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'Listen without prejudice' - what’s different about the counselling conversation?

Counselling is referred to by the medical profession as ‘talking therapy’, harking back to the Freudian ‘talking cure’ and, presumably, to distinguish it from drug-based therapies or more directive, technique-based approaches like CBT. Certainly, having the space to talk is part of the therapeutic benefit of counselling. Counsellors, however, while far from silent partners in the relationship, are there to listen more than talk. This may make counselling sound like a passive role, and feed one of the stereotypes about the counsellor who sagely nods in sympathy as clients talk, occasionally punctuating the session with a ‘how does that make you feel?’ While we have all been known to ask that question, listening to a client is far from passive. One of the first ‘skills’ any counsellor will practice in training is active listening and it remains the most powerful tool to help clients to change.

So what’s so special about listening? Don’t we do it all the time? Not as often as you’d think. Think about the conversations you’ve had recently. Were they like a game of verbal tennis: one person served a sentence, you served one back? To stretch the metaphor, were you even serving the same conversational ball? Sometimes two people talking to each other are simply taking turns to say the thing they’ve been thinking while the other person has been talking. Or did you find yourself asking lots of questions about the other person, feeding the conversation, while they enquired little about you? Did you ‘hide’ in conversation, either by keeping the attention focused on the other person, or by offering up anecdotes and commenting on external events, keeping your internal life out of the frame? None of this is ‘wrong’ and the day-to-day chats, exchange of pleasantries and ‘surface talk’ are good ways to keep us feeling connected to others. However, it’s all too easy to talk and not listen or not be listened to. In relationships, when one partner says ‘we don’t talk’ and the other responds, ‘we talk all the time’, it often means that someone doesn’t feel heard.

So how is the counselling conversation different from conversation with friends, family or partners, and how does being listened to by a counsellor help us? Firstly, talking to a counsellor is not a performance. You are not there to entertain your counsellor, gain their approval or focus on their needs. While you will be encouraged to talk about what has brought you to counselling, your counsellor is not there simply to listen to your story, as an audience to a catalogue of events. A counsellor will pay attention to what you say and how you say it; they will listen to the surface and the depth of your talk, or be with you in your silence. At first it can feel daunting to have someone’s full attention, so used are we to our routine conversational hiding places. A counsellor may reflect back what they hear, which again can feel exposing and challenging. Over time, however, the counselling conversation can help you build the confidence to be heard as you are and to listen to yourself and others without judgement. To listen without judgement does not necessarily mean you listen in agreement; rather, because you can listen to and tolerate yourself, you come to find it easier to tolerate disagreement without having to hide behind emotional self-defences (like anger, appeasement or self-denial). To listen, then, is to deploy a powerful emotional as well as auditory sense; to be listened to in counselling can be both cathartic and help us to fine tune and turn up our own listening power, allowing us to really connect to others.

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