Active Listening

by Judy Harrow

Counseling is based on the very Wiccan-compatible faith that each human being has within themself the full capacity to make and implement appropriate decisions concerning their own life. By that faith, the counselor's only role is to help the client to make such decisions, not to tell the client what to do, and certainly never to try to run their life for them. But, just what do counselors do? How exactly do they help clients? The core technique, the art, the spiritual practice of counseling is the process of active listening.

The easiest way I've found to explain active listening is to say that it has three main components:

1. Listen.

2. Let them know you're listening.

3. Ground.

Just like the Wiccan Rede, this is the kind of profoundly true statement that I can say while standing on one foot but will have to spend a long time figuring out how to apply to real life. So, let's slow it down.


Most of the time, most of us listen with only part of our attention. While the other person is still speaking, we are thinking about what we want to say next. Or, sometimes, we are thinking of something entirely unrelated ... "I think I'll paint the kitchen green." When we are listening to emotionally intense stories, the kind we often hear in counseling sessions, we can get caught up in our own emotional reactions, how we would feel if we were in a similar situation, based on all those experiences that formed us, instead of on the experiences that formed the speaker. Remember always that the client is the world's greatest expert on their own experiences and feelings.

To listen empathically (watch for that word, we'll revisit it later), setting aside as much as we can of our own "stuff" and entering as deeply as possible the perceptual world of the speaker, is actually a form of meditation.

And here's a great secret: the same kinds of techniques that you use in learning to listen to the Gods are equally helpful in learning to listen to people and vice versa.

Let them know you're listening

Listening is absolutely necessary for counseling, but not sufficient. I could listen intently and openly -- and invisibly -- from the other side of a one-way mirror. That might well be instructive for me, but not helpful for the client. What the client needs is to know that they are being heard. This evidence that they are valued as a human being and supported in working through their issues creates the sense of safe space for their deeper internal explorations.

While open, active listening may be a spiritual practice, we let them know we're listening by a series of fairly simple skills. Look at the person, make eye contact, give the occasional encouraging nod. I sometimes joke that my whole first year of graduate school consisted of learning to say "uh-huh" at appropriately random intervals.

More important: occasionally repeat back what you have heard. Through this "reflection," they get to hear what they've figured out so far. State your perceptions always a little tentatively. Accept their corrections. As you build trust, besides telling them what you're hearing, you can very gently and tentatively describe to them the emotions that you seem to be perceiving from their tone of voice, body language, etc. Be even more ready to accept their corrections about these inferences. They will come to understand their own feelings by explaining those feelings to you. That's the best of what counselors do for clients.


This is what Witches know that is not generally taught in graduate schools. As a counselor, you will hear a lot of stress, pain and grief. In offering the other person the comfort of being heard, in opening yourself to them, you are also absorbing energies that nobody needs to retain. Unless you discharge these energies, you risk "burnout," a condition in which the counselor just can't hear anymore. Burned out counselors may cease counseling activity or, worse, they may stay on the job but "shut down" emotionally, becoming the stereotypical bureaucratic social worker type.

You deserve to take care of yourself, and if you're serious about being in this for the long haul, you need to take care of yourself. Do whatever you need to do after each counseling session to let the energy go, clearing the slate for the next counseling session, or for other parts of your life. Whatever works for you: bathe in salt water, hug a tree, play tennis.

And also do whatever maintains your health and energy. Eat well, exercise, get enough rest. Through ritual, meditation or simply being in nature, connect with Mother Earth, who will support you as you work for the comfort and growth of Her children.

To learn more:

The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships by Michael P. Nichols, PhD
         (NY: Guilford, 1996)  ISBN 1-57230-131-7

zoom in on:
  • What is Active Listening?
  • Facilitative and Blocking Responses
  • Asking Good Questions
  • Clarifying Values
  • go forward to Empathy

    go back to:

  • Counseling Basics menu
  • Proteus Library

  • Originally published in the Covenant of the Goddess Newsletter, Ostara, 1995
    The address of this page is
    Contents of this page are copyright © 1996, 1999, 2001, 2005 by Judy Harrow.