 are completed and the talker has nothing more to add, the next step is to validate the talker's feelings. Validating feelings is a way to tell the talker how their feelings make sense to you, or in other words how you are able to understand them, by putting yourself in their shoes. This step takes practice, but is probably the most important of all the listening steps.

Switch roles and repeat steps 1 through 6.

A few tips for success:
If your schedule allows, practice this exercise with your partner on a daily basis for thirty minutes.
If possible do this exercise the same time every day (evening when the kids are down is preferred by many).
Start off having the speakers only talk about something neutral. It is easy listening to someone talk about their day rather than hearing how angry and disappointed they are with you.

Once both parties have mastered the technique, it is acceptable to talk about conflict with each other.
One fun variation of this exercise is to have the talker rate the listener on a scale of 1 to 10. So after the listener tells the talker what they heard them say, The talker will say you got an 8,or 2 whatever the score is..then they must tell them why the less than perfect score.

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