Now there’s an interesting word. It sounds simple doesn’t it. We all think we can do it. We all think we do, do it. I’m doing it right now, sitting here attempting to write about it. I can hear the wind outside the house. I can hear the water flowing through the central heating system. However, I can also hear the high pitched whine of my Tinnitus. A condition caused by exposure to too much damaging noise in my youth. It’s usually my excuse for having a radio running quietly in the background; its white noise helping me to tune out the din.
I’ve realised overtime though, that listening can involve a little more than just using my ears. People who know me, know that for many years I’ve been involved in Counselling. I’ve had a fair bit of experience of both ends of it’s spectrum. That is to say from the position of client as well as counsellor; in pretty much equal amounts. I’ve learned that there is a qualitative difference in the type of listening when counselling someone, to the type of listening on a day to day basis.
So I’ve tried to do some thinking about what it is I do when listening in the counselling situation, that is so different from listening in everyday conversation. I’ve become aware, that when counselling, I have several things going on at the same time. So I’m going to try and break down the process and itemise these actions.
Let’s deal with listening first. Here I think I’ve learned that I’m not just listening to the person in front of me. Their words, what they’re saying, the way they are saying it and their tone of voice are all important, but I’m also listening to myself. My words, what I’m saying and my own tone of voice are important too. From my perspective I’m also listening, or perhaps I should say paying attention to, my own inner dialogue and whatever feelings I might have wrapped around that dialogue. Listening to myself in this way is as important as listening to the person in front of me. I need to know my own thinking and feeling in this situation. Am I relaxed and comfortable with this person? If I am, then all well and good. But if I have feelings about what they’re saying, particularly negative feelings, then I need to be aware of that. I’ve learned that a lot of my own thinking and feeling has no relevance to this person’s situation, so I need to try and keep these out of the counselling environment.
Another thing I do a lot of is observing. Yes I know that’s not strictly listening but the two go hand in hand and, in concert together, they are important to the quality of the attention I’m aiming to give. I’m maintaining eye contact; not a glassy unblinking stare but a relaxed gaze in their direction. I’m noticing; looking for clues and indicators of stress. A very faint pinkness to the whites of someone’s eyes can mean that they are close to tears. Or a sudden flicker or increase in blink rate might be an indicator of some thought that flashed through their mind. There’s also body language to think about, how they’re sitting, the shape their body makes, is their posture closed or defensive in some way or is it relaxed and open.
Another element of listening that I consider to be important is touch. Now, unfortunately this is something that has become a bit of a minefield in our culture. It’s something that can be used incorrectly and disrespectfully. However, the simple act of offering my hand for them to hold can sometimes be reassuring. It can also be another means of reading tension. If my fingertips start to go white because of lack of blood flow, then that’s another reasonable indicator that something’s not quite right for them. Any form of physical contact has to be with consent. Some people find it helpful to be cradled while they’re weeping, others feel safer at the other end of the sofa.
I’m aware that I’m making this sound a little formulaic. And it’s not really like that at all, or at least it shouldn’t be. Most of these processes are going on just below awareness, and only come to the front of my mind when they need to.
I got to talking with someone I’ve worked with for awhile, about this subject. They reminded me that the most important thing I brought to the act of listening, was my own authentic self. That the key thing that any counsellor should be is themself. To be honest about what they feel they can or can’t bring to the situation. To own up if they are struggling in some way and to acknowledge any feelings they may have.
Something that generally can only be built over time, is the developed sense of trust in one another. It can sometimes take quite a bit of working together to build this. It can and has happened to me that someone will superimpose another personality on to me. It’s sometimes referred to as projection or identification or some other bit of psychobabble. Put simply it just means that something about me reminds them of someone in their past. If they are unaware of this it can lead them to have expectations of me that I simply can’t fulfill, and can lead to damaging consequences in the level of trust between us. Awarely handled though it can be quite useful. I have had it happen, that I reminded someone of a person they were very fond of who had died some time ago. We were able to turn this to their advantage in working through unresolved grief. With the trust and awareness built up between us, it got to the point where they only had to look up at me to see their loved one’s face and burst into tears.
I don’t want to give the impression here that I always find this level of listening easy or even desirable. On a day to day basis I’m as inattentive, insensitive and forgetful as the next person; just ask my wife. In fact, I’ll probably have to keep this piece of writing out of sight, as I think if she read it she’d probably have a seizure from laughing so much.
I’ll finish with a little tip. If you are receiving any counselling just now and you want to test your counsellors attention. Try pausing at some random point and asking them to feed back verbatim your last five sentences. Do me a favour though and don’t tell them I put you up to it, as I’ll probably receive death threats.