Counselling - more than 'just listening'
Having worked in mental health services for several years, I have been struck by how often counselling is misunderstood as a 'space for someone to just listen to you', or 'good if you need a sounding board'. These are some phrases I have heard when colleagues are initially assessing clients. I don’t doubt that my colleagues are doing their best to determine the right form of therapy for a client at that time; perhaps its’s a lack of understanding of how counsellors and psychotherapists work. Friends and clients alike have asked me how counselling can help, and it leads me to want to share my thoughts about why counselling is much more than just listening.
Different ways of listening
In the Oxford Dictionary online, the definition of listening is to "pay attention to something/somebody that you can hear".
Some authors have spoken about the different levels of listening which correspond to attention. If someone is ignoring you, they are not listening at all. Then there is 'pretend' listening; have you experienced this before? You are talking to someone (maybe your partner) about a promotion at work and they are nodding along, but you sense that their attention is on the football (a cliché example, I know). One up from this is selective listening - and we have all done this: you meet a friend and you enthusiastically listen to their perspective on that great film you both saw at the weekend. Then they start talking about something that doesn’t interest you in the slightest and you start thinking about that delicious spag bol you are going to cook up later...
Active listening involves listening with all your senses, not just your ears. It is a conscious decision to try and understand all the messages that the other person is communicating, conscious and unconscious. Counsellors and therapists actively listen to the client’s verbal and nonverbal communications, trying to empathise and put a foot into the client’s world whilst keeping one foot firmly rooted in their own experience too.
What are we listening for?
As human beings, we are born into a context and society holding certain myths which we can unconsciously buy into. For example, there was some research which looked at how mothers experience shame and are reluctant to share if they are not coping as a parent, because of the societal myth of 'Supermum' (Choi et al, 2005). This led to the women hiding their 'negative' feelings at all costs - which could exacerbate low mood, anxiety, and isolation. As human beings, we also have experiences in our past which leads to a 'story' about ourselves. For example, a new dad who is struggling was taught by his father when he was a boy that showing emotion was weak. He, therefore, tells himself that he 'doesn’t need others to help him'. His personal story is compounded by a societal myth of men always being 'strong'. He ends up feeling depressed and isolated, as he doesn’t share with anyone. As you can see, the personal and the contextual are intertwined, and therapists are trained to listen to these subconscious myths and stories.
Why do therapists need to actively listen to themselves as well as clients?
Both client and therapist have a personal 'back story' and a context in which they live, which has led to beliefs about themselves, the world, and other people. When they meet in the therapy room, these personal stories and contexts interact. Many therapists work hard in their therapy to understand their experiences and past traumas. There are as many therapies as there are therapists, and everyone works in their unique way. However, many will use all their senses to try and be fully present, and to be available to what is being communicated. For example, a client may talk fast in sessions, with no time to settle into their emotions. What they are communicating is that emotions to them are dangerous and scary. It may be that the client often feels isolated in life because nobody understands their emotional world. By understanding their interactions within the therapeutic relationship with support from the therapist, the client may begin to understand that she doesn’t have to hide her emotions; that she won’t be rejected for it. As she starts to take risks in therapy, this may translate to changing relationships in the outside world.
Blocks to listening
Of course, nobody can listen perfectly! For any of us, there can be blocks to listening, and it is normal in relationships to have ruptures and repairs. Supervision can be used to explore blocks to listening. For example, a therapist starts zoning out when a client starts talking about a specific problem they are having with their child; the therapist raises this in their supervision and realises it is because they are having similar difficulties with their child. Therefore, they were unable to actively listen to the client, as it felt too close to home. This was a blind spot before the supervision session, and highlights that the therapist needs to address this to help themselves, and the client.
Listening is a complex process
As therapists understand and explore clients emotions, they may try to make sense of the stories we create for ourselves both through our personal history and contextual environment. A large part of the role is active listening, and listening is a complex process which requires a lot more than a pair of ears. So, if you are wondering what the point of counselling is (maybe you aren’t if you are visiting this website), or meet someone who believes counselling is 'just listening', I invite you to spend some time actively listening, reflecting and gently challenging these ideas if you believe otherwise!
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