Listening Is Collaboration: The Basics

The importance of an open attitude was the subject of a previous article. An open attitude is largely your own responsibility. Yet it takes two to tango: You and the other are interdependent; an open attitude is but one side of the coin. If the other doesn’t tell you anything, you have nothing to listen to! In other words, listening is a collaboration and requires some form of interaction in what is called the collaborative relationship. In this relationship the other will need to be stimulated to be vulnerable, unless it is your aim only to talk about the weather! So next to your personal characteristics (including an unknowing and curious attitude), you will need to activate and stimulate interaction with the other. In this article I introduce the basics of this collaborative relationship and your role in its creation, in another article I will delve a little deeper into the subject. For now, let’s begin with the ideas of unconditional positive regard, congruence and empathy and how those three may be used to build this relationship.

Carl Rogers and the client-centered approach

A number of principles from client-centered therapy are valuable in this regard. Carl Rogers (1951) was the founding father of this therapy, in which (in his original version) the therapist is non-directive, Directive means ‘to give direction’. A directive approach means you actively participate in the process and explicitly give relevant directives and advice to the other. So a non-directive approach in essence means following the other’s lead without giving advice or directives, with the intention that the therapist becomes a part of the other’s process to discover themselves and change. The effective ingredient is the therapeutic relationship, which, according to Rogers, is grounded in three pillars:

  • Unconditional positive regard: The therapist accepts the person of the other completely, doesn’t judge them, and exudes warmth in the relationship with them.
  • Congruence: The therapist acts in accordance with his or her own inner convictions (two things are congruent when they are in accordance with one another).
  • Empathy: The therapist shows understanding and is empathetic in reaction towards the other.

In the vision of client-centered therapy, psychological problems occur due to blockages impeding the person’s development or due to barriers preventing their ability to express themselves. The other should, thanks to the attitude of the therapist, be able to discover and resolve these blockages. In this vision, the other is seen as a self-directed being with an inborn desire for self-actualization (the idea that the human being has a natural drive to develop themselves into the best that is possible). This is a brief and overly simplified explanation; a full discussion doesn’t really fit in an article like this. Later in his career, Rogers also relaxed his view on his strict non-directive approach, though always giving the other the leading role in the interaction. According to him (and I agree with this) it is part of the therapist’s duty to give relevant direction and advice, as long as it fits in with the process the other is going through.

Listening outside the therapeutic environment

I’m not suggesting you should see all your conversations as therapeutic, only that similar conditions are required to bring any depth into a conversation. So the relevance is to make sure certain factors are present. Yes, we should suppress our constant desire to fix things and offer (unasked for) advice. And at the same time not let others battle away on their own when some advice would make their lives a lot easier. That’s not the main point, however. It’s about unconditional positive regard, congruence and empathy in your relationship to the person you’re having a conversation with in the here-and-now. And these three factors impact directly on the basic psychological needs for safety, autonomy and connection mentioned in a previous article.

Empathy

Most will agree that empathy is an important prerequisite for a good collaborative relationship. It is therefore an interesting question whether empathy is inborn or something that can be learnt. If it is innate, you will have to make do with what you were born with. If it can be developed, it means you are able to influence this important factor, an idea supported by research (Van Berkhout & Malouff, 2015). If this idea is true, the obvious next question is: How? The book Observational Listening (Van Alphen, 2016) gives a partial answer: To be able to empathize you will need to be able to put yourself in another’s position. For that you will need more insight into how you (and by extension others) come to their experience. Empathy therefore starts with understanding yourself and what moves you.

Congruence

Congruence is very directly related to our basic psychological need for safety. Bringing depth to any conversation means both parties need to allow themselves to be more vulnerable, for which a feeling of trust is essential. For example, what do you think about people who use tricks to manipulate you or to get a certain answer out of you? Most people grow suspicious and think things like: ‘What does the other want from me?’ When someone has the idea that your behavior (including your communication) is congruent with your inner convictions, they see you as a real person who can be trusted, allowing them to be more vulnerable and leading them to tell you more. Therefore, be yourself. Also when you meet someone for the first time, remember that the first impression is often maintained for quite some time. So you might as well be who you are from the beginning, so that when the first impression is corrected, it will be in the right direction!

Unconditional positive regard

Irrespective the conversational techniques you may use, especially in the creation of the collaborative relationship it’s about the other feeling they are taken seriously and that you aren’t judging them. It means you respect their intrinsic value as a person. It doesn’t mean you accept all their behavior, not to mention approve of or justify it all. It means that you accept the person of the other; that you accept their feelings. And that can be pretty difficult at times. People (and thus also you) tend to explain others’ behavior as being a result of their stable, internal personality characteristics (‘he behaves that way because he is that kind of person’). Furthermore, you will interpret their behavior according to your own norms and values. So, accepting the person of the other means a) separating the behavior from the person and b) respecting that there are differences between people, and that being different is okay. This last point I call suppressing your need to convert others: We all believe that we know best about what’s good for another, yet if everyone were precisely the same as me, the world would be a pretty boring place. And unconditional positive regard respects people’s basic psychological need for autonomy!

In brief it’s about ‘do you walk your talk’, are you a real person and engaging in a real conversation, or are you merely acting?

Building the relationship

When you first meet someone, neither of you really knows anything about the other. So the relationship really grows as the contact between you progresses. By conversing, both of you learn to understand each other better. Halvorson (2015) goes a couple of steps further: She says that we should actively provide information about ourselves. Not irrelevant information, but specifically about the way we see ourselves, or about the person we are. We should do this or else the other will ‘fill in the gaps’, by making assumptions about who we are based on their first impressions, and on the narrative of themselves and the world they live in. First impressions aren’t pathological, simply a way for us to get a grip on an otherwise unpredictable world.

The conclusion is simple: Ensure that you give your conversational partner enough information about what kind of person you are and how you interpret the world around you – then they won’t have to second-guess you. And vice versa: Actively ask them about who they are and how they see the world, so that you don’t have to second-guess them either!

Understanding develops out of more than mere cognition, though. It also has to do with empathy. The better you are able to imagine what someone is going through, deal with that in a respectful manner, and also let them know that you are aware what this situation means to them, the greater the understanding. Congruence plays an important role in this, as by your facial expression and the way in which you talk, others will also understand to what degree you genuinely understand them.

So, it’s not that you are insensitive; in fact, to the contrary. To be able to have sufficient empathy with the other, you will sufficiently need to understand what exactly is happening in their inner world. It is about finding a balance between closeness and distance. At the one extreme is a distant and neutral attitude, to the extent of sitting on the fence and being passive (the so-called professional facade). You then are an outsider, and others won’t really feel themselves understood. Often, this kind of attitude is because of a fear of becoming involved, for example because you are scared the other will lay an emotional claim on you.

At the other extreme is personal involvement, to the degree that you are overly empathetic and feel yourself part of the process that the other is going through. You feel responsible for them in that you see their problems as yours and feel obliged to provide them with a correct solution. If at all possible you would like to solve their problems for them. Over-involvement is a perfect formula for burn-out!

It should be clear that neither extreme is good. It’s about finding a good balance between these extremes by being involved and not taking over the other’s responsibility or losing yourself in the feelings the other’s story elicits in you.

It may be that what someone tells you also touches you, but in first instance it’s about their emotions, not yours. It sometimes may be a valuable addition to tell what emotions their story evokes in you, particularly when this gives them a new insight, one they wouldn’t hear from others in their social network. This is especially so when others in that social network don’t feel free to tell the person what their behavior or story evokes in them. Yet with restraint, only when relevant and the manner and tone with which this is told should exude respect and concern for the other’s well-being. The opposite is also true: You generally needn’t see anything the other says as an attack on you. And even if you do experience something as being personal, you do better by maintaining your poise, making their reproach a point of discussion and taking it seriously (that is, without being defensive).

Building a collaborative relationship fulfills one of the basic psychological needs: That of a meaningful connection with another person. This is as you invest a positive involvement in the other’s well-being. Simultaneously it also fulfills that same need for you. Not that you should be dependent on others for your feeling of self-esteem. Yet depending on your role in the conversation, you may not need to do anything with this information other than be aware of it (especially to temper your disappointment when your positive involvement isn’t reciprocated).

Conclusion

The question to recap is, then: How do you create a good collaborative relationship? When another feels themselves respected and heard, then a relationship is created in which it is possible to collaborate. For this we come back to having an open, inquisitive attitude, and the three Rogerian requirements of congruence, empathy and unconditional positive regard.

Literature

  • Halvorson, H. G. (2015). No One Understands You and What to Do About It. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.
  • Rogers, C. (1951). Client-centered Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications and Theory. London: Constable.
  • Van Berkhout, E. T., & Malouff, J. M. (2015). The Efficacy of Empathy Training: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Journal of Counseling Psychology, Advance online publication. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/cou0000093

Previous articles mentioned:

Article on the Collaborative Relationship when Dealing with Clients

Excerpted and edited from: Van Alphen, M.F. (2016). Observational Listening – The (Missing) Link between Emotion and Communication. Bloomington: Authorhouse UK.

Dutch book on Observational Listening: Van Alphen, M.F. (2015). Psychosociale gespreksvoering – observatief luisteren in de hulpverlening. Amsterdam: Boom.

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