13.10.2023: As I sit down to write this PIE blog, as the Head of Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE) at the national youth homeless charity — Centrepoint, I have been reflecting on the concept of ‘listening’ and how we can improve our listening skills by taking a ‘psychologically informed’ approach. I am sure most of us think we are ‘good listeners’ — after all if you work in the homeless sector, a key ‘frontline’ skill is being able to listen to the homeless young people we support in order to help meet their needs. Even if you do not work directly with homeless clients, it is still important to have good listening skills in order to work collaboratively with colleagues across our support teams or to engage effectively with external partners or agencies. However, how much do we really reflect on our listening skills and think about ways to develop them even further? How often do we really listen to what another person is saying, rather than make assumptions about what they are saying or inadvertently dismiss their lived or professional experiences? Moreover, how much is it actually about the act of listening and how much is it also about creating psychologically safe spaces that make the speaker feel comfortable in talking to us in the first place?
I have reflected on the concept of ‘listening’ briefly in a previous PIE blog and in particular how important good listening is in engagement and creating psychologically informed relationships (c.f. see here: https://drhelenmiles.medium.com/partnerships-relationships-communication-in-a-pie-83b5768705b9). Nevertheless, I wanted to return to this topic, because of its importance in creating a psychologically informed ‘culture’ within an organisation. Think for a minute about the last conversation you had. Did you feel heard, really heard? If you did not, what could the listener have done to improve this? If you did, what did the listener actually do to leave you with the sense that what you said was important, valued and maybe even gave you confidence that associated actions would follow from that conversation? Perhaps you can take these reflections into your next conversation with a colleague or a homeless young person you are supporting.
Good listening is therefore a critical skill in building relationships, as per a PIE, when working in this sector. Often the homeless clients we support have had multiple experiences of feeling that they have not been heard, or even dismissed or directly rejected when they have tried to talk about something important to them. It is therefore key in a PIE not to replicate this experience, which can be re-traumatising or re-triggering of those past negative relationships. It is about giving them a different experience of relationships so that they feel safe to engage with us, ensuring that we can give them the support they need to have a positive outcome and move on from homelessness.
Listening is such an important (but often undervalued psychological intervention in its own right) that we cover this concept in our PIE day training for all staff at Centrepoint. Through interactive exercises we explore what good listening is, and how important it is not to jump to conclusions or judgements when listening to others as well as how listening is not just what we hear (i.e. verbal cues) but also what we see (i.e. visual cues). Contrary to popular belief, psychologists cannot read the minds of others (!), but what we are is trained to do pay attention to both what another person is saying as well as pay attention to subtle cues in rate and tone of speech, body language and context. The latter can be particularly important when trying to assess another person’s mood or presentation and/or if they may be struggling to use their words to describe their feelings or issue (i.e. if English is not their first language).
Such ‘active listening’ is central to person centred psychology approaches (e.g. Rogers, 1951) as it helps to build and maintain therapeutic relationships, as well as support positive change (Miller & Rollnick, 2013). So what is the difference between ‘hearing’ someone and actively listening to them? Nelson-Jones( 2014) notes that this is an important distinction and defines hearing as ‘receiving sounds and interpreting their meaning’ whereas listening involves ‘accurately understanding their meaning’. In other words, active listening is ‘not only accurately understanding speaker’s communication but also showing that understanding’ to them (Nelson-Jones, 2014; p.79). This means we are really paying attention to what the other person is saying, not just thinking about what we are going to say in response! Miller & Rollnick (2013) also note that active listening is not commanding, just advising, warning, lecturing, judging, blaming, shaming, analysing, probing, humouring, attempting one-up man ship or merely dismissing or distracting away from issues. If we avoid these traps we can create a psychologically informed relationship that is egalitarian and non-hierarchical ‘with neither party occupying a ‘one-up’ or ‘one-down’ position in terms of status or authority’ (Adams, 2016; p.13). Using active listening can help create a more collaborative relationship with the other person that allows plans and goals to be worked through together.
Our ‘psychologically informed listening’ should also be ‘empathetic’, in that we are also trying to pay attention not just to what the other person is saying, but also to their emotional experience. Several psychologists have noted this kind of listening can be a game changer (Miller & Rollnick, 2013; Engel, 2018). Reflecting back to the person that they sound upset or angry in that moment helps them label their feelings and validates their experience in a non-judgemental manner. It can deescalate situations quickly because the speaker feels heard and understood, and can encourage them to share more in order to address the issue and consider how they might manage their emotions or a problem they are facing.
When reflecting on how we improve our psychologically informed listening skills, psychologists have noted that the following can be helpful. Firstly, we need to adopt an attitude of respect and acceptance of the other person. Nelson-Jones (2014) states that this means we need to respect others ‘as separate human beings with rights to their own thoughts and feelings’ (p.82) even if we don’t share them. Thus, suspending any negative judgement and remaining present and available to them. Secondly, it is important to develop an understanding of the other person’s internal frame of reference. To put this another way, it means being able to understand their perspective or considering what it is like to ‘walk in their shoes’, whether that be their experience of homelessness and/or with colleagues perhaps the challenges they are dealing with in their role. Thirdly, we need to provide ‘small rewards’ in conversation, the ‘brief verbal and non-verbal expressions of interest designed to encourage the other person to continue speaking’ (Nelson-Jones, 2014). This encourages the other speaker further to engage with us as we are demonstrating that we are actively listening to them The opposite of this is the ‘Still Face Experiment’, which we demonstrate on the Centrepoint PIE day training. This involves the listener switching off (i.e. a ‘still face’) to the speaker in the role-play, and quickly results in the speaker either withdrawing from the listener or significantly escalating their speech / behaviour to be heard.
Fourth, it is important to use open-ended questions, which can expand conversation rather than with closed ‘yes/no’ questions, which have a tendency to shut down further conversation and engagement. Fifth, as noted above in empathetic listening, reflecting back the other person’s feelings and not just what they are saying is important. Nelson-Jones (2014) puts this beautifully when he notes that this means we are ‘responding to clients’ music and not just their words’ (p.102). Sixth, it is essential to try to give the speaker our undivided attention, which may also include being able to sit comfortably with any brief periods of silence (quite a tricky skill!). Being prepared to sit in silence if needed, can be helpful if the speaker is hesitant by creating space for them to say more (which is limited if we just immediately jump in with a response!). It is important to recognise that sometimes simply ‘being’ with another person, especially when they are in a state of high emotional distress can be enough. This is a psychological intervention in and of its self, especially when we might be unsure about what to say next or how best to provide comfort or address an issue (that might be unsolvable in that present moment). Creating this ‘safe space’ for them to speak can enable them to consider how they can manage their emotions and share how they are feeling (Westland, 2015).
Consequently, when we are thinking about psychologically informed listening, it is critically important to consider the ‘psychological environment’ when we are having conversations with others. I have reflected previously on the concept of ‘psychological safety’ (see previous PIE blog here: https://drhelenmiles.medium.com/do-you-feel-safe-a6f17f92acb7). Good listeners create this psychological safety not only doing the things noted above but also by ensuring that conversations are constructive and promote discovery and insight as well as building self-esteem, but can speak freely and openly, even if they disagree with the other person because they are having conversations in a respectful manner (and perhaps ‘agreeing to disagree’). This can reduce defensiveness in the conversation and create space for alternative options or the bouncing around of different ideas.
Moreover, considering the ‘physical environment’ or where conversations actually take place is also part of the creating psychological safety for the speaker as well as improving our actual ability to listen. Are we trying to have a conversation with another person where there are too many distractions (for both speaker and listener) or it is not a confidential /quiet space where others cannot overhear? Ideally, we need to find a space to talk that enables us as the listener to give the other person our full attention in that moment (i.e. not a busy office!) otherwise it is unlikely that the conversation will feel safe for the other person. As a result, any communication will not be as useful or productive as the speaker may not open up about how they might really be feeling or may experience shame or anxiety if they believe that others (not in the conversation) but who are present nearby are listening and/or perhaps judging them. Thus, where we have conversations can be just as important as what we are speaking about and with whom we are speaking.
Finally, when thinking about psychologically informed listening, we should also be aware of ourselves within any conversation with another person. To put this another way, how are we coming across to the speaker? Are we creating the conditions that suggest to the other person that we are interested in what they are saying? What is the volume, pitch, rate of our speech? Too low or slow and we might come across as bored whereas too high or fast might suggest we are busy and would rather be somewhere else. What is our facial expression, eye contact and gestures — are these welcoming and open or avoiding and closed? The latter again suggesting we are not interested in the speaker and are likely to shut down further conversation. Perhaps if we know we are distracted, dealing with our own emotional challenges or something pressing at work or home, we should consider whether this is the right time or not to have that conversation. Should be arrange a different time to meet when we can be fully present with the other person? In addition, being mindful of where we position ourselves physically in relation to the other person is also important. Too close and it may be perceived as threatening or inappropriate whereas too far and it may be perceived as we are not engaged with or interested in what the speaker is saying.
One final reflection about ourselves as listeners is that we bring ourselves to any interaction with another person. Therefore, we need to have awareness and understanding of the context of our conversation and any differences between the speaker and ourselves. For example, in terms of race, culture, family background, sex or gender, age, religion, previous life experiences, values, or beliefs etc. As a result, when we are speaking with another person, we should remain mindful of these and be curious to the other persons lived experience of these especially when it might differ significantly from our own.
Becoming more psychologically informed in our listening, will help build engagement in new relationships and strengthen existing ones, whether they be with the homeless young people we support or with our colleagues across the organisation. ‘Good psychologically informed listening’ is a vital part of our skill set in this sector, and critical to creating a psychologically informed environment. Therefore, as you finish reading this PIE blog and before you go back to whatever tasks you have to do next, perhaps take a moment to honestly reflect on your own listening skills. Are there areas you could improve? Perhaps there are areas you had not previously considered as important in listening after reading this PIE blog? Consequently, and most importantly, what can you do moving forward to be a more ‘psychologically informed listener’…