November 16, 2015

Watchcare: Active Listening

Active listening is a technique most used in counseling to assist the practitioner in gathering authentic and accurate information from a patient. It requires the practitioner to exhibit core interpersonal qualities and basic interpersonal skills. Active listening is also an excellent tool for sisters of Alpha Phi to better support and care for their sisters. You can use these qualities and skills to:

Listen to a sister in need
Understand someone’s decision making process 
Mediate a conflict between two people

The core interpersonal qualities of an active listener are:

1. Warmth and Genuineness: Being warm towards a sister means showing kindness, acceptance, and love. In contrast, think of someone whom you would describe as “cold.” This person probably didn’t show any interest in your concern and you may have been less likely to open up to this person again. Showing warmth means verbally showing interest, smiling or matching the sisters facial expressions, asking about how someone is doing, or by the tone of your voice or body language. Genuineness requires the listener to be able to be honest with themselves and the sister about their own biases and strengths. Being authentic with a sister will allow them to be more authentic, open and honest with you.

2. Empathy: We often think of showing sympathy to those who have experienced a loss or a misfortunate situation. Unlike sympathy-which means to show pity on someone-empathy is showing understanding of one’s situation. Those who are empathetic are able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes to understand how they are feeling. We may never be able to fully understand someone’s situation if we have not lived it ourselves, but being empathetic allows others to feel safe in our company.

3. Respect: Showing respect for a sister is as simple as noticing the good in others, even if they have made a poor decision. Respectful listeners acknowledge how the person is feeling, without condoning behavior. Respectful listeners also can acknowledge their own abilities, strengths, and mistakes if they interpret a person’s communication incorrectly.

Here are some tips on the basic interpersonal skills to be an active listener:

 Overserving and Attending: Active listeners take mental note of the person’s body language, tone of voice, and non-verbal communication. In order to do this, remove all distractions from the conversation. Meet in a neutral quiet location and put phones away. Give yourself a set amount of time so that you aren’t constantly worried about what is coming up next on your schedule. As you’re able, sit squarely across from the person, keeping your arms uncrossed, and your posture open to your sister.

• Listening: This may seem an obvious skill for active listening, but listening carefully is quite difficult for people to do. Have you ever been in an argument and while the other person was talking, you were preparing your next comeback line? That’s what we want to avoid when we actively listen to others. When we listen, we want to seek the meaning behind the words, not just hear the person.

• Express Understanding: The best way to know if you understood someone correctly is to ask. You might ask in the form of a question: What I hear you saying is…, is that correct? Or it might be a reflection of the feelings that they are displaying or communicating: It sounds like you feel sad about what happened last night; OR I can see tears coming to your eyes. Are you sad about what happened? If the sister says something vague and you need more information to form an understanding, you can simply say Tell me more about that, and the sister may give you additional information. If at any point your sister explains that you’ve understood her incorrectly, remember to be respectful and warm, accept the correction, acknowledge your new understanding, and continue the conversation.

Part of being a great sister is acknowledging that we are not experts or professional counselors. As much as we want to be able to fix all of our sister’s problems and make everything ok, we can’t. Knowing when and how to refer someone to a professional, is an excellent skill to have. If your sister exhibits any of the following, it’s time to refer:

A loss of a loved one, grieving
Alcohol or drug dependency
Suicidal thoughts

Making a referral can feel scary and sometimes like it’s not our business. But your sisters mental and physical wellbeing IS your business and is the business of Watchcare. If you notice that you need to make a referral, be honest with your sister. Thank her for sharing and talking with you, but that it might be best if she talk with a counselor. Tell here that there is a counseling center on/near campus that is available for her and that you’d be happy to walk her to the office to make an appointment. If she doesn’t want to physically go there, you can offer to call on her behalf so she can speak with the office or counselor. It is important to know your campus’ counseling center phone number or campus safety number. Sometimes just sharing a pamphlet or contact information will work for a sister. Follow up with her later to see how she’s doing.
If a sister is exhibiting suicidal thoughts or attempts to commit suicide, call your campus safety or 911 right away. They will be able to assist you in assessing the sister’s current state and determine if she needs immediate attention. 
Active listening takes a lot of energy, so it is important that you also take care of yourself before and after having this kind of conversation. It might be appropriate for you to visit with a counselor as well as someone’s story may impact you emotionally.

Alumnae Author: Katherine Lesperance (Delta Kappa, Wisconsin La Crosse)

Chang, V. N., Scott, S.T., & Decker, C.L. (2009). Developing Helping Skills: A Step-by-Step Approach (with DVD) 1st Edition. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole CENGAGE Learning

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