The silence of therapeutic listening
How hard can listening be if we as therapists do it all the time? How do we listen? What are we listening for? Are we aware when we stop listening? How do we know we are being listened to? Why do we listen differently from one person to another?
Therapeutic listening is a complex and difficult task that takes time to gather in feelings, thoughts and the unspoken, silent, visceral experiences shared by the client and the therapist. Therapists not only listen to silences but may also use silences to convey empathy, facilitate reflection, challenge the client to take responsibility, facilitate expression of feelings, or take time for themselves to think of what to say, while also evaluating the client’s silence.
The philosopher and psychologist, Peter Wilberg writes about therapeutic listening as “an active form of silent inner communication with others”. This type of listening is different from ordinary listening where, for example, the listener is trying to relate the other person’s experience to their own, or thinking of responses to carry on a conversation. Therapeutic listening goes beyond verbal and nonverbal listening skills. It engages all of the therapist’s senses and perceptions to fully experience the emotional essence that the client is expressing between sentences and words.
There are rhythmic changes in the way we listen. Attention moves in and out of silent listening. One moment we may hear the client’s narrative told at a slow pace, then within seconds, the pace may quicken and the tonal quality changes. All important clues to the client’s shifting emotional self state. In the therapeutic ‘room’ of not-knowing, therapeutic listening becomes a transformative space that allows clients to discover how they make meaning of their place in the world.
As therapists, we listen for meanings. Listening involves a balance between a psychotherapeutic theoretical framework and the therapist’s own subjectivity. Therapeutic listening has the potential to capture a word that pinpoints the client’s feeling or thought, while also resonating with the therapist’s own intuitive felt sense.
The therapist’s intuitive strength rests with their ability to sense connections between the client’s past and presenting issues. There may be subtle inexplicable shifts and unexpected, emotionally charged responses, which frequently yield moments of authentic listening.
As therapists, we strive to become more attuned to the moment-to-moment ‘being with’ the client, which is a vital component of listening. This therapeutic ‘presence’ involves bringing the therapist’s whole self into the encounter with the client, and being completely in the moment on a multiplicity of levels, physically, emotionally, cognitively and spiritually. The silence of listening is at the very heart of therapeutic presence.
Listen is an anagram for silent.
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