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The Power of Listening

Li Yirong

Sometimes what we do may seem trivial yet it can have a significant impact on others.

Consider this: When you meet someone who does not judge you or try to change you or try to shield you from fear but only try to understand your situation.

Doesn’t this feeling of acceptance warm your heart?

Listening may be seemingly insignificant yet, sometimes, it gives someone an opportunity to fullyexpress their pain or feelings.

At the first instance, listening appears to be very simple and natural. When we interact with others, talking and listening is an essential process. Listening involves not only merely hearing the words spoken by the other person but also the world portrayed by the messages behind the words. That world, sketched by the speaker, has no right or wrong. For example, a skinny girl told us that she was fat. Our first intuitive reaction might be to say: “You are already very thin!” Our motivation may be good – wanting to help her – perhaps we were very neutral, just saying what we see. However, unintentionally we deny the world sketched out by the girl and cost her the opportunity to speak out her mind.

When we face the sufferings of others, especially someone close to us, we often rush to make recommendations, to comfort or provide our ideas.

We tend to want to help the person solve the problem but may have ignored the real needs of that person. When I first started in psychotherapy, a boy came to see me. He mentioned casually, “I cannot sleep” and then kept quiet. I asked various questions to identify the reasons causing his insomnia. He just answered briefly. I provided possible methods to cure his insomnia and he was quite cooperative. But still there was no significant improvement.

I recalled a supervisor once told me that if I am working harder than my case subject, it means something is wrong. So I stopped all the questioning as well as suggestions and returned the initiative to him. I told him that the time belonged to him. It was his decision whether he wanted to say something or not. Regardless of his decision, I would be there for him.

For the next two sessions, he came but remained silent. Until the third session, he talked incessantly about what happened to him recently. He witnessed his girlfriend’s car accident. She died on the way to the hospital. At that time, he appeared to be strong. He did not shed a tear. His daily routine remained the same and he went out with friends as usual. His friends and relatives around him praised his courage and encouraged his strength. So he was unable to express to his friends and family how traumatised and grief-stricken he was. As he was talking, his tears kept flowing.

In the entire session, I did not say much. All I did was to provide him with a safe environment so that he could say what he wanted to say freely or do what he wanted to do without reservation. I also cared for him unconditionally, listened to his heartfelt words sincerely, allowing him to show his vulnerability.

Listen Sincerely

Listening sincerely not only helps others but can also strengthen relationships. I often hear some parents complaining that their children do not confide in them. The children complained that their parents do not understand them or never really listen to them.

Humanistic psychologist, Carl Rogers, once said: “When someone meets with difficulties, we tend to use our own perspective to try to help and change the other person, making him/her move towards the direction we thought is good. We seldom realize that in fact, in most cases, we respond to our own needs, rather than the needs of the other person. For example, when a child did not get admitted into his/her first choice of school, we may strive to help the child improve the grades. But we do not take into account whether the first choice is ours or that of the child. To be able to sincerely listen to others is not an easy task. In order to sincerely listen to others, we need to set aside our existing ideas and values, and use our heart to understand the other party.”

Listening Skills

First of all, we have to understand the motivation for listening. Do we want to sincerely listen or just merely listen? In today’s busy society, everyone is busy with themselves and do not have much time to listen sincerely. Often we just appear to be listening. For example, we listen so as to let the other person like us, to wait for the opportunity to speak, or we just do not know how to interrupt the speaker.

If you want to listen sincerely, there are some basic tips for beginners:

  1. Do not comment. For example, “You think too much, things are not so complicated.”
  2. Do not give advice. It depends on the person’s needs at that time. Maybe he/she just wants to talk.
  3. Do not ask questions. Do not ask questions just because you want to know more and ignoring the other person’s needs.
  4. Listen intently. Understand the speaker’s feelings and needs.

In general, we listen passively. Actually, listening can be active. What is active listening? With active listening, we would respond in a way that lets the speaker know that we have understood what he/she has said. The following presents some simple tips.

Brief Semantics

Brief semantics means briefly outline the contents or meanings of what the speaker was saying. When restating the points, it is usually shorter and more specific than the speech. Focus on the most important content, rather than repeating every word like a tape recorder.

For example, if someone says a lot about the things that hinder his job promotion. We can say: “It seems that you are encountering difficulties in your job promotion.” A hypothetical tone can give the person a chance to tell you whether your brief description reflects his area of concern.

Emphasis should be placed on the speaker’s ideas, rather than on other parties. For example, a person has a chance for job advancement but has to move outstation. That person keeps talking about his parents’ reaction to this decision. We need to focus on the speaker: “I think you are concerned about your parents’ feelings on your leaving” instead of “Your parents do not want you to leave.”

Emotional Response

Emotional response means that in addition to a brief statement about the speaker’s speech, it will also include the speaker. There can be several sources of the speaker’s feelings: the description of how he/she feels, the spoken contents or body language.

For example, a friend said to you, “I am working six days a week, morning to midnight, and my boss still feels that it is not enough. He does not take into account that I was already working overtime! I have done a lot!” Then we can respond and say: “You sound very angry. That is because you have been working very long hours yet your boss still feels that it is not enough.”


Clarification refers to allowing the speaker an opportunity to clarify his/her thoughts and feelings. The important point is that we want to avoid the use of closed-ended questions. Closed-ended questions usually result in an answer with one or two words. For example, “Can you cope with this situation?” The answer you would get is “Yes” or “No”. Open-ended questions provide the other person an opportunity to state his thoughts or feelings. For example, “How would you handle this situation?”

Listen To Your Heart

The above describes the skills that we can use when we have the energy to care for others. But many times, we find that we are not in the mood to care for others because we also need others to care for us. At times like this, we can choose to listen to our own voice.

A person has limited energy to deal with things. It is after we deal with our own emotions, only then would we have the capacity to help others. How can you listen to your own voice? Well, it is just like listening to your body. When you feel thirsty, you can hear your body’s needs for water. When you have emotional reactions, try to understand what your heart needs.

For example: When you are angry with your partner, perhaps in your heart you hope that he/she can keep you company a little more. When you know what you really need, you can avoid throwing tantrums aimlessly which could make you feel worse and you could also lose the ability to care for others.

Listening seems to be simple. If we listen to ourselves as well as others, it will not only help others but can also improve our relationships with others. Listening also includes looking straight into your own feelings. So why not start listening now?

*In order to protect the client’s identity, the identity and story of the client has been changed.

The author holds a PhD holder in counselling at Columbia University and has worked in New York City Hospital as well as University Counselling Center and other institutions.

The original Chinese article is published in the August 2013 issue of Lapis magazine and is accessible online at: http://www.lapislazuli.org/tw/index.php?p=20130805.html