Listening like a therapist

Is the ability to listen well a skill or something associated with a certain personality type? Those people who know that they don’t listen well may brush off their lack of skill off with, “I’m an extrovert,” “I’m just more of a talker,” or“I’d rather look for a solution than be endlessly moaning about it.”

We learned many of our patterns of speaking and listening in our families that we grew up in and these patterns were shaped by our gender and social class. It takes conscious knowledge, experience, and intention to override these patterns and do something different. I was not a natural born therapist. Listening did not come "naturally" to me because of my personality or the family from which I came. As the middle child in a family of five children, I had experienced very little of anyone in my family listening to me in a significant way, and I doubt that any of my siblings would say I was a good listener when I lived with them. My first experience of learning to listen was when I was about 20 years old, and I took a Rogerian counselling skills course. It felt very artificial and difficult to do and so profoundly different than how I was "naturally." Why it was so difficult was not just because the skills themselves were difficult but that to do it well required me to have a very different attitude.

The attitude associated with good listening can be trained, however, in the same way that we train our thinking when practising meditation. When you sit quietly and meditate, concentrating on each breath that you breathe, you might notice how your brain is chattering on, making judgements, trying to convince you that what you’re doing is a waste of time and that you should get up and do something productive. The goal of meditation is not to make those thoughts stop, but not to identify with them and fuel them with energy. Rather, we learn to let our thoughts pass by like clouds floating by in the sky.

As I begin a session with a client, and I focus on what he or she is saying, it sometimes takes a while for my brain to get in sync. My brain will often be doing antics similar to what happens in meditation, distracting me with thoughts about things outside of the room or about my reaction or thoughts about the client. I must continually bring myself back to attending to the client in front of me and allowing my thoughts to pass like clouds. I resist the urge identify with the thoughts and or the urge to say what is unnecessary to say.

As the session goes on and the client’s story deepens, my attention is naturally riveted, and my thoughts seem to disappear. I listen deeply, not only to the words and making sense of their meaning, but listen by watching what the person is saying through body language, their way of sitting, through their the tone of voice. I am attentive to the slight breaking of the voice during the most emotional bits as their eyes tear. I wait for more, asking the right question, encouraging the answer by pulling together everything that has been said. My mind is completely occupied with the present moment because the experience requires focus, attention, concentration and restraint.

To be able to listen well, a therapist must believe it important for clients to express and explore their thoughts and feelings. The therapist knows this will take time and that this is a creative process and is no shortcut to be taken by providing the “answer” too soon, even if the therapist, in the end, does know a useful direction. After the session, the clients say that their minds have opened up in some way. New thoughts trickle in and connect up with other thoughts, and they begin to see the world a bit differently,

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