Listening to the Other, By Caroline Brazier

Brazier reminds us that counselling often goes beyond offering a non-judgemental space in which the client can listen to and experience themselves, to actively encourage a kind of self-preoccupation which can actually make one more isolated and miserable.

Rating: 4

Listening to the Other: A New Approach to Counselling and Listening Skills

By , 2009. ISBN 9781846941917. O Books. 288 pages.

This book is an accessible, reflective introduction to listening skills in an almost infinitely wide range of settings. It will be of use to anyone whose role involves listening — counsellors, clergy, nurses, social workers and volunteers — and of use not only to the beginners at whom the book is primarily aimed, but also to the experienced, offering them a chance to deepen and widen their practice. The overall feel of the book is practical and inclusive. There is a refreshing lack of jargon and Brazier does not dig deeply into theory or abstraction. She consistently emphasises interdependence, community, social realities and appreciation of differences. She has her own particular twist, or take, on listening relationships, one which is enriching and may be slightly challenging to some seasoned practitioners. More of that later.

The book is structured as a course, which can be undertaken as a member of a group or alone (each situation is specifically addressed). Each chapter, or ‘session’, includes several short, timed exercises, sometimes using drawing, collage, audio recordings, or simply reflecting in a focused way, preferably in a specially created ‘learning space’. The exercises always seem relevant, drawn from what human beings actually do — e.g., the technique of ‘sculpting’, which consists of using objects in space, say the salt cellar and the sugar bowl on the cafe table, to represent people in the stories we tell. As well as exercises, almost every session includes a simple meditation, intended to create a sense of calm groundedness and presence, which is often specifically extended to others.

The course is divided into twelve sessions, beginning with the listener’s own background and motivations, working through how our experience is conditioned by our past, and how we continue to condition it, then moving into the significance we give to objects in our lives, our relationships, etc. There are sessions devoted to the experiences of grief and loss, compulsion and addiction.

Other sessions investigate and offer guidance on the practice of holding a non-judgemental stance towards the Other, even in situations where we may be provoked or tested by behaviour or comments which are truly unacceptable to us, and on the practicalities of confidentiality and boundaries in a range of settings and roles. Brazier’s approach is characteristically broad and questioning rather than prescriptive, the underlying question being “how might taking this course of action work out for you, for the other person, for the situation as a whole?”.

The particular slant Brazier brings to the work, presumably the ‘new approach’ proclaimed in the title — apart from the seamless, natural inclusion of meditation, without explanation or explicit connection to the ‘mindfulness’ practices currently so widespread in therapy, or any suggestion that these are techniques which should be taught to ‘service users’ — is a consistent focus on the Other.

One might say that any approach to listening or counselling is necessarily based on the other. For the listener, yes, it should be. But Brazier, without bringing out any blazing theoretical guns, calmly reminds us that in fact counselling often goes beyond offering a non-judgemental space in which the client can listen to and experience themselves, to actively encourage a kind of self-preoccupation which can actually make one more isolated and miserable.

I appreciated many of the exercises asking me to change perspective, a kind of mental and emotional “flip” from the protagonist of the story to another character, from listener to service user, from stereotypes to people I know. This change of perspective always shook things up and made things feel somehow more real and more hopeful.

Real and hopeful are also feelings evoked by Brazier’s consideration of humans not as endlessly perfectible beings striving to better themselves, or as essentially positive, but as the Japanese term bombu, which refers to an ordinary person — or “more literally […] foolish being of wayward passion” (p. 187). We all mess things up. This seeing of everyone as being “bombu”, as well as tripping nicely off the tongue, lets us off so many of the hooks therapists and students of self development hang up for themselves. It’s our very “being bombu”, you could say, that leads us to twist our positive potential into critical, judgemental and competitive attitudes. Knowing that we are all in the same boat, whether in the role of helper or helped at this moment, helps us relax, and be naturally accepting and non-judgemental.

Caroline Brazier is a Buddhist teacher and writer (author of Buddhist Psychology, The Other Buddhism and Guilt: An Exploration). Only in the End Notes does she declare her orientation; this particular book is clearly, explicitly written to be useful and appropriate for everybody, from atheists to clergy from other religions. She defines faith as:

“…the trust we have in something which is beyond our capacity to fully know. It is our willingness to step forth into life experience with trust but without certainties. It is our confidence that even when we come unstuck, there are greater processes at work in the universe than ourselves.
According to these definitions, both faith and beliefs might be religious or might not be” (p. 254)

Brazier presents this faith as the underpinning of the listening relationship. It is not a fountain of wisdom within an individual, be it counsellor or a client, or in any particular God, but something external to the listener and the speaker, on which both can rest.

Listening to the Other is a valuable resource for anyone engaged in helping work, developing the kind of skills which are based on more than technique, skills which spring out of personal groundedness, ethical practice, curiosity and openness to those whose lives are very different from our own, be they refugees or our own mothers before we were born, whether they would define the trust they have in the listening process as faith, or not.

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