We have also created an online forum for Supportive Listening, where you can share your experiences, ask questions of the community, and more. Visit the Supportive Listening Forum.

What is Supportive Listening?
At a specific level it’s a way for people to support others through a balanced form of attentive, calm,  connected and non-directive listening. For listeners, it’s a healthy way to support others without the “emotional drain” that can often go with supportive interactions.

At a broader level, it’s a philosophy that says that people are best suited by finding their own answers in life, and that a Supportive Listener can help facilitate that process.

How does Supportive Listening work?
Let’s say that you have a friend who has just gone through a tough experience. It’s overwhelming, and they really want to talk with someone. They don’t actually want advice, they just want to connect with someone and get some sense of relief from what they’re going through.

As a Supportive Listener, you’d invite your friend to talk about what’s bothering them, and then you’d listen attentively, giving your friend as much space as possible to talk. Occasionally you’d check in with them, in a specific way, to reconfirm the connection and encourage them to continue talking and thinking.

When the connection is good, it often results in the speaker feeling relieved, and also having new insights into their situation. And as a listener, you feel good because you haven’t emotionally “taken on” your friend’s challenges, and yet you’ve facilitated their relief and growth.

Is Supportive Listening different from Active Listening?
The answer is that it has similarities and differences.

Based on the examples and description in Thomas Gordon’s books, Active Listening is similar to Supportive Listening in that when the listener does speak, it’s done without advice, judgment, guidance, and so on.

But there are several differences. First off, in Active Listening, listeners are encouraged to “listen for meaning,” often in terms of a feeling, to guess at that feeling, and then feed it back to the speaker.

In Supportive Listening we encourage listeners to not guess at feelings, but to work with what’s been explicitly put out there by the speaker. This may or may not include feelings, and if it doesn’t, we don’t project them.

Another difference is that in Active Listening, it appears that listeners are reflecting back what they hear, often literally, much more often. It’s hard to know if this is just a consequence of the examples given in the books, but it appears to be more like a back and forth, where the speaker and listener are talking for roughly the same amount of time.

In Supportive Listening, the common pattern is one of the speaker talking for a while, and then the listener quite briefly reflecting back in a specific way (we call it the WIG, or “What I Got”) and then the speaker continuing. So in Supportive Listening, the speaker is doing much more of the talking; the listener just talks to cultivate the connection, and to support the speaker’s exploration.

With Supportive Listening, we’ve aimed to define a skill that is very easy to learn and can be applied with a natural feel. When you’re talking with a seasoned Supportive Listener, you likely won’t be able to tell that any “technique” is being applied. Although it’s probably possible to get so good at Active Listening that people can’t t tell that you’re doing it, it may be easier to achieve this natural flow with Supportive Listening.

Is your program similar to NVC (non-violent communication)? My partner and I are having trouble communicating.
We teach Supportive Listening as a way of providing support for another person who is going through a difficult time, or who simply wants to talk about a challenge. Our emphasis is on providing effective support in a way that’s healthy and sustainable for the listener, while promoting the speaker’s autonomy and growth.

Non-Violent Communication (NVC) is a great program and relates to what we teach. We do not focus on conflict situations as much as NVC does – our “common scenario” is when a partner or friend comes over and shares a personal challenge that does not involve us.

Having said that, Supportive Listening is a great way to become a better all-around listener–which would be very helpful for communicating with a partner.

Why is that helpful to just be listened to?
Typically in these conversations, when I’m the speaker I’m half expecting the listener to jump in at some point with their point of view and advice. I’m almost waiting for it.

So as a listener, by hanging back, and not jumping in with advice or a point of view or a story, I signal to the speaker that it’s “up to them” to talk it out, and to think through it. Many times a speaker will get “activated” by such an invitation.

So as a Supportive Listener you never say anything?
Not exactly. I’ve observed that quite often a speaker will have a certain train of thought that they follow along as they talk about the situation. And if I give enough space, and I don’t interrupt, and I don’t jump in, they will continue that train of thought through to the end, and then be quiet.

It’s not just any silence, but rather a special kind of “I’m done” quiet. After waiting a while to see if they start up again, I might recap  what I’ve heard, and see what that brings up for the listener.

What research is your work based on?
At a theoretical level, we have three major influences.

One is the work of Dr. Carl Rogers who believed that in a safe, trusting environment, people could find the solutions to their challenges.

Another is the work of Dr. Murray Bowen. In Bowen theory he detailed healthy ways for people to connect, while maintaining a differentiated self.

And finally is the work of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness.

Does Supportive Listeningâ„¢ have a basis in a specific religious or spiritual practice?
Supportive Listening is not founded on any particular religious or spiritual belief. As far as we know, it is compatible with any religious or spiritual background.

It is interesting to note that the goals of Supportive Listening–reducing distress and fostering emotional growth–resonate with most religious and spiritual traditions.

We welcome anyone, from any and all backgrounds, to join us in learning to provide effective and healthy emotional support.

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