Empathic/active listening is a skill all of us could benefit from. In our roles as trainers/coaches we often present roadblocks to this process without realising this is what we are doing. We may have good intentions when we use these but ultimately, they block the conversation and the speaker is then forced to navigate their way around them. Thomas Gordan, in his communication skills text1, lists these twelve possible roadblocks.
- Directing is the urge to tell someone what to do. This is often phrased as a command or order, along the lines of “you’ve really got get to grips with this”.
- Warning may be pointing out the risks of a behaviour or even a vailed threat. “If you keep on putting on weight it will have a serious effect on your health”.
- Advising would include coming up with ideas and suggestions, that are intended to be helpful. You hear the problem and jump in with a suggested fix. The client perhaps notes they often feel hungry and you jump in with “what you need here is a high protein snack”.
- Persuading can manifest itself in many forms whether that be giving reasons, or even trying to use a logical argument. An example would be, “if you think through what you’ve just told me you’ll realise that..”.
- Moralising is telling people what they really should do. “You really should be exercising everyday”. I’ve put should in italics here as it reminds me of a saying of Professor William Miller, and it is worth remembering for future notice “people don’t like to be should on”.
- Judging comes in many guises and could be criticising, blaming or even simply disagreeing. If we were considering diet it might be “you keep eating junk food so it’s really your own fault”.
- Agreeing this can sound like your taking sides with your client or perhaps approving and/or praising.
- Shaming can be attaching a stereotypical name to what the client is saying or doing. “That is a ridiculous way of thinking or how could you behave like that”, would be examples of this.
- Analysing offers your interpretation of what your hearing from the client, or what the client is doing. Perhaps opening with “I can see what is really happening here”.
- Probing includes asking loads of questions in an attempt to understand the problem or get more information. In can start to feel like an interrogation. The problem is this fact gathering is stopping the client talking.
- Reassuring can often feel or sound like you are sympathising or even consoling. You mean well but something like “I do feel sorry for you” can be misinterpreted.
- Distracting can be used by the trainer because they are uncomfortable with the topic or feel that client is. It can be an attempt to change the subject but is very rudimentary and there are better techniques to achieve this end.
You shouldn’t go away with the idea that these are all wrong and should not be used. They all have their place and knowing the time and context to use these is an important skill. The thing to be aware of is that these are not good listening skills. If you are keen to improve your empathic listening skills, you will need to put these reflexive ways of responding on the back burner. The first step is knowing and understanding how these roadblocks stop an individual exploring the train of thought they have embarked on.
- , T. and Edwards, W.S. (1997). Making the patient your partner: Communication skills for doctors and other caregivers. New York: Auburn House Paperback.