If you have someone in your life who really listens to you, without judging, without interrupting, without telling you the “solution” to your problem too quickly, and you can tell this person what is laying heavy on your heart, then you have a precious gift. If this person is your partner, a best friend, a sister or someone else close, you are one of the lucky few.
Being a good listener is much harder than it might seem. You will notice that even if you long for your partner to listen to you, it is still very hard for you to stay listening to your partner. We find our minds racing ahead thinking about what they could do to solve the problem, what they should do, what we would do instead, or else our mind wanders to the many other things we have to worry about and how we would like this conversation to end so that we can get on with it.
Women often complain that their male partners don’t listen and instead interrupt and tell them what to do, how to fix it. So instead of being able to explore her own thoughts and feelings, she becomes frustrated and angry with him. If you ask him, he will say he is desperately trying to be helpful in trying to help his upset partner, and he doesn’t understand her constant criticism of him.
Sometimes the man has learned that it is not a good idea to try to fix it and so does try very hard to listen. He tries hard not to interrupt, but still leaves her feeling unsatisfied because he fidgets, looks at his phone, looks away, makes huffing and puffing noises. She knows he’s waiting for his turn and that he will challenge her. The saddest part of all this is in her attempt to seek connection, be heard and be validated, she gets hurt and feels invalidated. She then goes on the counterattack, criticizing him which results in them engaging in in a spiral of attack and counterattack. When it is all finished, she leaves with another problem to worry about, the sad state of their communication. When she comes to see me for therapy, she says “I have lost myself. I don’t know who I am anymore”.
Although I seem to be suggesting that men are more likely to be Mr. Fix-it and have more difficulties with listening, sometimes this pattern is reversed. I have worked with men who became despondent after being fired or retrenched from their jobs. They were left wrestling with deep feelings of resentment and humiliation. Some men in this situation refuse to talk about it. Others, however, cannot stop talking about it and their female partners, although initially supportive, eventually become sick of hearing about it and begin to criticize him for not getting his act together. The conflict that ensues results in him shutting down and getting even more depressed.
Why is it that talking to a therapist can be such a different experience than talking to partners, friends or family?
Given the choice, most people feel better when they have a chance to be the one in a conversation who does the most talking. So the intention or motivation to be a good listener does not stem from the intrinsic good feeling of the experience of listening. Someone who listens does it not because it feels good but because they believed that it is an important thing to do that will benefit the other person. Many people have never experienced how beneficial this can be and so have no commitment to listening.
Other people might think that it is good for someone to get it off their chest but lack the skills to be a good listener. The basics of listening skills can be learned, at least from a good teacher. Pareto's Principle or the 80-20 Rule probably applies here. We can learn 80% of the behaviour needed to be a good listener in 20% of the time. What we can learn in a short time is the skill in just letting the other person talk, without interrupting, and in using minimal encouragers to keep the person talking, saying things like: “yes tell me more”; “Mmm, hmm”; “how did that make you feel? ”; “is there more?”. To add a little more complexity, throw in the skill of summarizing from time to time what the person has said.
The difficulty that most of us have, even if we learn this very basic skill, is that the speed of which we speak and listen is one-quarter or one-third of the rate of which we are capable of thinking. So while the person is talking, we can’t stop ourselves from thinking, and sometimes this takes the form of a counterargument which at some point we can’t stop ourselves from speaking. Even if we manage not to speak our thoughts, the speaker is likely to be aware of the fleeting evidence of our preoccupation in our subtle facial expressions and body movements.
The second difficulty is that if the listener is in a close relationship with the speaker, it is very hard not to have some vested interest in the content of what the speaker is saying. Therefore, it is hard to stay and appear neutral. If you are considering whether you should stay or leave your partner, your partner will hardly be neutral as you explore this issue. If you are considering moving overseas, your mother can hardly be neutral. Even if she says she wants you to be independent, and she tries as hard as she might to remain neutral, you will read the tiny little facial muscles that show her disappointment. Or she will cry. Our difficulties in remaining neutral are magnified if we are trying to listen to someone who is hurt or angry with us or our behaviour. And even when the issue has nothing to do with the listener, those who love us will feel distressed by our distress. Often their distress will overwhelm their ability to listen. Or sensing their distress, we will protect them by not saying everything that is on our mind and in our hearts.
The third difficulty is that when people speak, they often only say part of what they are feeling. Sometimes this is because they have never articulated it to themselves and either don’t know they are feeling it or don’t understand their confusion. It is hard for the untrained person to guess accurately what the person is feeling and to ask questions in a gentle way to elicit this expression of the feeling. And if they guess wrong, and the listener is even a bit pushy, the speaker will feel misunderstood and withdraw.
For some people, the experience of talking to a therapist who listens is the very first time in their lives that they have had anyone really listen to them for more than a few minutes. While a 50 or 60 minutes session may not seem like a long time, it is a long time to have a person really listen to you, keep the topic solely on you and your life, explore the nuances of your thinking and feeling and not redirect the conversation back to him or herself. As a neutral person, the therapist can suspend judgement and go fearlessly alongside you in exploring what is difficult for you to articulate. Add to that that an experienced therapist has had thousands of hours of listening to people’s stories of their relationships and inner lives and so has well-developed intuition which is she or he takes as a tentative hypothesis in helping you explore what you might be feeling.
If you are seeking personal therapy for yourself, that is what you should expect of a good therapist.
It is important to know that one sign of a bad therapist is that the person doesn’t listen well enough. A bad therapist talks too much about him or herself, doesn’t ask you good questions, gives you premature suggestions before you feel you have been heard or seems to want to talk about a topic that interests him or her more than it does you. You walk away feeling frustrated and feel like the therapist didn’t really “get you.” If that happens to you, you need to tell your therapist that in your very next session or you need to find a different therapist. All therapists should have much more than listening skills. But if a therapist lacks the essential ability to really listen, impressive university degrees or therapist qualifications will not a great therapist make.
Next: Listening like a therapist
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