Active Listening Tips For Behavioral Health Professionals

As a Behavioral Health professional, listening is one of your key tools. You need to be an active listener with patients, whether that’s listening with intent or listening for what they’re not saying. Your ability to listen could make the difference in a patient’s success.

What is active listening? It’s a skill that takes practice. It requires paying full attention to your subject, where you are concentrating on what they’re saying in order to respond appropriately — whether that’s to ask another question or make a statement. And it is more difficult than you may think. There are hundreds of distractions every day, from cell phones to daydreams.

When selecting a career in Behavioral Health, you need to consider whether you’re a good listener to start, and if you’re ready to develop the skills needed to be an active listener. If you’re ready to improve, here are a few tips to get you started:

#1: Know Your Communication Style

We can all assess our own communication skills, but knowing how you communicate effectively is a different challenge. However, taking some time to effectively understand how you communicate can actually help you understand how others communicate. When you’re observing a patient, consider what they are or are not doing. What are they saying? How are they saying it? What is their tone like? Do they speak with their hands? Do they use slang?

By understanding individual communication styles, you can also more easily spot differences, such as when a patient might be struggling to cope with an issue or is feeling uncertain about sharing something. Whether it’s evaluating unusual vocabulary, pauses, enunciations, or non-verbal cues, these small changes can be a deeper concern that you would want to investigate.

#2: Repetition

If you’re struggling to focus (as sometimes happens), try using repetition to absorb what your patient is saying. Mentally repeat what they’re saying to yourself, this way you can absorb it a bit easier. After all, repetition can be a key component to learning. Using repetition can also help you to pick up on those speech changes as well, as discussed in tip #1.

#3: Put Distractions Away

Put your phone in a drawer if you can’t help checking it. Close the shades if you people watch. Eat a snack before the session if you’re feeling hungry. Put your frustrations aside. Take the landline off its dock. Do what you need to do in order to avoid distractions and give your patient your undivided attention. You might not be able to shut out all distractions, but you can limit how many are around for the session.

Even avoiding side conversations can be a way of putting distractions aside. Keeping you and your patient on topic is just as important as staying focused. If you’re focusing on the wrong information, you might be missing the larger issue or leading the patient in a conversation, instead of listening. Active listening is knowing when to take control of the conversation and when it’s time to pay attention.


Pathways is one of the largest national providers of accessible, outcome-based behavioral and mental health services. Pathways of Pennsylvania has been serving communities in Pennsylvania since 1981, and is comprised of four companies: Children’s Behavioral Health, Inc., Pathways Community Services, LLC, Raystown Developmental Services, Inc., and The ReDCo Group, Inc. We believe every individual has a right to lead a meaningful and positive life, and we are changing lives, one day at a time.