Active listening

As therapists, we are trained to 'listen' to stay silent whilst attending completely to what our client is not only speaking but also what is not being said. We learn through our training and our work, how to listen, truly hear and often 'feel' intuitively and empathically what is going on for our client including close observation of body language for hidden clues as to what is really going on. Sometimes more may be achieved in total silence than in words, a powerful example of which happened during my early training.

I was seeing a highly intelligent young man at the GP practice where I held my clinical placement.  He had been adopted at 6 months old and had a memory of being held by his mother before being passed to another individual.  As the hour long session began, a baby crying could be heard from the doctor's room next door.  The remainder of the session was in total silence, the only communication being the real 'I-thou'[1][i] connection between us as our eyes met and held each other's gaze.  This was one of the most powerful sessions I have ever experienced.  For many, this is impossible; to truly remain silent whilst a real connection is happening in simply holding another's gaze as two peoples' eyes meet with no expectation on any level other than to 'hold' the other.

 If I'm working with a couple, I may offer two different exercises in 'listening'.  The first is as above where the real 'listening' is in silence as I suggest they spend five minutes simply gazing into each other's eyes.  The second is to 'play' 'speaker/listener'.  Each partner is asked to speak for five minutes whilst their partner listens without interruption.  I then ask the silent partner what they have heard.  We then reverse the procedure.  Boundaries are put in place from the outset in terms of angry outbursts or the potential for an argument to begin.  The homework will often be to practice this as often as possible before our next therapy session.  Sometimes it is the first time either has really listened to their partner and often a positive result is achieved as the beginning of real communication.

 [1] ...within the humanistic/existential tradition, there is an appreciation of the person-to-person relationship.  This psychotherapeutic relationship modality also shows continuity with the healing relationships of ordinary life.  Buber (1970) called this the I-Thou or I-You relationship, in contrast to the I-It relationship.....referred to elsewhere in psychotherapeutic literature as 'the real relationship- or the core relationship (Barr 1987)

[i] Clarkson, Petrûska Clarkson. (2003). The Therapeutic Relationship. London. Whurr Publishers. p.15

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Kingsteignton, Devon, TQ12

Written by Elise Wardle

Kingsteignton, Devon, TQ12

Elise Wardle MA is an accredited counsellor, psychotherapist and supervisor in private practice. Integrative and Jungian in orientation, her specialisation is in depth psychology with a focus on dreams and the journey within, or for those who need intervention therapy, brief focused counselling is also frequently offered to clients.

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