There is a difference between listening and hearing. Listening takes place on a personal level and requires focused attention. Hearing on the other hand… Well, We can hear what someone is saying and it might go in one ear and out the other.
In peer support, this is the one thing that you don’t want to happen.
This is why active listening is one of the key skills that every peer specialist should know. In this article, we will cover 5 techniques that you can start applying today to strengthen your listening skills, as well as your peer relationships.
Table of Contents
What Is Active Listening?
Without going into too much detail, let’t briefly touch on what active listening means.
At its core, active listening involved being fully present and giving the speaker our full attention. No phones, no email, not thinking of what’s for lunch. We’re just there, in the room with this person and focused on what they are trying to communicate.
Moreover, it means showing genuine interest and approaching the situation with a non-judgmental attitude.
Don’t let the name fool you, when it comes down to it, active listening is much more than just simply listening. There are techniques and strategies that will not only help you as the listener, but encourage open communication from the speaker as well.
More importantly, these skills can help strengthen a relationship and build trust. In this post we will cover each technique in depth and provide you with actionable tips. So, lets skip the fluff and get right into it.
Five Active Listening Techniques for Peer Support
These techniques can be applied in peer support groups or in one on one conversations. In truth, they can be applied in just about any situation. In other words, by learning these techniques you are making an investment into all your relationships.
Paraphrasing is the practice of restating the speaker’s words in your own words. It may sound simple enough but trust us, to use this skill effectively takes practice. Paraphrasing serves multiple purposes in a conversation.
First, it helps to clarify our understanding of what is being said. In other words, the speaker has the chance to correct us if we interpreted something wrong. Second, it demonstrates that we’re engaged and paying attention.
Finally, paraphrasing can help build rapport because it shows that we are actively trying to understand the speaker’s perspective
Here’s an example:
Speaker: “I’ve been feeling really overwhelmed with my workload lately.”
Listener: “It sounds like you’ve been experiencing a lot of pressure at work recently.”
Another example might be if a peer shares their frustration about not making progress in their recovery journey. In this case, the listener may respond by saying, “If I understand correctly, you’re feeling discouraged because you haven’t seen the results you expected.”
One thing you want to avoid is simply parrot back exactly the same words. Doing so, we miss the opportunity to truly understand what was said.
Plus, it’s just awkward and weird.
Summarizing means, well, probably exactly what you think it means. This involves providing a concise recap of main points that have been expressed. In fact, you can think of summarizing as the highlight reel of what the speaker has said so far.
This technique is useful during longer conversations, or when switching topics. Additionally, it can be used at the end of a conversation to recap its entirety. That being said, try not to overdo it.
It can get pretty redundant if we are trying to summarize the conversation every three or four sentences. Done correctly, it helps make sure both individuals are on the same page.
Again, this shows that you are actively engaged in the conversation and allows the speaker to correct any misunderstandings.
I should mention, to be able to do this effectively, it definitely requires some practice. That being said, the benefits are totally worth it.
Personally, as a peer specialist I think there is a huge benefit to using this technique, not only for the individual but for us as well. What I mean by that is, summarizing it makes it easier for us to stay on track and keep note of the most relevant information.
That way you’re not sitting around later trying to remember everything the person said.
If you are having trouble with this technique (or any of the others) don’t worry, you’re not alone. Stick around to the end of the post and I’ll share some of my experiences putting them to use. (It wasn’t pretty)*
3. Reflective Listening
Reflective listening is similar to paraphrasing. However, this technique goes beyond merely restating what the speaker has said. Instead, it involves acknowledging and reflecting the underlying emotions and experiences of the speaker.
This is a great way to build a sense of trust and connection. Mainly, because it helps the speaker feel understood and validated.
For example, an individual might express feeling isolated and misunderstood. In this case, you might respond with, “It sounds like you’ve been going through a challenging time, and it’s been tough not having someone who truly understands what you’re going through.”
Reflective listening requires paying close attention to both verbal and non-verbal cues. These include things such as tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions. This information can provide valuable clues as to what the speaker is feeling.
Sometimes the technique can make people nervous (I was). You may be worried that you are going to say something wrong and misunderstand the speaker.
At some point you will, and that’s ok.
You’re not going to get it right 100% percent of the time. In truth, this can actually work to our advantage. Not only does it give the speaker a chance to clarify what they meant, but it shows that we are genuinely interested.
More often than not, the speaker is happy to clear things up. This is because they want to be understood, and we are providing that opportunity.
In other words, instead of just letting the person speak and us makeing assumptions, we are seeking to better understand the situation. People appreciate this and will gladly correct any misunderstandings.
So, don’t be afraid to be wrong sometimes.
4. Open-Ended Questions
Open-ended questions are questions that require more than a simple “yes” or “no” answer. They encourage the speaker to dig a little deeper and provide more information. Which in turn, allows for a better understanding on our part.
Plus, this too demonstrates genuine interest in the conversation. It shows that we actually want to hear about their experiences, details, and all. Open ended questions encourage deeper conversation and allow the speaker to feel valued and heard
When it comes to open-ended questions, we can take a lesson from journalism. Namely, to remember the rule, 5 W’s and an H.
That being said, it’s still important to be intentional about how the question is worded.
Putting It Into Practice
Sometimes open-ended questions don’t have to be questions at all. They can also be statements that imply a question.
Instead of asking, “Did you have a good week?”. You might say, “Tell me about your week” or “Tell me about the highlights and challenges during your week”.
Moreover, using open-ended questions can help open up a conversation. More importantly, it encourages self-exploration and awareness for the individual.
Here’s an example:
Speaker: “I’m not sure how to handle being around my family members. I always end up overwhelmed and frustrated.
Listener: “What strategies have you tried so far to manage emotions when talking to your family?”
When using open-ended questions, peer specialists should avoid leading or suggestive language. Instead, try to create a safe space for the speaker to express themselves openly.
For instance, instead of asking, “Are you feeling better now?” which could limit the response, the specialist might ask, “How have you been coping with these challenges, and what strategies have you found helpful?”
As peer specialists, we should always seek to understand and clarifying is how we accomplish that. This technique simply involves seeking out additional information about what is being said. It’s fairly straightforward and can be used as often as needed.
There will be times when we need additional information to fully grasp the perspective of the speaker. These are great opportunities to further the conversation and strengthen the peer support relationship.
In other words, don’t pass them up.
If there is something you are unsure of, ask for clarification. Making assumptions about someone’s feelings or perspective can lead to misunderstandings. Worse, it can lead to us taking the wrong approach when trying to support them.
Similarly, if something the speaker says seems important, ask them to elaborate. Clarifying questions can help uncover underlying motivations, explore doubts, and ultimately get to the root of an issue.
Here's an Example:
Speaker: “I’ve been feeling really down lately.”
Listener: “Could you tell me more about what you mean by ‘down’? Are you experiencing sadness, low energy, or something else?”
By seeking clarification, we not only demonstrate commitment to understanding the speaker’s message, but we provide a safe space for them to open up. Overall, this allows us to tailor our approach and provide more personalized support.
“Listening is the beginning of understanding.” Anonymous
A Final Note On Active Listening Techniques
Active listening is a foundational skill in peer support. Without it, there is no way to build an effective helping relationship. And that’s what we’re here for right?
Each one of these techniques plays an important role in that process. The trick, however, is to be genuine and sincere when using them. People can tell when we are being inauthentic.
In fact, being fake is the quickest way to ruin a peer support relationship.
Part of being authentic is being humble and recognizing that you are learning too. As mentioned before, you don’t have to be perfect and always know the right thing to say. There will be times when you misinterpret someone’s message. And yes, there will probably be times when you offend someone.
Treat these situations with compassion and understanding. By that I mean, be compassionate toward yourself and understand that you’re not perfect.
Mistakes will happen and it’s ok, it is just part of the learning experience.
My Personal Experience With Learning These Techniques
When I first started out as a peer specialist, there were times when I would get so nervous at the thought of saying the wrong thing.
It seriously used to give me anxiety.
When first starting to implement these techniques in my own work, there were times when I would freeze up.
I would momentarily forget everything the person was talking about because I was too focused on giving the “perfect” summary statement.
Even more, I would practice reflective listening and totally get the message wrong! All because I was trying to give the “perfect” reflection.
Basically, I was so focused on the technique that I missed the point and wasn’t actually listening.
You wanna know what finally helped? Mindfulness.
More than that, I just started listening like I would to a close friend and it took a lot of the pressure off. What I’m getting at, is not to get so hung up on the technique that you miss the conversation. Be authentic, be genuine, and be compassionate.
Most of all, just be yourself.
It's a Learning Experience
We learn from each other’s experience. In fact, that’s the whole idea behind peer support. Maybe I’m just feeling vulnerable because I shared a few (there has been plenty) of my own mishaps, but I have a question.
Have you ever experienced something similar?
If you’re feeling brave, would you share that experience in a comment below? I think the more we are open about these kinds of situations it can help others realize that they are not alone.
More importantly it can help others recognize that just because they make mistakes, it doesn’t mean they’re not making a difference.
I’ve included some additional learning material below in case you want to take a deeper dive into active listening. Hopefully, we will be creating some of our own training videos soon but until then these resources can take your listening skill to a whole other level.
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additional Learning Resources
Continuous learning is a big part of peer support. The following resources can provide further insight and guidance into the topic of self-care and burnout.
Elijah Meason is a Certified Peer Support Worker in the State of New Mexico. He is a SMART Recovery facilitator and is working toward getting his Masters degree in social work. He is currently working at a dual diagnosis treatment center helping individuals overcome mental health and addiction challenges.