Against the Current: Active Listening and the OARS Approach

Credit: Sarah Brabazon, 2013. Flickr. License: Creative Commons.
Credit: Sarah Brabazon, 2013. Flickr. License: Creative Commons.

Back when I was in college, one of the very first things I did was join the crew team. Now, as a city guy, I had no experience of ever rowing in high school nor working knowledge of  the dynamics that went into the sport. Still, college was a time for trying new things (among them, being up at the ungodly hour of 5 am) and I thought, “Why not?”

[I’m convinced the road to awesome bad ideas is paved with that question.]

One time, while we are out on the water, I caught what’s called a crab. When you catch a crab, your oar gets stuck in the water (for a variety of reasons, but often due to bad timing). In a best case scenario, it just slows down the shell (boat) with a braking effect; in a worst case scenario, it can flip the shell over (and your teammates along with it). I remember panicking until the coach (riding in a boat next to us) told me what to do. Which somehow ended in me switching over to his boat, haha.

What does this all have to do with social work? Regardless of our level of experience, it will still feel common to feel stuck. This will often happen when working with clients who may be consciously or unconsciously resistant, or when venturing into areas we haven’t explored before.

One of my teachers used to say, that even though further training in unfamiliar areas will always be necessary, if you can’t do, then truly listen. Many clients don’t have a true experience of being listened to (if only heard), and it’s why active listening becomes the first and most foundational of skills –and even therapeutic tool– of the work.  Our professor summarized it as the OARS skills (Walters, S. T., Rotgers, F., Saunders, B., Wilkinson, C., & Towers, T., 2003).

Our job is not to go against the current, nor completely let ourselves be taken by it, but get to know the body of water we’re in, and row in tandem with it.  The following skills are found in motivational interviewing literature (Miller, William R. & Rollnick, Stephen, 1991) but can still be considered foundational parts of the work no matter which approach you are using:

Open-ended questions. We ask open-ended questions because we want the client to frame the narrative. “Tell me about your family” will often paint a richer story than “Are you married?” or “Did you grow up with both parents?” Take note of where they start, what may seem left out, and where it ends.

Affirmations. Affirmations aren’t about cheap sympathy, but seeking awareness of client strengths and adaptive behaviors. Example: “Even though you’re struggling with anxiety, it sounds like you’ve been able to find things to do such as _______ to still maintain your job.” It searches for what’s working even when things don’t seem to be working.

Reflection. Reflection helps us hold up a mirror to the client’s thoughts and feelings. This helps them hear themselves, and helps the social worker seek understanding and clarification.  Without interpretation or reaction, reflection “checks in” with what was said (reflection of content) and the reaction or meaning of it to the client (reflection of feeling). It is the skill that precedes empathy.

Summarizing. This one “brings everything in.” Its job is not to find a pat solution or neat “wrap up,” but to review what was said throughout the session, points of interest, and points that matter more or less to the client. It forms the basis for contracting and goal formulation.

The Upshot: When reading exam questions, be aware of vignettes that search for your ability to engage, reflect without giving advice, seek strengths, and formulate collaborative treatment goals.

#imonaboat These days, I stick to ferries. Copyright: Writer of blog, 2015.
#imonaboat These days, I stick to ferries. Copyright: Writer of blog, 2015.


Miller, William R. & Rollnick, Stephen. (1st Edition) Motivational Interviewing: Preparing People For Change . New York: Guildford Press (1991).

Walters, S. T., Rotgers, F., Saunders, B., Wilkinson, C., & Towers, T., Theoretical Perspectives on Motivation and Addictive Behavior. In F. Rotgers, J. Morgenstern, & S. T. Walters (Eds.), Treating Substance Abuse: Theory and technique (2nd ed., pp. 279-297). New York: Guilford Press. (2003).


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