I can’t think of anything better than having a conversation with someone and really being heard. Walking away from an intimate exchange with another human being and leaving with that warm, fuzzy feeling that not only did that person give me the time and the space to express what was on my mind, but they really listened to me.
How do I know if someone has listened? Well, they reflect back to me what they heard me say. They ask questions related to what I’ve said, and they engage in active listening skills—nodding when appropriate, making sympathetic noises, maybe reaching out to touch my arm, hand, or leg in empathy and understanding. I had a therapist once who would get teary-eyed when I told a particularly poignant story about my child custody struggles. Her tears made me feel heard and validated.
One of the most challenging aspects of training to become a therapist has been learning to listen in a way that will help my clients not only feel heard, but helped, assisted, valued, and worthy. I remember when I used to think that being a therapist would be so easy—how hard could it be to sit and listen to people all day, throwing out only the occasional, “how does that make you feel?”
Ha. If only. At school we practice on each other quite a bit. I’ve listened to my fellow students in nearly all of my classes thus far, learning to hone my listening skills, learning to take in what they say and ask relevant, useful, insightful questions in an effort to help them move forward. It’s not easy. There’s so much to hold in my head and pay attention to. Details to notice. Key words to focus in on. Facts to track.
We’re learning not how to give advice, but how to ask good questions, open-ended questions, questions that will encourage our clients to explore their feelings. For example, if a client were to tell me they’re anxious about a weekend outing with their partner and the partner’s family, what might I say in order to help the client better understand and deal with the anxiety?
If I were practicing gestalt, I might ask where in the body the client feels the anxiety and if they could talk to it, what might they say? What would the anxiety say? What does the anxiety look like? What color is it? How big is it?
If I were practicing narrative therapy, I might ask the client to give the anxiety a name and to imagine a world in which the anxiety no longer existed. What would that world look like? I’d ask the client to tell me about a time they didn’t experience the anxiety and ask them what was different about that time.
I have so many theories and approaches rattling around in my head, sometimes I think it might explode. What theory to use? What words to zero in on? And then, in one class, the instructor told us to not work harder than the client. And, yes, that makes sense, but oy vey.
The best approach might be Carl Roger’s—he believed that the therapist should always give the client unconditional positive regard. His approach, Person Centered Therapy, came in response to psychoanalytical models popular at the turn of the last century. He believed the therapist should be warm, genuine, and understanding.
He said, “It is that the individual has within himself or herself vast resources for self-understanding, for altering his or her self-concept, attitudes and self-directed behavior – and that these resources can be tapped if only a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided.”
I no longer think that being a therapist will be an easy job—in fact, I’m pretty sure it will prove to be one of the more difficult I take on. Listening to people, actually hearing them and reflecting back what I’ve heard, will take practice, time, and focus. I can’t afford to space out or daydream halfway through a session.
Maybe Stephen Covey said it best: “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
My success as a counselor will not be measured by what I have to say, but in how much I understand.