The Heart of Listening

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Therapeutic conversation has a unique quality that’s hard to describe. It goes far beyond being a “good listener.”

Therapy can be an expensive proposition. What is it that makes an hour long therapy session cost more than a family dinner at a posh restaurant? Is it the therapist’s advanced degree? Is it how smart they are? Is it the complex and scholarly theories and systems they use? Certainly these aspects of therapy matter, but I consider them peripheral to something much more important. Therapeutic conversation has a unique quality that’s hard to describe.

I’m deliberately avoiding the platitude “therapists are good listeners” not because it’s wrong but rather because it fails to do justice to the nature of therapy. Any reasonably motivated person can learn a few listening skills, overcome some of their larger conversational faux pas and dramatically improve their ability to hold a conversation. I encourage anyone to do exactly this. But good therapy is several miles further along this path.

To be expertly heard is powerful. One of the more obvious properties of good therapy is that the therapist is often quiet, sometimes painfully so. Awkward silences are common in a therapy hour and this is by design. The discomfort most of us feel with silence draws us into the conversation. Sometimes it feels like babbling but often, looking back, there is meaning in what we decide to say “just to fill space.”

Often in conversation we confuse listening with agreeing. It’s easy to listen to someone we agree with. Politically polarized news reports are just one example of the “echo chamber” effect where we increasingly only expose ourselves to viewpoints we agree with and facts we already know. World class listeners have the ability to listen, attentively and responsively, to almost anything. This includes things that are offensive, obviously counterfactual, or just bizarre.

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One example I give is a hypothetical client who presents with the complaint “there are spiders crawling all over me!” A brief visual inspection confirms no spiders are present. The most obvious thing to do is to say: “There are no spiders. You’re just freaking out. Get a hold of yourself!”

Perhaps that isn’t the worst thing you could say. After all, maybe the person is making it all up and just trying to be bizarre or put the therapist off balance. Hearing not just what is being said, but inferring motivation and the “story behind” the statement is something we all do rapidly and semi-unconsciously a hundred times every day. However, in therapy, this behavior is a double-edged sword. On one hand, to fail to read between the lines, infer intent, and attend to one’s own hunches is to leave valuable information on the table. However, to “buy in” to these insights without recognizing them as your own thinking opens you up to chasing mind-made phantoms.

When someone says something outrageous, we’re often sorely tempted to respond immediately with “that’s bogus!” or perhaps some other word beginning with “B.” Resisting the urge can be difficult, but often worthwhile. On screens big and small, theatrical therapists are often heard to say “go on” mechanically in response to something their client says. In my experience, we therapists don’t really say that because we don’t need to. Leaving a silent space at the end of a charged statement usually draws a qualification, clarification or question from the client that often puts what came before in a radically different light. Regarding our spider-afflicted client above, leaving silence after his initial complaint might elicit “I ran out of moisturizer earlier this week and my skin won’t stop itching. It really is like spiders crawling all over me!”

Another key to excellent listening is to assume that what is said makes sense. In the face of seemingly outrageous or bizarre statements, this can be a tall order, but it becomes easier when you remember that everyone has a perspective that is to some extent at odds with reality. While it’s easy to see the perceptual error when other people are missing something fundamental, it’s harder to accept that we may have it wrong even when the evidence before our eyes is clear and compelling. Hardest of all is to keep the possibility of error in the back of your mind when what you see gives every appearance of being how things really are. Listening at the highest levels requires keeping as a credible alternative the possibility that you may have it all wrong.

Listening well asks a lot of the listener: concentration, patience, impulse control, and mental flexibility. No wonder good listening is so rare. Finding motivation to listen can be difficult, but it becomes easier when we recognize the power of listening to help others feel accepted, clarify their own thinking (without any active correction on the listeners part!) and understand exactly what it is they’re experiencing. One of the great joys of being a therapist is that I can transfer listening skills at work directly into everyday life, and doing so makes a tremendous difference in my own life and those around me.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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