Active Listening

Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.


The key to effective counseling is Active Listening. This involves focusing on and actively thinking about what you’re hearing. The counselor doesn’t have to agree with what is being said in order to be supportive. Support is demonstrated by how well you listen.

While managers have the responsibility to coach people and tell them what to do to better their performance, counseling often involves major life issues. No one has the right to tell someone how to live their life. Those are choices that need to be made by the individual. As a manager-counselor you may offer opinions and you can provide information, but mostly you don’t give advice and you don’t give orders. Instead, you ask questions.

In Active Listening there are three levels of questions which differ in terms of the amount of interpretation the counselor makes.

Level 1 question:
A level 1 question repeats what the other person has said, but uses different words. For example, if the person says, “I can’t accept the promotion. The move would just be too difficult right now,” the manager might say, “The timing is no good right now, is that it?”

The manager’s response hasn’t introduced anything new. But paraphrasing the initial statement and adding a question invites the other person to continue talking. Most of the time, the counselor and the person being counseled are likely to learn more.

Level 2 questions:
A level 2 question interprets what the manager thinks the other person implied in what they said. While the interpretation was not said explicitly, it is something the other person is probably already aware of. A level 2 response to the sample we’re using might be, “Would your family be really upset if they had to move at this time?”

While the other person hasn’t said that his or her reluctance to accept the promotion stems from the negative attitudes of his or her family, it’s a plausible inference. But because the inference is posed as a question, the manager is not asserting he or she knows the facts of the other person’s life. Instead, as a question, the manager’s response says, “I heard what you said and I’ve given it some thought. Is my impression right?” The question is not a challenge. Instead, it indicates a tentative conclusion and willingness to listen further.

Level 3 question:
A level 3 question goes further in the depth of interpretation and may articulate feelings that run deeply. In this case, a level 3 question might be, “Are you reluctant to move because you don’t want to put your wishes ahead of those of your family?” A more intrusive level 3 question might be, “Is not wanting to upset your family the real reason you don’t want the job? Or, are you really afraid you might not succeed in that next job?”

A level 3 question may be especially useful because you’re bringing up what your intuition tells you is the really crucial issue and unless it’s addressed, no real progress can be made. But a level 3 response can intrude into areas the person may not want to disclose or even want to be aware of. While a level 3 question can cut through to the heart of the matter it is also risky because the person being counseled may resent the judgment that’s implicit in your question. And it’s always possible that your inference was wrong. Manager-Counselors should be very cautious about using level 3 questions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *