The Power of Listening
It is often reported that many counselling clients say that the most important and valued thing that they take from counselling is that they feel listened to and understood. Even if a counsellor has been excellent at helping them to clarify, focus, or to facilitate change within them, good listening might still feel even more significant than that. Perhaps this is partly because there is a current perception that bad listening is endemic in society, and that it seems to be quite rare for people to feel that they are being fully listened to by others. Humanity has expressed this view by creating a variety of sayings such as “home is where you can say anything you like cause nobody listens to you anyway. “
Throughout the centuries, people have commented how good listening is a valuable though relatively rare aspect of life. The ancient philosopher Epictetus understood the importance of good listening when he wryly said: “we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Perhaps the world would be a better place if more people followed that wisdom! More recently, General George C. Marshall gave this as his formula for working with people:
1) Listen to the other person's story;
2) Listen to the other person's full story;
3) Listen to the other person's full story first.
Types of Poor Listener
There are many different types of poor listener - and I am sure most of us have met quite a few of the ones I will mention below.
There are those who give our thoughts short-shrift or are just waiting for an opportunity to steer the conversation around to them. At its worst, most of us will have experienced this in a narcissistic friend who gave us a few seconds on our problem and then interjected with something like, “oh yes, I’ve got that problem too...” then the rest of the conversation is about that.
And then there are those people who have a very small attention span and can’t listen to anyone or anything for more than a few seconds - long-time teachers will tell you how this situation has got worse over the years – probably since the advent of television and computer games.
There are those that are outright rude and will reply to any attempt to talk about personal matters with a put down such as, “ooh, don’t tell me about that, I don’t want to know!” Or there is the opposite type of person - the one who definitely DOES want to know! But they only want to know so that they can spread around whatever you tell them as gossip –probably adding quite a bit extra for spice.
Then there is the listener who hears your words but cannot read your emotions and just doesn’t pick up the subtler clues; or those who have “enough problems of their own,” or who don’t want to hear about your successes, but are more than happy to tell you about theirs.
There are also those that switch off when you try to talk to them, those who are impatient, those who filter everything you say through their own experience and values, those who are busy thinking of how they can reply to you rather than listening to you, those who will judge everything you say, those who are “know-alls” and insist that you do everything their way.
There are also the more subtly useless ones – those who appear to listen and will keep nodding but don’t actually have any empathy, sympathy or interest in what you are telling them at all – they are effectively giving the impression of listening and understanding but have switched off internally.
With all those types of bad listener around, we are lucky if we do have one friend, work colleague or relative who is a good listener and does not model any of the above behaviours. David Augsburger stated that “an open ear is the only believable sign of an open heart,” so if you are surrounded by poor listeners, the problem can cut quite deep.
"Deep listening is miraculous for both listener and speaker. When someone receives us with open-hearted, non-judging, intensely interested listening, our spirits expand." Sue Patton Thoele
Counsellors are trained, highly focussed, deep listeners. I could write pages about the many things that a counsellor can help you with, but those things all belong in different articles. Good counsellors are trained to listen and to listen well. We don’t just listen to people’s words, we listen to the tone of their voice, their body language and their mood. We notice how they walk into the room, how they sit down, what they do with their hands, how they breathe, how they change from one meeting to another. We pick up on both overall patterns and subtle clues and learn to use our intuition. For instance, we sometimes offer tentative perceptions about what people appear to be feeling but not saying; and we learn to listen to our own responses to what people say in such a way that these don’t filter out the other’s message but highlight and focus it. Counsellors call this sort of listening Active Listening and there is a real skill to it. It is something that is hard to achieve without real practise – and counsellors get lots of that. In addition to this, of course, a counselling room is set up so that there will be a minimum of distractions – there aren’t many places where you can get that undivided attention and focus in this busy world of ours!
Many of my clients tell me that the experience of being truly heard by another person is a deeply healing experience. Along with the listening comes empathy, acceptance, non-judgemental neutrality and a certain amount of experience and knowledge that comes from having done a lot of training and work with and about people with a wide variety of problems. The listener not only feels understood and completely heard, but the listening also reveals that there is someone who does have a genuine interest in their life and general wellbeing. A good counsellor won’t tell you what to do, but they will help you to clarify, help you see lots of different angles on issues, help you explore options and above all help you to get in touch with and value your true self. In short they will facilitate your own change and growth - and most of that springs from being a highly trained listener.
It is often a life changing experience for a client to have the opportunity to explore their thoughts and feelings in a supportive, safe, confidential and gently challenging space. I am sure that Dr Ralph Nichols, “the father of the study of listening,” was right when he said that “the most basic of all human needs is to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”
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